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OPP’s Orlando Magic Mailbag: Volume III

How well have Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac played alongside one another? That and other questions are answered

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Hey y’all! We’re back again with another mailbag, loaded with questions from faithful readers wondering what exactly the future holds for our beloved Orlando Magic. I’m going to be tackling the selection again this month, hopefully finding something at least vaguely insightful to say about those topics that keep the true believers up at night.

Before we do, a quick reminder: the responses aren’t exactly the analytical deep dive that some of OPP’s other columns are, but that’s intentional: the aim is to keep the conversation flowing like it would if we were watching a game at the bar, so be sure to sound off in the comments with your own opinions.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive in!

~ How have Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac fared alongside each other recently? (crambo211)

NBA: Orlando Magic at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is a topic that I’ve touched on in some capacity a couple of times already, and one that will likely continue to come up. Earlier in the season it was an analysis of the poor numbers the two were posting when playing alongside each other, while more recently it was a question of which of the two I’d bet on long term. Both columns featured discussion tinged with the tease of potential.

It’s understandable why it remains a topic of great interest for Magic fans; any genuine success in the immediate future is almost certainly going to be dependent on at least one of this pair emerging as a top 40-to-50 talent in the league. But could it yet happen for both? And, even if those long odds were to pan out, is there room on the same court for them as teammates?

The good news is that of late the numbers are much healthier. Over the 15 games prior to last night’s tilt against the Pelicans the starting unit had a +/- of +9.2 points per 100 possessions, a number far in excess of the +3.8 they were sporting in the first week of January. If you isolate the Gordon and Isaac two-man unit you arrive at a figure of +4.8, which again suggests some improvement over the early season returns. However, there is still some worry here about the strength of these figures -- Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are actually the only pair from within the starting unit with a lower plus/minus -- but the fact that they’re an improved positive creates hope.

So what’s the secret? This might seem obvious, but it’s undoubtedly shooting. The uptick in these starting unit and two-man lineup numbers can almost be perfectly aligned with the recent surge in Isaac’s shooting percentages. In those 15 games Isaac has converted from beyond the arc at basically a 40% clip on a staggering 4.7 attempts per game. He’s become increasingly comfortable shooting from the corner, a location which the Magic really haven’t figured out how to leverage maximum benefit from just yet. This is a step in the right direction! Ultimately, the numbers posted during this recent stretch for Isaac far exceed anything he’s put up before in his short career, and the extra offensive dimension they add to the team is telling.

According to NBA tracking data, on the vast majority of these attempts -- 3.7 of them per game, in fact -- Isaac is considered to be wide open, which means the closest defender is more than six-feet away. This is to be expected, with his match-up staying home because of Isaac’s reputation as a complete non-threat from distance. An interesting thing happens though when you look at these numbers on a quarter-by-quarter basis. During first and second quarters, not one of his 3-point attempts is made with a defender even within four feet. During third and fourth quarters, however, that distance shrinks -- with a third of his attempts being classified as tightly guarded -- as he starts to exert some gravity on his immediate defender. It’s evidence of something we instinctively know about basketball: making shots will force a defense to react and change their gameplan.

Some of this may simply be due to the fact that team defenses zero in as the game starts to head towards the home stretch. But it’s also evidence that the opposition is forced to at least honor his shot after he drills a couple early. We know good things happen for an offense when the defense is forced to come all the way out to the arc. For two players like Isaac and Gordon, who tend to occupy similar spots on the court, the space created by such stretching is essential if they are to coexist on a winning basketball squad. Recently, that’s seemed like a more sustainable possibility.

~ When do you move on from guys like Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross? (PhillyBG)

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly? Maybe as soon as April 11.

Vucevic and Ross exist in an interesting capacity for the Magic. Vooch is a veteran presence, a newly minted All-Star, and the key pillar around which the team’s scheme is built. Ross is likewise a valuable veteran, a genuine Sixth-Man of the Year candidate, and relied upon to do heavy lifting offensively for the second unit. Both are looming free agents. Both have expressed a desire to re-sign in Orlando.

But what does it say about the wisdom of such a move from the team’s perspective if they bring the pair back for another handful of years? The Magic are certainly improved this season but the playoffs continue to elude the side. Do you really want to lock in two players who haven’t been able to elevate the squad from the lottery? Remember, doing so will essentially end Orlando’s offseason free agency, leaving few avenues through which the team could be upgraded.

Maybe, though, the expectation is that such development is going to come from within. Isaac and Isaiah Briscoe will benefit from another year of experience and growth. Mo Bamba might be ready to play more effectively in the back-up center role. There is also the ultimate wildcard in Markelle Fultz, an unexpected reclamation project who could single handedly raise the ceiling of this team. If some of these bets were to come good Vucevic and Ross would provide stability, continuity and above-average production for a side desperately in need of their individual skill sets.

This is a really tough question, and one that might lead to some equally tough answers. In a perfect world Orlando’s front office would have twelve more months before having to make a decision on the pair’s long term fit with the team, but sadly we don’t live in that utopian paradise. This summer’s decisions will be instrumental in charting the course forward for the success-starved franchise.

~ What are our best trade assets this summer? (Troll Wizard)

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We know that a number of questions persist regarding the roster construction of this Magic side, while this summer’s looming free agency period is definitely going to be an exercise in tightrope walking. As previously mentioned the team basically has zero flexibility thanks to the cap holds for Vucevic and Ross. If they move on it will signify a new phase of rebuilding with some money to spend; if they stay, the core is going to look almost identical to this season. Improvement is either going to come internally or not at all.

All of which is to say that if you’re hanging out for significant roster additions you’ll be hoping that the team is active on the trade market. But is there much in the cupboard or are the stocks bare? What’s the best asset the front office has to work with?

I mean, it’s Aaron Gordon, right?

AG brings a lot to the table for this Magic side, but depending on how the season plays out the front office might decide that they need to opt for a new direction. Isaac and Bamba are theoretically the frontcourt players of the future, and we still don’t have much compelling evidence to suggest that Gordon will ever thrive in the small forward position. His contract is also custom-made to be moved, with a declining salary across each of the next three years. It’s big enough to bring back a player attached to a sizeable contract, while also being appealingly affordable to any potential trade partner. With limited avenues to change the core He Who Was Robbed might be the only potential outgoing piece that could significantly reshape the team’s identity.

Elsewhere there are a couple of other interesting chips that the Magic could potentially cash in. Timofey Mozgov’s circumstances are worth monitoring, as he’ll either be a sizeable expiring contract or potentially even cap space as an injury exception. Orlando are also in possession of a full complement of draft picks moving forward, meaning they’ve got the potential to toss in some sweeteners if the right deal presents itself. They’re in a position to pounce should the right player unexpectedly shake loose, like D’Angelo Russell and Harrison Barnes did this season.

Ultimately, the gut instinct is leaning towards a relatively quiet summer for the Magic. It feels like they made their move in February when they acquired Fultz, who won’t have the opportunity to add to the team until next season anyway. However, a cursory look at the roster and war chest reveals that there are some potential moves to be made, should the opportunity be suitably compelling.

~ Do I know the Powerball numbers for the next draw? (juststains)

4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42. Be careful what you do with your newfound knowledge.

And with that, we’re closing the latest installment of the OPP Mailbag! It’s less than a month until this whole regular season thing is done and dusted, which means the next time we reconvene it’s either going to be for a playoff preview or for a look-see at the lottery.

The race to the finish line is on in earnest.