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Winners and Losers, Part IV: Do you believe in Aaron Gordon?

Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned?

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Lakers

We’re here today to put this series to rest, anointing one last handful of winners and losers covering everything Orlando Magic in 2019/20. We’ve got four in the W column and five recorded Ls at this point, so the result — which is obviously more important than any meaningless score at the end of a basketball game — balances on the proverbial knife’s edge. Let’s jump in and dissect things one last time!

Loser: Health

Toronto Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 113-97 Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Considering the blessed run the Magic had in regards to injuries in 2019, it’s probably wise not to complain too much about what befell the side this season. Still, the manner in which the scales swung back in 2020 was a particularly tough obstacle for the side to overcome.

The injuries started to pile up early, with both Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon going down in the same game in November with ankle complaints. Al-Farouq Aminu followed not long after with a torn meniscus in his right knee that eventually cost him the rest of the season. In the backcourt it was DJ Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams who took turns being absent from the lineup, the former with a lingering knee complaint and the latter with a series of ailments (variously hip, shoulder and foot). Evan Fournier eventually succumbed to an elbow ligament sprain, and Wes Iwundu missed time in the concussion protocol after a scary tumble. When it wasn’t a traditional sporting injury there was even illness to contend with: both Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba were knocked out of action due to health issues.

The mentioned nine players combined to miss a total of 131 games across the shortened season, a mammoth number compared to the relative health of the team only twelve months earlier. And this is all without yet addressing the injured elephant in the room; Jonathan Isaac’s brutal run of poor luck continued, with a pair of devastating knee injuries that, when combined, will see him miss the better part of two years. It’s a kick in the guts for the development of both the player and the franchise.

Injuries are one of those things that tend to even out in the long run for teams, no matter how disheartening they can seem in the moment. Remember, also, that we tend to take a clean bill of health for granted and notice only when that baseline expectation is impacted. Moving forward the hope will be that the Magic got the bad luck out of the way last season, and that in 2021 the team’s rotation will be more settled and the collective growth more consistent. Fingers crossed.

Winner: Aaron Gordon’s ability to divide the Orlando fanbase

Sacramento Kings v Orlando Magic Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Gordon’s recently completed sixth professional campaign was an example of his career in a microcosm. There were some stretches of promise that teased a leap, with the type of play that can allow oneself to talk themselves into a player’s long term fit. However, these moments were tempered by some ineffective periods of play, the function of a skillset that seemingly lacks an elite component and is hampered by below average shooting in the time of Sprawlball. There’s an apparent duality to his performance, a characteristic echoed in the fan experience.

Entering into a discussion about the merits of anything AG is a process fraught with danger, as more often than not it tends to separate itself into two distinct camps: the truthers and the non-believers. Wade into the debate on Twitter, Reddit or even here in the OPP comment threads and you’ll find a pair of opposed views with seemingly polar realities: where one side sees a player with a maturing shot profile and usage level, the other sees someone who is an inefficient gunner with a predilection for hero ball. Where one side sees Gordon making strides with his passing and playmaking, the other sees cheap assists that require no basketball vision. Where one side sees a 25 year old still developing his game, the other sees a six year veteran who has clearly reached a ceiling. Dual realities.

It’s likely that this ability to divide Orlando’s fanbase will continue in the immediate future. The Magic are soon going to have to make a decision about the long term direction of the franchise, and where Gordon fits in those plans is anyone’s guess. He’s a good basketball player on a team-friendly contract, but there’s a lack of compelling evidence to suggest he drives winning basketball. He’s obviously a valuable on-court contributor for the team in pinstripes, while at the same time perhaps also their most intriguing asset. Which brings us back to the polarity of the AG conundrum: where one side sees a foundational piece of the roster for years to come, the other sees a trade chip.

A time will come soon that reveals just how invested in Gordon the Magic are. As with all things AG, regardless of the outcome there are likely to be a pair of distinct perspectives.

Winner: Game One upsets

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks - Game One Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The Magic have got a thing going on. In each of the past two postseasons they’ve gone into their Round One matchup a significant underdog only to come away with an enormous upset in the opening game. In 2019 they overcame the eventual champion Raptors, felled by a late dagger from Augustin in front of a raucous Canadian crowd. This year, however, was something slightly different.

Game One in 2020 was an emphatically dominant performance, with the Magic racing to a sizable lead at the end of the first, withstanding a Milwaukee fightback in the middle quarters, and then coasting home comfortably through the final frame. They perfectly executed a defensive game plan that made life difficult for Giannis (the building of a wall!) and that largely silenced his supporting cast. On offense they shot the three-ball frequently and accurately, regularly deploying lineups with four shooting threats that both kept the scoreboard ticking over and created space for Markelle Fultz to go to work in.

Once again the Magic kicked the collective butts of their more fancied opponent, reminding everyone — for a game at least — that Steve Clifford is a wizard extracting a lot from relatively limited resources.

Loser: The familiarity of Games Two through Five

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Unfortunately, the playoff good times came to a screeching halt precisely at the end of Game One. Contests two through five looked a lot more like what the basketball intelligentsia expected coming into the series, with the Bucks taking each of these games by a double-figure margin. The David versus Goliath strategy is a great one right up until the point where the little guy runs out of stones to sling.

Revisiting the analysis of these final four games is an exercise in broken records. The Magic were undone in each contest largely by the same recurring set of factors, unable to find the adjustment needed to turn the tide. Games regularly featured extended sequences of carelessness, with a series of turnovers proving costly as the scoreboard stagnated. The team’s collective three point shooting paucity made it even more difficult for them to keep in touch with the Bucks, as did the manner in which the Magic surrendered the painted area on defense. Giannis largely spent the series doing his best Shaq impersonation, wreaking havoc in the lane and seemingly finishing with thunderous dunk after thunderous dunk. It was a series that soon became stuck in a locked groove.

In the series Orlando were undermanned and outmatched, realistically exceeding the expectations most had for the side simply by stealing Game One. And, to the team’s credit, there was significantly more resilience and fightback evident in them this year than last. However, it’s only a moral victory that all would undoubtedly trade in for some more of the real ones. The aim next year must be to capture more than just one bottle’s worth of lightning.

Winner: Relevancy

NBA All-Star Saturday Night Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

For a number of franchises this would seem like a trivial thing, but it’s worth recognizing that your Orlando Magic have been playoff participants for two consecutive years now. Considering the depths plumbed during the protracted post-Dwightmare rebuild, it’s an accomplishment worth taking some pleasure from. Let the optimism build.

In fact, if you’re reading this now it’s likely that you’ve already noticed a boost in positivity related to the Magic. It’s something that can be seen in the on-court product itself, in the tenor of reporting and analysis from media outlets, and even in the dialogue and debate to be found here within our own community at OPP. As always, thank you for your contributions!

With the reflection and evaluation process at a close we’ve got ourselves a tied ball game, with seven Ws lined up alongside the seven Ls accrued. That sort of .500 record is suitably appropriate for the 2020 Orlando Magic, a team that was largely competent but that failed to scale any great heights and, in so doing, ended the season basically how they started it: as a fringe Eastern Conference playoff participant. It’s a balance of good and bad that the team will be hoping to tilt in a substantially more fruitful direction in the years to come. Let’s hope they do.