Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 28
Last Season: 25-57
Notable Additions: Mo Bamba (draft), Jerian Grant (trade), head coach Steve Clifford
Notable Subtractions: Bismack Biyombo (trade), Mario Hezonja (free agency), team assist leader Shelvin Mack (waived)
Vegas Over/Under: 31.5 wins
Team MVP: Aaron Gordon
Best-Case Scenario: The Magic are young, and young teams usually don’t win many games. Even if Aaron Gordon wakes up tomorrow in his prime and manages to shoot 38 percent from 3 (as he did in the first half of last season) for an entire year, they’d still be fighting for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference at best. Luckily, because they’re so young, their win-loss total is less important than their development. The franchise fired Frank Vogel and hired Steve Clifford, who has developed a reputation as an old-school, defense-first head coach. With the Hornets, Clifford preached protecting the rim and forcing opponents to settle for midrange jump shots, which worked in the past. But most teams nowadays have taken midrange shots out of their diet and instead actively look for spot-up shooters. Charlotte’s once-stifling defense became mediocre because the league’s offensive mentality changed overnight.
The Hornets didn’t have the personnel to stay true to Clifford’s vision amid the league’s offensive boom. The Magic just might. Their unique personnel could allow Clifford to keep preaching the same defensive sermon without giving up on the perimeter entirely. Wingspan and standing reach are more important measurements than height, since you use your arms to make plays in basketball, not your head. Players with longer arms are better able to deflect passes, block shots, or even prevent a pass or shot from occurring. Judged solely on the wingspans of their players, the Magic have one of the most impressive rosters in the NBA. Orlando has the option of using some of the longest lineups the league has ever seen after new Magic brass Jeff Weltman and John Hammond used the sixth pick in the 2018 draft on Texas center Mo Bamba, the longest player in the NBA, with a 7-foot-10 wingspan. Bamba is a coordinated, mobile rim protector who can be a force in the paint, and he will be surrounded by length. Jonathan Isaac, drafted sixth in 2017, filled out his tall, lanky frame this summer, which should aid him on the defensive end. He’s already quick laterally and an active shot blocker, so for as long as he stays on the floor, the Magic have with three young players in Bamba, Isaac, and Gordon who can stabilize their defense while being complemented by role players with condor wingspans like Wesley Iwundu, Jerian Grant, and Melvin Frazier. Clifford has the pieces to begin building a new defensive foundation for the team, which could mitigate its growing pains on offense.
Gordon’s offensive development is paramount to the Magic’s future. Isaac lacks an elite scorer’s mentality; Bamba, while possessing tantalizing upside if his 3-pointer develops, will most likely have an offensive role similar to Rudy Gobert’s in Utah. Gordon is the player who needs to make an offensive leap. Thus far in his career, he’s displayed versatility as an option handing the ball, spotting up, rolling or popping in the two-man game, posting up, and cutting for lob dunks. But Gordon’s been given that freedom because the Magic haven’t had anyone else capable of handling that kind of workload. This is the year for Gordon to turn his high-volume scoring into more efficient scoring with an improved pull-up jumper and better decision-making. If he doesn’t, then the Magic will still need to find the future focal point of their offense.
Orlando’s dreams won’t manifest into reality this season, but fans will nonetheless be on the lookout for signs of an awakening. The Magic have a host of veterans in Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Jonathon Simmons, and Evan Fournier who can serve as stabilizers who space the floor and offer complementary scoring for the development of the young trio of Bamba, Isaac, and Gordon. If the Magic get just that, it’ll be the first time in years that fans will actually have a future to look forward to.
Worst-Case Scenario: The fear is a repeat of last season—well, actually a repeat of the past six seasons, as any Magic fan would know. Every fan base feels hope entering each season, since new acquisitions give them something to look forward to. But Magic fans have been numbed by the failures of Mario Hezonja, Elfrid Payton, and Andrew Nicholson. Even the players who end up working out, like Victor Oladipo, shine somewhere else.
The Magic started 8-4 last season behind a scorching-hot shooting streak, then won only 17 games the rest of the way. Fans have learned to drop their hope early.
Perhaps history will repeat itself for another year. The fear is that Bamba will revert to the bad defensive habits he displayed as a freshman at Texas, proving that summer workout videos are not to be trusted; that Gordon will fall into the Jeff Green zone of theoretical star; that Isaac will hesitate to shoot the shot his team needs him to take; and that Clifford will default to playing the veterans over his young cornerstones, the same way he did in Charlotte when he buried Malik Monk. Given how young the team is, Clifford will be tempted often. But it’s time for an old-school coach to integrate a modern mentality. The short-term gains in the form of one or two extra wins shouldn’t outweigh the future gains of developing the youth.
TL;DR: All that matters this season is development, development, development.