clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Are We Sure … the Magic Won’t Make a Leap?

This offseason, Orlando doubled down on the core that won one first-round playoff game. But look closer and you’ll see a team that could be a contender in the East next season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure the Magic can’t make a leap next season?

Doubling down on a 42-win team doesn’t create much offseason buzz, but the Magic didn’t really have a choice. They couldn’t afford to step back after making their first playoff appearance in seven seasons, so they re-signed Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and added Al-Farouq Aminu. The concern is that approach locked the franchise into a mediocre team without much room to improve. But a closer look shows they can remain relevant while also developing some elite young talent. Their ceiling isn’t as fixed as it seems.

The biggest reasons to be optimistic about the Magic are their starting forwards, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. They are both high lottery picks (Gordon was no. 4 in 2014 and Isaac was no. 6 in 2017) who still have a lot of room to grow. Gordon is entering his sixth NBA season, but turns only 24 in September; Isaac turns 22 in October. There aren’t many pairs of forwards in the league with their length, athleticism, skill, and basketball IQ. It can take players their size (Gordon is 6-foot-9 and Isaac is 6-foot-11) a long time to fully grow into their bodies and round out their games. They could be late bloomers who blossom into All-Star-caliber players over the next few seasons.

Gordon has already transformed himself in the NBA. He became a consistent 3-point shooter (34.9 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game last season) after entering the league as a nonshooter (27.1 percent from 3 on 1.0 attempts per game as a rookie). The change allowed him to avoid the fate of a number of big and athletic wings with poor jumpers who have flamed out in recent years, such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Stanley Johnson, and Josh Jackson. Gordon may never be an elite shooter, but he doesn’t have to be. He just needs to stretch the floor well enough to force defenders to guard him on the perimeter.

Gordon can do everything else on the court well. After averaging a career high in points two seasons ago, Gordon made another important leap last season: He became a legitimate playmaker, averaging a career high in assists (3.7 per game) while barely increasing his turnovers (2.1 per game). He can clean the defensive glass and start a fast break himself, and he can pass the ball out of the pick-and-roll in the half court. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Gordon was in the 53rd percentile of players in shots he generated for himself and his teammates.

The result is that Gordon is now one of the most well-rounded players in the league. He can defend players at all five positions and also score, shoot, pass, and rebound. The only players to average as many points, rebounds, assists, steals, and 3-point attempts per game last season as Gordon are Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. This may not be the best version of Gordon, either. A 23-year-old with his physical tools who has already shown the work ethic to improve is a good bet to keep getting better.

Isaac might have even more upside just based on his size. For one thing, he’s still growing. He came into the league at 6-foot-10 and 205 pounds and reportedly checked into Team USA’s Select camp at almost 7 feet and 234 pounds. The odds of his being able to keep all that weight throughout the season are slim. He told me at last year’s summer league that he weighed 222 pounds, and said a few weeks ago he was down to 209 by the end of the playoffs. It will take time for Isaac to put muscle on his long and lanky frame. The good news for the Magic is that, like Gordon, Isaac has shown that he will put in the work. He could keep getting better every season for the next seven to eight years. Many 7-footers don’t fully develop physically until they are in their late 20s. Isaac will turn 28 in October 2025.

After a disappointing rookie season during which he injured his ankle and played in only 27 games, Isaac established himself as a starting-caliber player last season. He was a defensive specialist who did just enough on offense to stay on the floor, averaging 9.6 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. He doesn’t have quite as much lateral quickness as Gordon, but he’s still freakishly athletic for a player his size. Isaac is one of only 13 players in the NBA last season to average at least 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, and one of only three (along with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jerami Grant) who don’t primarily play center.

Isaac showed his defensive potential in the Magic’s first-round playoff series against the Raptors. Isaac was matched up against both Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard and used his combination of length and athleticism to stay in front of them and contest their shots:

The biggest issue for Isaac was core strength, as both Siakam and Kawhi were able to get under him and knock him off balance. That is the only thing stopping him from becoming one of the best defenders in the league.

More strength will help Isaac on offense as well. He already has an interesting skill set for a near-7-footer: He’s a developing shooter (32.3 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game, 81.5 percent from the free throw line on 1.8 attempts per game) who can put the ball on the floor and make plays on the move.

