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The Orlando Magic are banking on internal improvement

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Unlike many teams in the league, the Magic will return intact next season

2018-19 Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

It was arguably the most chaotic summer in NBA history.

Six All-NBA players changed teams. More than $1 billion in contract commitments was handed out in the first 60 hours of free agency. The balance of power in the NBA shifted, re-shifted, and then shifted back again.

And yet, as rosters across the league were overhauled, the Orlando Magic remained intact.

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman during the Magic’s post-free agency press conference earlier this month. “To bring the team to where it finished last season took a lot of hard work and a lot of togetherness. Once we saw the team playing that way, it became our goal to keep the team together.”

Which is just what they did. By re-signing All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terrence Ross, the Magic were assured of being a near mirror image of the team that helped capture the organization’s first playoff berth since 2012.

With external help additions for the cap-strapped Magic limited to the signing of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, the Orlando front office is banking on internal improvement to help take the Magic back to the first round of the playoffs and beyond.

“I think we can be a lot better,” Weltman said. “I think one of the lesser spoken about elements in this league is continuity. Continuity for continuity’s sake doesn’t make much sense. If you’re losing, why continue? But when you’ve established a way to play that you feel you can win with, it’s time to try to hold on to that and try to build on that.”

But does building on the Magic’s continuity align with the blueprint for the construction of a championship contender?

With Vucevic playing at an optimal level, and during what was a mostly injury-free season where the Magic’s five primary starters missed a combined 14 games, Orlando managed to just barely sneak into the postseason with a record of 42-40.

“For us, what’s most important is we look at what we can do to improve internally as a team,” Vucevic said during the press conference. “What is there that we need to do to get better?”

Or, in Vucevic’s case, at least replicate the success he had during his career year. The Magic are spending nine figures, and relegating a recent sixth overall pick to reserve duty, on the ideology that Vucevic can continue to produce at that level.

Even if there is regression on Vooch’s part, the bulk of the Magic’s room for improvement lies within their younger core (and perhaps a bounce back season shooting wise for Evan Fournier). Aaron Gordon, in a recent interview with Ben Stinar of Amico Hoops, spoke of the improvements he is hoping to make next season.

“I definitely want to be better in the post, just with my footwork,” Gordon told Stinar. “Continue to make better decisions on the floor, handle the ball really well, just do better than we did last year. Advance, get a series win in the playoffs.”

For Jonathan Isaac, it means continued development and growth, both on the court (improve on that 32 percent shooting from three) and from a physical standpoint (a recent tweet joked that Isaac, who seems hesitant to admit he is over 7’0” tall, is now 6’13”).

Same goes for Mo Bamba, who prior to Summer League said that his jeans from last season no longer fit. The hope is that Bamba’s progression is similar to that of Isaac’s, where an injury-plagued rookie year is followed by a promising sophomore year. While the Magic have committed financially to Vucevic, Bamba developing and producing to a degree that it creates a starting center controversy at some point during his rookie contract would be a welcome problem for the Magic brass.

“[Vucevic] was our guy last year,” Bamba told reporters earlier this month. “He was our All-Star. He was the reason why we were in the playoffs. It’s not going to stop me from working on my game and working on the best version of myself.”

Bamba says he has added 20 pounds and is now at roughly 240. The bulk, he said, hasn’t compromised his mobility (though he was subsequently shutdown in Summer League as a precaution after experiencing soreness).

“I’ve actually put on a ton of weight, and one thing I was not worried about but conscientious about was how am I going to be able to move 20 pounds heavier?” Bamba said. “And I think it’s pretty good. I think I’m doing pretty well….It feels good to play at this weight. You can bump some more, you can get into spots easier. Trust me, I’m still ways to go, but it feels good. Progress.”

Progress, of course, is the buzzword for the Magic’s ultimate wild card: Markelle Fultz. The Magic’s offseason, with a forward-centric focus, seemed to place some dependency on Fultz, even if the Magic won’t admit it publicly. With the point guard depth chart featuring the effective but aging D.J. Augustin, the high-energy but offensively limited Michael Carter-Williams, and the two-way signing of playmaker but career G-Leaguer Josh Magette, the ball is figuratively, and hopefully literally, in Fultz’s court.

Orlando Magic Introduce Markelle Fultz - Portraits Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

In Orlando, there is potential, but there is also uncertainty, which is why the Magic’s over/under has been hovering around 41.5. Gambling that this team as currently constituted hasn’t already reached its ceiling comes with some risk. But I’d be willing to take the over, betting that the realized potential, continuity and internal improvement help the Magic win around 46 games next season.

“There’s a lot of internal growth on our team,” Weltman said. “I think even if there was no internal growth from a player prospective, just coming back with the same coach and the same system, knowing what our training camp is going to look like, that’s growth. But there will be tremendous internal improvement from our players. Not just our young players but Vooch and [Ross], these guys are hard workers, they understand that they need to get better for all of us to get better and I can say that collectively we’re off to a very good summer. Our coaches have been doing a lot of work. A lot of our players have been in and out. I feel that our group has really taken this summer seriously after experiencing the end of last season and understanding how this thing works.”