Kevin (HHH): Afflalo is a ninja! Is he the gasoline in the Magic's engine?
Evan (OPP): Well, he's either a ninja or gasoline; he can't very well be both. I prefer the latter analogy, as it's true that he's the catalyst for almost every productive offensive possession for Orlando.
Afflalo is coming off a season in which he averaged career-bests in scoring and assists, but that accomplishment rang hollow because of his poor efficiency numbers. He shot just 43.9 percent from the floor and 30 percent on threes; for perspective, consider that he shot 41.7 percent from deep in his four prior seasons, all with the Denver Nuggets.
Afflalo is, as we're seeing now, not an untalented player; his struggles in 2012/13 stemmed from being ill-prepared for both the role Orlando asked him to fill and the attention he received from opposing defenses. After a summer of hard-work on his body and stamina, plus a renewed focus on becoming efficient, he has reached new heights as a player. It's early yet, but he is presently a strong All-Star candidate in the East; were the coaches to vote on reserves today, I have no doubt that he'd make the squad.
Even if one accepts that Afflalo's three-point percentage will return to Earth--he's currently hitting 54.1 percent of his threes on 5.5 attempts per game, a potent combination of efficiency and volume--it's clear that he'll continue to be quite effective for Orlando as its rebuild continues. His ability to make plays for himself off the dribble is much-improved, as is his foul-drawing. Nobody expected this sort of effort from Afflalo--apart from maybe the man himself, who is not wanting for confidence--so in this way one might say he has something of a ninja air about him. But there's no stealth to his impact on the Magic anymore.
Kevin: We were all anticipating an encore performance for Nikola Vucevic in the meeting on Wednesday, but instead of a 30/20 night, he fouled out with six points and six boards. Who is the X-factor on the team that can step in for him in these situations?
Evan: Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren't many players in the entire league who offer Vučević's combination of soft hands, long arms, knack for rebounding, and reasonably accurate jump-shooting. If he's hurt, in foul trouble, or otherwise unavailable, the Magic don't have anyone who can really fill that void.
The best answer might be second-year big man Kyle O'Quinn. The Magic's second-round Draft choice in 2012 is quietly and unspectacularly productive on a per-minute basis, averaging a double-double per 36 minutes, on 54.1 percent shooting, with three blocks. But the Norfolk State product tweaked his ankle in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks on November 13th and hasn't played since, leaving Jason Maxiell and Solomon Jones to pick up center minutes behind Vučević. The Magic suffer on both ends of the floor with those players in the game, but that fact attests more to Vučević's excellence than it does to anything else.
Kevin: Nobody was counting on the Magic to make a postseason appearance this year, but the competition in the Eastern Conference may allow them to sneak in. What kind of moves can the FO make if they find themselves in a playoff race come February?
Evan: I do not expect the Magic to be buyers at the trade deadline, as it is not in their long-term best interest to play in the postseason. If the team is in playoff contention around the trading deadline, I expect the front office will deal out of that playoff bubble, if possible.
Kevin: What can you tell me about Victor Oladipo's transition to the pro game?
Evan: The second overall pick in the Draft won consensus All-American First Team, National Defensive Player of the Year, and Sporting News Player of the Year honors in his junior year for an Indiana team which ranked first in its region in the NCAA tournament.
Oladipo excelled at Indiana with efficiency--he posted a True Shooting mark of 67.1 percent as the team's second-leading scorer--and famous defense. And like the program itself, the Maryland native made major strides year after year, attesting to an innate level of talent and what some folks might call a winner's mentality.
But at Indiana, Oladipo played the off guard and didn't shoot often from the outside; he was more a slasher with the ball or a cutter without it, freeing himself for hoops right at the rim. The Magic are thinking a little outside the box with his development by shifting him to point guard, a position he's never played, not even in high school. The team, from general manager Rob Hennigan to coach Jacque Vaughn and his staff, sees the NBA changing to a league without as many defined positions as before; Vaughn has even said the only real position is center. As such, they think guards who can break a defense down off the dribble and get to the rim can play what most folks would call the point guard position, even if the player in question hasn't necessarily demonstrated the sort of court vision one typically associates with floor generals.
In short, Orlando has challenged Oladipo by giving him a new set of responsibilities than those to which he is accustomed and with which he excelled collegiately. The results have been mixed at best--he has 35 assists to 48 turnovers, and he's shooting below 40 percent from the floor overall and on two-pointers--but it's worth noting that he is only 11 games into his rookie season and that he may not necessarily be Orlando's point guard of the future. I believe that his long-term NBA position is shooting guard, and that the Magic are throwing him into the deep end, so to speak, in order to develop his ballhandling and playmaking skills. I'm not sure he'll ever be a lead guard at this level, but I do think that it's important for off guards to have some facility with the ball in their hands. Dwyane Wade, a good friend of Oladipo's, would agree with that statement: the Heat played him at point guard in his rookie year before moving him to the two.
Kevin: Your hypothetical question: The Magic defeat the Heat tonight - how did they do it?
Evan: On offense--and I know this statement seems counterintuitive, but hear me out--I think the Magic have to be less patient. Afflalo and Vaughn spoke to this point after Wednesday's game: the Heat's defense is so aggressive and disorienting that it's often a good idea to take the first good shot that presents itself. Moving the ball instead of shooting it, in that instance, might not work out because there's no guarantee that the offensive team will get another good look on that possession. So I think Orlando has to be mindful of that point and look to play a little more selfishly, as odd as that sounds, and take that first good shot every trip.
Not to be obvious, but tightening up the turnovers--and in turn limiting the attendant fast-break points to which they lead--will also work in the Magic's favor.
At the defensive end, I don't think the Magic can afford to double LeBron James in the post. He murdered them with his back to the basket on Wednesday, dishing five of his seven assists in those situations, all to three-point shooters. Single-cover James and don't leave anyone else open. James is, as you well know, brilliant enough to score against single coverage with relative ease against any defender, but that's a risk I think the Magic have to take, given how poorly they fared when they doubled him Wednesday.
HHH would like to thank Evan and OPP for trading off with us. To read more about the Magic, and to see how I answered his questions, check out Orlando Pinstriped Post.