Isaac could do more if he were in a different role on a less-talented team: He had a usage rate of only 16.3 last season. Still, he has shown flashes of scoring ability, with 14 games of 15 points or more. His role likely won’t increase much next season, but even a marginal improvement in strength could make a difference if it allows him to make a few more drives, finish around the rim at a higher rate, and draw more fouls. Keep up those marginal improvements over the next few seasons and he could become a really effective offensive player.

Orlando has the offensive structure around Isaac and Gordon to allow them to keep growing into bigger roles over time. Their other three starters (D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, and Vucevic) are established veterans who can create their own shot, shoot 3s, and make plays for others. Augustin, the worst of the bunch, is still a reliable starter who can take care of the ball and run the offense. Vucevic is coming off his first All-Star season and just signed a new $100 million deal, while Fournier is one of the NBA’s more well-rounded shooting specialists.

To be sure, the Magic will probably never get out of the first round if those three are some of their primary options on offense. The hope is that the trio will gradually take a step back as Gordon and Isaac take a step forward. That is the quickest path for this team to become a contender.

For now, Orlando can hang its hat on defense. The Magic had the no. 1 defense in the NBA (105.0) over the last 30 games of the season. It’s not an arbitrary distinction, either. The improvement was the direct result of some crucial rotation adjustments that head coach Steve Clifford made to turn the season around.

The Magic were killed by the back end of their rotation in the first half of the season. Jonathon Simmons had a net rating of minus-6.6 in 845 minutes, Jerian Grant was at minus-10.7 in 776 minutes, and Mohammed Bamba, the no. 6 overall pick in the 2018 draft, had an astonishingly bad net rating of minus-14.9 in 766 minutes. The team caught fire as soon as those three stopped playing (Simmons was traded, Grant was cut, and Bamba fractured his leg) and their minutes were redistributed to Khem Birch, Michael Carter-Williams, and the remaining players in the rotation. During its last 30 games, Orlando went 21-9 and had the league’s fourth-highest net rating (plus-7.7).

To be sure, the Magic are nowhere near the fourth-best team in the NBA. But they have more talent than their more pedestrian season-long statistics would indicate. Kevin Pelton of ESPN crunched the numbers and projects them to finish with the fourth-most wins in the Eastern Conference. This is a legitimately deep team (Aminu will go from starting in the Western Conference finals to coming off the bench), and they rank second in the NBA in the number of returning minutes (86 percent) from last season. Everyone already knows their roles in Orlando, which could allow them to start the season stronger than many teams who will have to figure out a new identity.

The biggest variable in projecting the Magic next season is determining how they’ll balance winning and development. Second-year coach Clifford will have to make tough choices at backup center (Bamba vs. Birch) and backup point guard (Markelle Fultz, assuming he’ll actually play, vs. Carter-Williams). In both instances, the former is a young player with a ton of theoretical upside, while the latter is a veteran who can be more effective in a smaller role.

The good news for Orlando is that it doesn’t have to give its other young players minutes with Gordon and Isaac around. The roster would still have a ton of promise if the Magic focused on surrounding their two under-25 year-old forwards with veterans. Anything they get from Bamba or Fultz will be a bonus. And then there’s Chuma Okeke, an intriguing combo forward drafted at no. 17 this year’s draft who will miss this season while recovering from a torn ACL. Clifford can make the rest of the franchise’s youth movement learn good habits instead of force-feeding them minutes without being able to hold them accountable for their mistakes. What he did with Isaac last season should be the model. A young player doesn’t have to look like a star right away on a playoff team. He just has to do enough so he can stay on the court and not bring the rest of the team down.

The Magic are far more equipped to manage that balance than they were earlier in the decade. They spent most of the 2010s trying and failing at their own version of the Process, despite having both Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris, All-Star-caliber players who blossomed elsewhere. Orlando has undergone a complete face-lift over the past few seasons, with a new president (Jeff Weltman), general manager (John Hammond), and head coach (Clifford). All three have had success in the NBA. Weltman worked with Masai Ujiri in Toronto while Hammond put together the core of a title contender in Milwaukee, and Clifford regularly turned lemons into lemonade in five seasons in Charlotte. The new brain trust in Orlando sees the value of being able to develop young players in a situation where they won’t just be handed playing time.

The Magic didn’t put a ceiling on themselves with their moves this offseason. They gave themselves a floor. There is now a structure in place that will allow them to develop some extremely talented young players. This could be a team of the future in the Eastern Conference.