Oh, where have you gone, Patricio Garino?
Need an eraser to wipe clean that wretched second half by the Atlanta Hawks on Monday? Their hosts tonight, the Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Florida), may be the last people to ask for help.
The above snapshot, taken last April by temp-job baller Patricio Garino’s agent in the Magic War Room, was the coup de grace for neophyte GM Rob Hennigan. The worst five-year stretch in Orlando’s short history (132-278) came under Rob Hennigan’s Apple Watch. To be fair, that mark should have come during the expansion years, but for a pair of fortuitous lottery bounces. But despite out Otis Smithing Otis Smith, the Whiteboard Warrior left behind a glimpse into the team’s mindset for the offseason to come.
Orlando would be on the hunt for “Hybrid” 3/4s, and “Spread Big” 4/5s to buttress head coach Frank Vogel’s roster of up-and-coming yung’uns. With Hennigan gone, the job fell to John Hammond, formerly of the Bucks. Milwaukee never fully turned the corner under Hammond’s Swatch (240-318), either, the nadir coming in 2013-14 with his Bucks having a 15-67 mark and the league’s worst attendance. But Hammond managed to do two things right. No, signing Miles Plumlee to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 was not one of them.
One season before unceremoniously ditching Larry Drew, Hammond managed to heed his new head coach’s advice just long enough to snatch up Giannis Antetokounmpo, before the Greek Freak leaked down to Atlanta’s draft spot. He also used one of his second-round draft picks in 2016 to pluck the reigning Rookie of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon. For those draft moves, he gets to start fresh in the Magic Kingdom and pick up where Hennigan left off.
The Hawks have three of the Magic’s “Spread Big” Whiteboard targets, with Travis Schlenk having retained Ersan Ilyasova and Budfave big man Mike Muscala over the summer while also wooing Luke Babbitt to the nest. The only player on the entire Whiteboard that Orlando was able to attract was Central Florida native Marreese Speights. The former Clipper accepted a one-year, $2 million deal as a short-term backup for Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.
Like Hennigan, Hammond realized that “Hybrids” like Paul Millsap would cost a pretty penny, so he chose to draft and develop one instead. Orlando used their lotto pick on Jonathan Isaac, the Florida State star and IMG Academic. Isaac is raw and skinny but showed some promising flashes before getting shelved in mid-November with a sprained ankle. The rookie may already be his team’s best defender already, Bismack Biyombo included.
Their biggest free agent acquisition came at the wing, enticing Jonathon Simmons after the swingman was set free by the Spurs. Inserted fully into the starting lineup after a recent knee injury sidelined Terrence Ross, Simmons struggles without the team-oriented Spurs defense around him, but still adds to Orlando’s ambrosia of lengthy players that can get buckets in bunches.
The Magic were some Cool Story Bros for a while, Vogel’s troops marching out to a 6-2 season start while awaiting the return of starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Alas, shortly after Payton returned, Orlando (10-15) took a nosedive, a nine-game losing streak and a 2-11 stretch sliding them down the Eastern Conference all the way toward the basement where Atlanta (5-18) presently resides.
Since November 1, only the Clippers have held a worse defensive rating than Orlando (110.7 D-Rating), necessitating Herculean efforts by their offensive stars just to have a shot at victory. Vucevic hung 34-and-12 on the Knicks at MSG this past Sunday, but in a 5-point victory facilitated by the injury absences of Kristaps Porzingis and Junior Hardaway. Here at the Amway Center last week, the Magic needed 40-and-12 out of Gordon (who found out from the Whiteboard that he might get dangled in a deal for Philadelphia’s Dario Saric) to fend off a star-studded but struggling Oklahoma City squad.
Including Monday’s 104-94 loss in Charlotte, ten of Orlando’s last 13 defeats have come by double-digit margins: by 22 at home to the Bulls, by 19 in Philly, by 40 at home to the Gobert-less Jazz. The nine-game losing streak began with an 18-point loss in Denver, and this week, the Magic get to sandwich a home game with the Nuggets between matchups with the Hawks.
The Magic’s depth is hampered at the forward and swingman spots by the unavailability of Ross and Isaac. Veteran pickup Arron Afflalo, Speights and the disappointing Mario Hezonja are all getting mere spot minutes under Vogel. For Atlanta, pulling off a second-straight road win will require big games out of struggling starters Kent Bazemore (39.2 FG%, 35.5% last seven games) and Taurean Prince.
Baze is almost the perfect foil for anyone hoping for a Hawks playoff push. While he remains committed to following Mike Budenholzer’s command and driving to the rim, he isn’t strong enough of a finisher (29.4 paint FG% beyond the restricted area) to draw extra defenders inside. And some of his passes (5 TOs in two of his past three games) leaves one to think he’s seeing Antoine “The Sixth Man” Tyler out on the floor.
Like Prince (101.6 O-Rating, 12th-lowest among active players w/ 30+ MPG), Kent will serve his team better for now by keeping the ball moving, or finding catch-and-shoot spots against a tepid Orlando perimeter defense (39.9 opponent 3FG% since Nov. 1, 3rd-highest in NBA), without wasting time and possessions by putting the ball on the floor.
Despite the Hawks being shorthanded up-front, Miles Plumlee and ex-Magician Ersan Ilyasova will have little problem fending off a Magic team that settles for one-and-done basketball (since Nov. 1: NBA-low 8.9 second-chance points per-48). Getting the ball quickly to Atlanta ballhandlers in transition, off defensive rebounds and turnovers, should give the Hawks an abundance of chances to score.
Only the Hawks (26.3 opponent APG) allow themselves to get wined-and-dimed more frequently than the Magic (24.9 opponent APG, 2nd-most in NBA), so it is incumbent on Payton (career-high 6.8 APG, 39.1 3FG%), ex-Hawk Shelvin Mack (career-high 34.6 assist%), and D.J. Augustin to overwhelm Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder and Isaiah Taylor in properly setting up and finishing offensive plays.
Fortunately for the Magic, the rest of the Southeast isn’t exactly running away with the division, and Hammond has no interest in panic moves like Hennigan made in 2016 when he shipped Tobias Harris to Detroit for Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. Yet the upcoming slate of games is set up for Orlando to get themselves back in the Eastern Conference playoff pack. If they fail to get it done, will it already become time to head back to the, ummm, drawing board?
Let’s Go Hawks!