The Orlando Magic are a team of optimism. But like so many of their peers stuck in the NBA’s well of mediocrity, it’s a fickle hope that rides on the promise of ever-elusive ‘growth’ from their young core.
Last year, a six-year playoff drought for the Magic was finally broken after an 11-2 final push to end the season, not to mention an NBA-best 17-win improvement for the Magic over their 2017-18 results. Along with taking a game off the eventual NBA-champion Raptors in the first round, there were many reasons for Magic fans to feel satisfied with this past season.
Not least of these are the brilliant flashes we saw from young players like Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, two 7-foot players with wingspans that make the Magic one of the longest teams in the league. Bamba is the centre of the future, stuck right now behind All-Star Nikola Vučević. Along with Isaac, their front court could feature a potentially lock-down set of rim-defenders under contract for years to come. Isaac averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks over the last 30 games of the seasons, and if this improvement continues he could be a solid big-man for this squad. The team’s combination of length and defence is reminiscent of the Bucks a few seasons ago, and the Magic ranked 8th in defensive rating in the NBA last year with a respectable rating of 107.6.
Athletic freak Aaron Gordon is similarly worth mentioning – he averaged 16/7.5/4 last year and this suggests good things to come for the 23-year-old, although more improvement is needed for him to live up to the contract the Magic signed him to.
But not all things are positive. Despite years in cap-hell, the Magic are still dealing with the constraining contracts of Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin, two players with the good fortune to sign in that magical summer of 2016 and who have failed to live up to their enormous salaries. This puts the Magic in a difficult situation when it comes to free agents and is a big part of the reason they’ve been stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference for years now. Ultimately, the 2020 season is about showing competence – could this roster ever form the base of a contending team? The Magic will need to answer this question soon before they decide their next move.
Predicted Wins for 2019-2020:
Regular season: 45-37 – 6th seed in the East
Playoffs: 1st round exit – Game 6 series loss.
With their massive improvement last season, it’s difficult to predict next year – young players take time to develop, and while Kwahi might have left, the top of the East is still looking as dominant as ever. Regression to the mean is also a possibility and breaking into the top seeds feels unlikely given the lack of experience on this roster. Nonetheless, signs of growth from their young core and a respectable playoff finish would be worthy outcome for the Magic next season, and fans would be greedy to expect more.
The lone All-Star on the roster, the best player on the Magic right now is almost certainly Nikola Vučević. He had an excellent season yet last year, bouncing back from injury to post career-bests in points (20.8), rebounds (12.0) and assists (3.8) per game. Vučević was rewarded with a four-year, $100 million deal from the Magic – a strong sign that the franchise isn’t looking to rebuild any time soon. His scoring and rebounding ability will also be important for a roster filled with developing big-men, and one would hope his veteran experience helps players like Bamba and Isaac reach their potential.
Steve Clifford struggled mightily in his previous posting at the Charlotte Hornets, but the Magic’s NBA-best 17-win improvement as well as the final playoff push earnt him some consideration for ballot-placement in the Coach of the Year vote. Nonetheless, history is not on his side here. At Charlotte, Clifford similarly led to the team to a first-round exit in his first year, before 4 consecutive years of never improving on that result. It remains to be seen whether this will repeat itself, and whether Clifford is the right coach to develop this roster to their full potential.
Finally, no preview of the Magic can go without mentioning the mysterious and indeed enormous potential offered by Markelle Fultz. While he was one of the biggest stories of the 2017-18 season, a lack of clarity about his true injury status has relegated him to back-pages of any season breakdown. If he continues to not pan out, he will go down as perhaps the biggest draft bust in NBA history, up there with the Greg Odens and Anthony Bennetts of the world. But there’s buzz at Magic training camp that he might indeed have finally put together the skills that made him the #1 overall pick, and if that’s even a little bit true, he could provide the Magic with much-needed talent at the point-guard position.