Believing in the Magic

Published December 1, 2023, 6:00 PMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

The Orlando Magic are slowly becoming a force in the East, and we’re all for it.

In the fourth quarter of their game against the Washington Wizards, Jalen Suggs intercepted a pass and immediately made his way up the court. On the other wing, Cole Anthony zoomed past two defenders to get to the rim. Suggs lobbed it up and didn’t even need to watch Anthony flush it down with one hand. He was already on the baseline, arms spread, enjoying the highlight with the hometown fans.

That play was similar to the iconic hook-up by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade back in 2010.

There’s a certain level of brashness to replicate an iconic play in NBA history. Suggs and Anthony pulling off their version of the King-Flash connection just shows the confidence that the Orlando Magic have right now. Who can blame them? They’re the hottest team in the league, currently riding an eight-game winning streak and have taken over the solo second in the East.

Is this all an early-season illusion? Or is Orlando an act to watch out for this season? Here are three reasons to believe in (the) Magic.

Improved defense

Young teams need to become a respectable team on defense to make the leap. That’s because defense travels and defense translates. When their shot’s not falling or when they’re on the tail-end of a long road trip or during the grind of the long winter months of the NBA, a team should be able to rely on their defense.

The Magic’s defense this season isn’t just respectable. It’s one of the best defenses in the league, currently fifth in points allowed per game (108.1) and second in defensive rating (107.8). 

Orlando’s defensive principle is simple: force a turnover or get the rebound. To get that done, constant effort and communication are needed. That’s something the Magic have worked on in the past few years.

Individually, they have long, athletic players who can cover a lot of ground, stay in front of most opposing players, and clog up passing lanes as needed. But if they don’t come together and help each other out, none of that matters. This season, the entire team is putting it all together.

They’re all ball hawks that force turnovers at the best rate in the league (15.% TOV, 16.8 TOs forced per game). They’re also leading the league on offensive rebounds allowed, giving up only 8.7 offensive boards per game.

That means they do their work throughout an entire possession. They play pressure defense early on to try to make their opponents make a mistake. If their opponent does get a shot up, they make sure that there’s always a tough contest. Then, they don’t relax when the other team misses - they know that the defensive possession doesn’t end until they secure the ball.

It’s this new identity that ensures that they’re not going to disappear anytime soon. The Magic’s defense is the foundation that they can lean on throughout this long season.

Underrated depth

Do you know that classic magic trick where the magician pulls out a piece of cloth and just keeps pulling, and pulling, and pulling, and pulling, and… you get the picture. That’s like Orlando’s roster this season. They have viable options all the way to the end of the bench. And these players are ready to step up when needed.

It’s pretty impressive that the Magic have risen the ranks without two of their starters from last season, Wendell Carter Jr. and Markelle Fultz, who have both only played five games this season. They’ve missed a huge chunk so far due to injuries. Taking their place in the starting lineup have been Goga Bitadze and Jalen Suggs. 

The drop in talent from Carter Jr.-Fultz to Bitadze-Suggs has been virtually non-existent. That’s because Suggs and Bitadze know their roles on the team and are playing it to the best of their abilities. That extends to the bench mob of Orlando. When the starters sub out, there’s no drop-off in execution on the floor because everyone knows their roles.

Cole Anthony isn’t being used as a playmaker anymore. He’s now the full-fledged sixth man of the team with the green light to score from off the bench. Mo Wagner isn’t being forced into the starting power forward position because he’s better suited as a stretch center to change things up when needed.

The Magic average the most points off the bench at 47.2 points this season, accounting for 41 percent of their production. They also rank in the top five in terms of bench rebounding, assists, steals, and blocks. This just goes to show that their depth goes beyond just scoring. This is a team that executes no matter who is on the floor.

New leaders

There’s this belief that to be successful in the NBA today, you have to have long, athletic wings who can do almost everything on the floor. If that’s the case, the Magic have two of the best young forwards in the league today. Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero have become the clear go-to players of the team. Both of them are tall and explosive but most of all skilled. They’re also coming off the afterglow of a splendid FIBA World Cup showing in the offseason.

Wagner is a smooth player who can operate on all three levels comfortably. He can nail the outside shot, but at the same time, he’s comfortable putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim. When forced into the midrange, he’s shown the ability to use his height to either pull up for a jumper or create for his cutters. He’s leading the team in scoring averaging 20.2 per game, on top of 5.6 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game.

Banchero is the bully of the two. He’s a more forceful player who the Magic have used as a lob-finisher or post-up threat. That doesn’t mean he’s limited to paint production. Banchero is putting up a 19.1 average while managing to hit 1.3 triples a game. He’s also shown better playmaking chops this season, averaging 4.6 assists to lead the team in playmaking.

Most teams would see duplication, but the Magic saw complementary skills in their similarity. Banchero and Wagner are interchangeable because of their similar builds and skill sets. The Magic can run the same plays repeatedly by just changing their main option based on how the defense reacts. In some sets, Banchero is the focal point, and in others, it’s Wagner.

This is a budding partnership that could end up like Siegfried Roy. Long-lasting and truly successful.