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Boys, Bye: How Can the Magic Build Off Their First Playoff Appearance in Seven Seasons?

No one can blame Orlando for failing to overcome the Raptors. But what’s next for the young squad?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven years of waiting brought Orlando to a first-round exit against Toronto. And though the team’s postseason was short-lived, it was a break in the devastation that has been life After Dwight. It was the end of an era spent tanking, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. The Magic didn’t just keep up with the other newly vindicated teams like the Kings and Nets this season. They stole a game from the Raptors, who should contend for the Eastern Conference crown, and they did it with players never before known and players forgotten about long ago. They did it with D.J. Augustin in the clutch and Khem Birch in the post. And, of course, they did it with head coach Steve Clifford, who is here to stay. But which players will return to run it back is up in the air.

Should the Magic re-sign Nikola Vucevic?

The theme of Orlando’s season was “for the first time in a long time.” For the first time in a long time, it was the better team in Florida; for the first time in a long time, it made the playoffs; for the first time in a long time, it sent a player to All-Star Weekend. Vucevic was at the center of all ameliorations. He had a career year in areas in which he’s always been proficient, such as scoring and rebounding (he averaged 20.8 points and 12 boards), but also in ones he’d never before excelled at, such as 3-point shooting and defense.

Inspiring, isn’t it, what a coaching change can do. Vucevic regularly credits Clifford for his growth. Though I’m also sure Vuc drew inspiration from it being a contract year. He’ll enter unrestricted free agency at the end of this season, and though the timing will be lucrative for Vucevic, he’ll be forced to decide whether the Magic’s sudden rise is sustainable, and one he wants to dedicate his prime to seeing through. The Magic will have to determine the same about him.

Both parties have spoken vaguely about the future with tones that indicate they wouldn’t mind spending it together for the right price. Orlando has to weigh the implications that keeping Vucevic might have for Mohamed Bamba’s development, but the franchise’s other concern should be a contract-year hangover. Vucevic’s more unexpected progressions—like shooting 36.4 percent from deep and having a defensive rating just below Aaron Gordon’s—could easily regress. Vucevic, 28, is in his prime and is getting his first taste of being on a winning team. (Well, he did play three total playoff minutes with the Sixers in 2012.) Vuc’s first true postseason was less than ideal, as he finished below his regular-season averages, but the Magic were there because of him, and likely won’t forget that when bidding against other teams this summer.

Is Aaron Gordon still the future?

Of the up-and-coming young teams, the Magic might have the most boom-or-bust players—guys that could be special, but could also be out of the league in a couple of years ( … more on Markelle Fultz later). Even after a so-so season, there’s no question that Gordon has the highest floor of their young products.

This year was supposed to be Gordon’s. But after a monstrous stats jump in 2017-18, the 23-year-old’s flashier elements cooled off, and he wasn’t the sole face of the team as he had been the past couple of years. Gordon had just six games with more than 25 points, and hasn’t come close to his career-high 41-point game from last season (his peak this season, a 31-point game against the Knicks, was Gordon’s only game with at least 30).

Though it wasn’t the showiest, this season was a second leap for Gordon. He grew more disciplined and well rounded: His point average dropped from 17.6 points in 2017-18 to 16.0, but he scored at a more efficient rate, including from the free throw line and from 3, though he took far fewer deep shots than he did when he channeled Steph Curry at the beginning of last season. Gordon put more focus in facilitating (he averaged a career-high 3.7 assists) under Clifford in the absence of a starting-caliber floor general, and was the nucleus for Orlando’s defense, which jumped in defensive rating from 20th in 2017-18 to eighth in 2018-19.

So yes, Gordon is the future. But he needs a future in which one of those other young players materializes.

What’s going to happen to Orlando’s other lottery picks?

So Michael Carter-Williams’s contract is up at the end of the season and—oh, you meant Bamba and Fultz. Both 20-year-olds are out indefinitely, Bamba with a stress fracture in his left tibia and Fultz with thoracic outlet syndrome (we think). Bamba played more games (47) in his rookie season than Fultz did in two seasons (33) with Philly. Bamba showed off his aspiring 3-point shooting (despite the hype, the 7-footer shot only 30 percent from deep) and his 7-foot-10 wingspan, which is the longest in NBA history.

Bamba’s recovery timeline isn’t as mysterious as Fultz’s (whom I am not entirely convinced will ever play another game), but the language used to describe his future is far from straightforward. “Thankfully, we caught this early and we’re able to treat Mo without surgery,” president Jeff Weltman said in February. “His return to action will depend on how he responds to treatment.’’

Weltman said something along the same lines in March about Fultz, who is recovering in Los Angeles: “As I’ve been saying, the timetable will dictate itself.” The Magic can’t be sure about both players, for the time being, which makes their first post-tank summer an unconventional one.