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Best Case, Worst Case: Orlando Magic

A late-season surge from Elfrid Payton and the promise of rookie Jonathan Isaac offer glimmers of hope, but for one Magic fan, the team’s best case isn’t much rosier than its worst case

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Team: Orlando Magic

Coach: Frank Vogel (second season)

Last season: 29–53 (13th in the Eastern Conference and worse than it sounds)

Notable additions: Jonathan Isaac (draft), Jonathon Simmons (free agency)

Notable subtractions: Jeff Green (I guess), Jodie Meeks (sure, whatever), general manager Rob Hennigan

Vegas over/under: 34.5

Best-case scenario: There’s been a lot of talk about how basketball is more exciting than ever. I do not know anything about this because I bought that one-team League Pass option in which I can watch only the Magic. The beautiful, efficient basketball that I’ve heard rumors about has not entered my life in any meaningful way. This is like if you enjoyed the prestige television era by watching only Burn Notice. The Magic are not prestige television.

The Magic’s failure to compete or appear aesthetically competent can be blamed in large part on all the “best-case scenarios” bandied about that do not come to fruition. What if Elfrid Payton were a reliable shooter? What if Aaron Gordon became, as Frank Vogel imagined, Orlando’s Paul George?

None of these things, of course, ever happen. So forgive me if I’m cautious about best-case scenarios. Magic preseason stories have read like those Ancient Alien shows where people with shoddy credentials come up with fringe theories — Hey, maybe Scott Skiles will unlock the team’s defensive prowess! Or, Maybe signing veterans like Ben Gordon will provide the team with some shooting! None of these things is quite like saying aliens built the pyramids, because that theory is far more likely to be true than theories about how the Magic can get better.

The Magic took a swing at playoff contention last year by signing Bismack Biyombo at an already-clogged big-man position and giving Jeff Green $15 million to look as lost as anyone I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. This was not a particularly good swing. Gordon, one of the team’s most talented players, played small forward when there was a near consensus around the league that he’d thrive as a power forward. The now-famous whiteboard photo, which appeared to show all of the Magic’s targets for trades and free agency, was a shock only in that there was a plan in the first place.

The biggest win for the Magic in the last two years was Dwight Howard sorta admitting that he never should have left Orlando. Orlando agrees; Howard’s admission was like getting a “like” from an ex on Instagram.

But maybe there are some paths forward. Elfrid Payton, in particular, may have a chance to have a breakout year. After the regrettable Serge Ibaka era ended with a thud (a trade to Toronto for Terrence Ross and a first-rounder), the Magic abandoned their always-doomed “twin towers” approach, and Payton — whose season included a stretch so bad he was benched for all of December — finished the season with a hot streak that suggested he’s a capable NBA starter. His post-All-Star numbers last year: 13.5 points (on 50.8 percent shooting), 7.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists. Hey, those are NBA numbers — what are those doing in Orlando? The big reason for this change is that once the Magic shifted away from a lineup with multiple big men, Payton was allowed some space near the basket to operate. Vogel told the Orlando Sentinel this week that he’ll have just one big man at a time, which should help give the Magic some space all season and give Payton room to work. Keeping Payton near the 3-point line, where he is a career 28.9 percent shooter, is a bad idea. Letting the quick and athletic guy drive the lane is a good one.

The most tangible route to the playoffs is if Isaac, one of the best athletes in the draft, is an instant contributor. Isaac’s wingspan is over 7 feet. He is quick enough to guard three or four positions. Isaac and Gordon provide some tantalizing small-ball possibilities. That, of course, would be tough on Nikola Vucevic and Biyombo, who will make nearly $30 million combined this year. On the other hand, who cares.

Worst-case scenario: Worse than you could ever imagine. I have seen it. I have seen it since 2012. If Payton’s spring charge were just a temporary competence. If Gordon doesn’t take the next step and really isn’t a power forward, either. If Mario Hezonja were as bad as he looked last year. If new signing Jonathon Simmons were not capable of big minutes. If all of these things converge, it could get worse. Hennigan is gone, and it’s unclear whether the plan will be an all-out tank or if the new regime, spearheaded by Jeff Weltman, is going to tinker with this core. Isaac looks like a good start, but it’s worth noting that the last five years of Magic basketball have been a series of good starts, one after the other, and leading nowhere. If things go south with this team, we may be begging for the days of the whiteboard.

TL;DR: Jesus.