The Magic spent the early part of last season on “Fire Sale Watch” as executives around the league expected a slump and a subsequent pawning off of expiring contracts like those of Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic. When the team fell to 20-31 just ahead of the NBA trade deadline, honchos around the league were poised to pounce.
Instead, the Magic pushed aside trade chatter, shot better and tightened up their defense. Orlando closed the season on a 22-9 bounce, finished with a winning record for the first time since Dwight Howard left, earning the No. 7 seed in the East. Vucevic even earned his first spot on an All-Star team.
Rather than deal Vucevic and Ross at the deadline, the Magic instead doled out four-year contracts to each, $100 million for Vucevic and $54 million for Ross. So much for the fire sale.
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The Magic’s main contribution to the summer of 2019 frenzy was to keep Vucevic and Ross from landing among the horde of players who changed teams. There wasn’t a whole lot of overhauling here-the bulk of the roster is back-and the starting five will remain the same with Ross as the sixth man.
It’s not until you get to No. 7 in the rotation that you get a newcomer, former Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu. If there’s anything that counts as new for the Magic, it will come from guys who have been on the roster but will be given new chances to latch onto bigger roles.
Former No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz, acquired from the Sixers in February for what likely will be three Oklahoma City second-rounders, is at the top of that list. Mired in mystery over injuries both physical and mental in two NBA seasons, Fultz has a chance to resuscitate his career in Orlando. He’ll be the backup to veteran starter D.J. Augustin.
Center Mo Bamba, the No. 6 pick in 2018, will be right behind him. Bamba was always going to be brought along slowly as a rookie last year, but he was limited to 47 games by a broken leg.
Best Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu. Not much competition here. Orlando was lacking in veteran depth up front and Aminu can handle either forward spot with solid defense and adequate 3-point shooting.
Biggest Loss: Jarell Martin. Again, there wasn’t much roster movement here. Martin averaged 2.7 points in 42 games. They’ll survive.
It’ll be either a step forward in Orlando, or more of the same. There’s a chance the Magic could bump up to 46-47 wins and be in the mix for a first-round playoff series on their home floor. But the margin of error there is slim and another .500-ish season is a better bet.
What will be more important for the future of the franchise is not whether there is improvement, but how it comes.
This is especially true of budding 22-year-old talent Jonathan Isaac. The ideal would be a breakout year from him that not only features a boost in his own numbers but sees him mesh seamlessly with fellow forward Aaron Gordon.
Isaac is physically gifted and a defensive stalwart, but he’s not yet rounded into form offensively. He showed some potential there as last year progressed and made 38.2 percent of his 3-pointers after the All-Star break.
Gordon, meanwhile, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle among veterans like Vucevic, Augustin, Ross and Evan Fournier. He has developed in each of his NBA seasons, but last year was the first on a $76 million contract he signed in the summer of 2018 and his shot attempts decreased from 14.9 per game to 13.4.
Should Isaac have a breakout year or should Fultz and/or Bamba take steps forward, that improvement could come at the expense of Gordon. This season will provide a chance to see how it could all work together, or whether changes-likely a deal involving Gordon-will need to be made going forward.
Team MVP: Vucevic. It’s always suspicious when a player has a performance spike late in his career, like Vucevic did at age 28 last year. But he was terrific offensively in every sense, logging career highs with 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 36.4 percent from the 3-point line and if he can repeat that, Orlando should be heading back to the postseason.
Best Value: Augustin. There will be much attention paid to the development of Fultz and the question of whether he is ready to be an NBA starter. But with Augustin, the Magic have a reliable starter at the point already for the bargain price of $7.2 million, the final year of a four-year, $29 million contract.
X-Factor: Fultz. He has No. 1 pick ability and could be a major boost off the bench. But he broke his jump shot and who knows whether the Magic have gotten it pieced back together?
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Isaac and Gordon become a dynamic duo up front, Vucevic repeats last year’s production and Fultz begins to cash in his potential as the Magic win 48 games and earn one of the Top 4 seeds in the East.
The shooting of Isaac and Gordon slips, Vucevic reverts to his mean and Fultz shows no meaningful progress. Orlando can’t crack .500 and improvement from teams like Chicago and Miami leaves the Magic out of the postseason.