2019-20 Team Obituaries: Orlando Magic
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
A year ago, the Magic were in a solid spot. They had a collection of productive veterans, who could either keep the team afloat or be traded for useful long-term assets. They also rostered a few young guys with upside, such as Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba.
That wasn't good enough to make noise in the playoffs though. They were ousted pretty handily by the Toronto Raptors in Round 1, losing in what's known as a "gentleman's sweep" (winning Game 1 and losing the next four). It's hard to win playoff games when Nikola Vučević is your best player; the Magic needed a true star to make any upward movement.
The problem was obvious; every team could use more high-end talent. What's harder is the how.
Given their cap situation, the Magic didn't have many financial avenues to add a star. They weren't loaded with assets either, making the risk of any blockbuster trade remarkably high for them. The best they could do was tread water, take fliers when possible, and make sensible improvements on the margins.
Vučević and Terrence Ross helped check the first box. The former got a large contract that declines in value each season, from $28 million in the first year to $22 million in the fourth. The latter got a reasonable four years and $50 million, with the last three years along a similar declining scale.
Fultz was a good flier to take. The former No. 1 overall pick in 2017 didn't work out with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he was available to Orlando as a distressed asset. If he could work out the issues with his jumper, he could represent Orlando in some All-Star Games and be one of the steals of the century.
As for the margins, Al-Faroq Aminu was the addition of the offseason. His defensive presence on the wing and capable 3-ball is what the front office covets, and he cost just under $30 million for three seasons. Aminu wasn't increasing their title chances, but he was a good find on a reasonable deal.
If things broke right in 2019-20, the Magic would have a pretty good squad. Fultz becoming a starting-caliber guard would give them instant offense on the perimeter, something they've been sorely lacking in recent years. Isaac building on last season would be a boost because of his defensive versatility and acceptable 3-point shot, and he would make a devastating trio on the wing defensively with Aaron Gordon and Aminu.
Things didn't exactly break Orlando's way. An early-season meniscus tear to Aminu neutralized the one major difference between last season's team and this one, and an ACL injury to Isaac in The Bubble sucked the life out of the team's late-season push.
Fultz improved his free throw percentage (from 56.8% to 73.0%) and proved to be a rotation player, but his shot mechanics were still way off. It's unlikely that he becomes much of a factor outside the paint offensively. For a team whose best players are a post scorer and a slasher, that isn't enough to be a reliable starter.
The rest of the team was mostly the same. Evan Fournier had a career year scoring-wise (18.5 points per game on 59.5% true shooting), but he also did so in a contract year at age 27. He's not getting much better than what he is now, which isn't moving Orlando's needle.
Vučević also had a career year. He stretched his game out to the 3-point line, taking a career-high 4.7 threes per game (previous high was 3.6) and hitting 33.9% of them. He also cut his post-ups per game from 5.4 last season to 3.8 this season, nearly a 30% decrease.
But a poor man's Khris Middleton and a rich man's Brook Lopez can only take you so far, which in this case was to 33-40 and the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Awaiting them were the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best record, best net rating, and best player of the regular season.
It went as expected. The Magic won Game 1, just like last year, but proceeded to lose the next four, just like last year. The only major difference was that they put up a legitimate fight for more than a game, though that could be seen as more of an indictment on the Bucks than praise for the Magic considering what happened in Round 2.
The story is still the same: there's not nearly enough star power in Orlando.
Identifying the issues with the Magic is one thing; figuring out how to solve them is another. That's the predicament that President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman has been trying to sift through since he was hired in 2017, and his past moves may indicate future ones.
His preference for length and defense is pretty obvious, but what's more telling is his work with incumbent players. Gordon, Vučević and Ross all got extensions that are more team-friendly as they age, indicating that the front office would have no issue trading them if the opportunity arises.
A similar deal may be on the table for Augustin, a veteran who fills a desperate need and has given no suggestions that he wants to go elsewhere. Fournier's player option ($17 million) clouds his future with the team, but it's hard to believe Orlando would oppose the right deal with him.
Where does that put the Magic? In roughly the same spot, which is both unremarkable and boring. But it's hard to see them diving into a rebuild with some of these contracts still on the books, and it's hard to see any of those contracts being moved this offseason.
Teams aren't paying a pretty penny for Vučević in 2020, especially with three years and $72 million left on his deal. Ross is a valued commodity around the league, but the trade rumors from last season were popular because he was on an expiring deal. Now he's got three years to go.
Gordon may be the swing piece. It feels like we say this every year, but it would be intriguing to see him in a different situation. And with two years and $34.5 million left on his deal, his modest cap hit may be reasonable enough to spark a trade for someone more useful.
Would the Oklahoma City Thunder flip Dennis Schröder and a pick for Gordon, in the event that Danilo Gallinari leaves? If the Brooklyn Nets strike out on a stretchy big in free agency, would they be willing to send Spencer Dinwiddie and parts to Orlando? The Phoenix Suns are as intriguing a trade partner as any if the Magic are willing to settle for strictly assets.
It's tough to see them being the biggest players of the offseason, but maybe they don't have to be just yet.