The Orlando Magic may prove to be the most interesting team in 2019. They may even become a test case, inadvertently altering the course of many teams over the coming years. Either this team is accurately predicting the future of the NBA or they are grounding themselves in outdated practices. Whichever it proves to be, at least it should be fascinating.
Under the direction of Jeff Weltman, the President of basketball operations, the Magic have prioritised length, defense and potential. This paid dividends as the team made the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2012 last season, but the true question now is whether this can be the building stone for something bigger.
The Orlando Magic heralded a league best 17 win improvement last season finishing with a 42-40 record. This was good enough to give Orlando the playoff berth they dreamed of. The Magic were eventually beaten 4-1 by the eventual champions, Toronto, but nevertheless they finished the season on a high, good enough to convince them to ‘run it back’.
It is possible to argue that even when the Magic had Dwight Howard in his prime, he wasn’t the number one offensive option as he feasted more on missed shots and offensive rebounds. Regardless, for the first time since Orlando started their rebuild they have an undisputed leading scorer who appears to be able to carry them to the playoffs.
Nikola Vucevic averaged 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game last season. To provide a reference for Magic fans Howard averaged 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds at his best for Orlando in the 2010-2011 season, and Howard finished second in the MVP race. Vucevic also started 80 games, putting to rest the injury and durability concerns from the year before. This career season was the reason Orlando made it a priority to bring him back and they did exactly that signing Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million contract.
Considering the year Vucevic had, you may be surprised that Terrence Ross proved to have the best season in a Magic jersey. The 28-year-old sharpshooter earned himself the nickname the ‘Human Torch’ and this proved to be pretty accurate. Ross was given a green-light on offense often exploding for a flurry of points in a short space of time. Ross set a league record for the number of three pointers made without starting a game, with 217. He also managed more three pointers off the bench than anyone last season shooting an impressive 38.3 percent on seven attempts per game. In short he provided instant offense and a spark which undoubtedly helped Orlando to many of the 42 wins they managed.
But if anyone truly symbolised Orlando last season, it was Aaron Gordon. It is easy to forget he is just 23-years-old as he has already been in the league for five years now. In terms of the conventional box score it is possible to dismiss Gordon’s improvement. In the 2017-18 season Gordon managed 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. Last season he only managed 16.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. At first glance, he has stagnated but this was far-and-away his best season. Under the influence of new coach Steve Clifford, Gordon ranked 11th in defensive rating amongst NBA forwards. This is even more impressive when you consider Gordon was given the toughest defensive responsibilities each night and was a catalyst for Orlando’s 22-9 run to end the season, where they boasted the NBA’s best defense. Gordon showcased his ability as a two-way player in the playoffs where he held Kawhi Leonard to fewer points per game than any other team in the postseason.
Orlando decided to pay whatever it took to get their two best players to come back. Despite rumours suggesting otherwise, they never appeared to be signing anywhere else. Vucevic inked a four-year $100 million contract, while Ross helped himself to four-years and $54 million. Both players are 28-years-old and front office believes they have a decent combination of experience and reliability.
The Magic drafted Chuma Okeke with the 16th pick in the NBA draft and he appears to fit the Weltman prototype. Okeke is a forward who can guard multiple positions, he is very athletic and has great wingspan. The reason the Magic were able to take the talented Auburn forward so late in the draft is because he suffered an ACL injury in the NCAA tournament. Early indication was that he could be ready for early February, but the latest indication is that he could be told to sit out for the year. That means the only meaningful addition, in the summer, was experienced forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The former Trailblazer is another great wing defender to add to Jonathan Isaac and Gordon. Aminu is coming off a career year in effective field goal percentage and contributed 9.4 points along with 7.5 rebounds per game last year.
The reason I stressed the caveat ‘in the summer’ above is because forgotten man Markelle Fultz is also on the roster. Fultz was traded to Orlando at the start of the year and has yet to feature in a competitive game. There has been little by way of indication concerning when or if Fultz will be ready but Orlando gave the biggest sign yet as they took up his 2020-2021 option guaranteeing his $12.3 million for the season after next. The former number one pick will be expected to take over from DJ Augustin next season and could prove to be a very shrewd signing. His ability has never been questioned but if Fultz can recover from the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome which has tormented him, then Orlando could have their point guard, and potential star, of the future.
Steve Clifford seems like the perfect fit to Weltman’s organisation. He preaches defense and smart basketball which has hit a tune with this young Magic roster. Sophomore Mo Bamba appears to have bulked up throughout the offseason and showed little loss to his mobility at the NBA Summer League. His 7-0 partner in the frontcourt, Isaac, also appears to have added muscle which should allow him to better defend larger power forwards making him more of a weapon for Orlando. Isaac averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the last 30 games last season and he has shown all the signs of building on that.
In summary the Magic have had a quite ‘un-Magic’ type of offseason. They made shrewd additions and have maintained the core of last season’s roster. They have tied this team’s growth with the improvement of their young players. This is a gamble, but one the team are happy to make given last season’s results. Should players develop as anticipated, Orlando may make it out of the first round while setting the blue-print for NBA teams to follow.
The French shooting guard has not yet been covered in this preview but his importance is not to be underestimated. Fournier was paramount to France’s surprise victory over the USA in this summer’s FIBA World Cup. A similar level of performance throughout the season will provide Orlando with another asset.
The lack of real change in Orlando this summer is good news for Vucevic who will again see a lot of opportunities to carry this offense. The question is whether he can replicate what was achieved last season when teams will no longer underestimate him, or Orlando, anymore.
This team’s success is predicated upon defense. They ranked eight in the NBA last year and Clifford will hope for more. Offseason additions and developments all suggest that the team can make another leap in this area, which is scary for their opponents around the league.
Nikola Vucevic | 20.8 ppg, 12.0 rpg. 3.8 apg
Vucevic has only really known one home in the NBA and with his latest long-term contract he is set to stay in Orlando for his prime years. All eyes will be on whether Vucevic can turn his career high season into a career norm.
Aaron Gordon | 16.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.7 apg
Gordon matured enormously last year and a similar improvement will make him one of the best two-way players in the league. At 23-years-old, there is no reason not to believe his best is yet to be seen.
Jonathan Isaac | 9.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.1 apg
A lengthy forward who can defend multiple positions is a rarity in the NBA and Orlando have their one with a very bright future. Isaac followed up an injury ridden rookie season with a solid campaign last year. Improved shooting and offensive experience should see Isaac build upon what we have already seen.
Evan Fournier | 15.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.6 apg
Fournier struggled last season seeing a substantial dip in his points per game. Just when you could cast doubt on his worth to Orlando, he managed to have a great campaign with France at the FIBA World Cup. If the Magic can see more of THAT Evan Fournier then they won’t have many complaints.
Terrence Ross | 15.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
The ‘Human Torch’ will have a similar role in the offense this year as he did last, and I don’t believe Orlando would want anyone else performing it. The former highlight dunker has finally found himself a role as one of the best NBA bench players.