In the bleak midwinter, two bottom 10 basketball teams square off to battle as we cross the Mavericks’ midpoint of the season. Dallas (13-28), coming off a home loss to the New York Knicks on Derek Harper Jersey Retirement Night, meet the Orlando Magic (12-28) who are fresh off a home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In some ways these teams face off for the first time (they split a preseason home-and-home) after having mirror-opposite starts to the 2017-18 campaign. While the Mavericks went a vomit inducing 1-10 to kick off the year, the Magic surprised a lot of analysts the first three weeks of the season, going a decent 8-4. Since then Orlando has managed a horrid 4-24 record, with two separate losing streaks of nine games.
The bottom five teams in the league are all within two and a half games of each other, and it seems around the midpoint of the season that some organizations really start aiming for that lottery position. Orlando and Dallas might represent two sides of the same coin. It would be unsurprising to see the Magic begin to make that move; while Dallas refuses to nosedive.
Both teams facing the pain of injuries
The Mavericks have had their fair share of injury battles in the first half of the NBA season. Presumed starter Seth Curry has not seen the floor in a very important contract year. And Dorian Finney-Smith only played in eight games before appearing on the injury list. Neither player has a timetable for return. Tack on the forgotten Nerlens Noel, and until recently the “yes he’s still on the team” Josh McRoberts, and the Mavericks have only five players who have appeared in all 41 games (Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Yogi Ferrell, J.J. Barea and somehow the Big Mummy himself Dirk Nowitzki).
Orlando is becoming familiar with the injury report as well. They have only ONE player that has appeared in all 40 of their games (Bismack Biyombo). And they have started to lose key rotation players: Terrence Ross (MCL sprain, extended absence since 11/29), Nikola Vucevic (Hand injury, no timetable since 12/24), Dennis Smith Jr.’s fellow lottery pick Jonathan Isaac (Ankle injury, unknown recovery since 12/28), and now key reserve Jonathan Simmons (Back spasms) is questionable for Tuesday’s game.
Every NBA team faces similar obstacles. They just become exacerbated when it’s a team that has a lot of youth, or lacks much star talent. Both Dallas and Orlando have to continue to find new ways to compete.
A clashing of styles
The Mavericks have managed to stay middle of the pack in terms of both Offensive and Defensive Rating (106.6 and 109.1 respectively, both good for 18th) this season. They do this by slowing the game down (23rd slowest pace at 95.4) and limiting turnovers, with the third best offensive turnover percentage in the league, at 12.2-percent. And they also keep themselves in a lot of games by jacking up a ton of threes (fifth in the league in percentage of field goal attempts from three, at 38 percent).
Tonight they’ll meet an Orlando team that likes to keep the pace moving (99.7, sixth in the league), utilizing their athleticism and youth. Relying heavily on the 22 year old Aaron Gordon and 25 year old Evan Fournier, the Magic will most likely try to push the ball and challenge the Mavericks in transition, where they can move the ball inside (they do not shoot well from three). If the Mavericks control the pace of play, look for them to dictate long portions of this game.
Aaron Gordon’s potential
Orlando seems to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding ever since Dwight Howard decided to make his career a strange national tour. The Magic are a great example of the dangers of rebuilding through the draft, where they’ve had plenty of lottery picks over the last several years. Some they have traded, and some haven’t panned out. And every few years they’ve been faced with the decision to go all in on a player, or start from scratch again.
This summer they will be staring that situation down once again. As a team that continues to tread water at the bottom of the league, Orlando must decide what kind of money they want to commit to the very average Elfrid Payton, and the budding young star Aaron Gordon. Both will be restricted free agents this summer.
Gordon has really started to come in to his own this season, getting to play in a position more suited to him. Outside of being maybe the best second place finisher in a dunk contest, Gordon’s game is expanding and he’s starting to produce. This season he’s averaging 19.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in 33 minutes per game. He’s also shooting a surprising 39-percent from three. To some, he’s definitely on his way to earning that max contract. The question is whether Orlando will choose to match, should he sign an offer sheet somewhere else.
The Mavericks are well versed on both sides of restricted free agency. And they will have money to spend this summer. Perhaps Gordon will be a target for a lot of that cash. The questions of his fit with Harrison Barnes or others can come soon. But he’s worth watching tonight, as he leads the Magic against the Mavs.
How to watch
Tipoff is at 7:30 CT, and can be watched on FSSW or NBA League Pass.