When news broke in the waning moments of the trade deadline that the Magic had made a deal, fans initially would have felt a surge of excitement. How had John Hammond, Jeff Weltman and the other decision makers in the front office reshaped the side’s fortunes?
It didn’t take long — about ten minutes and a confirmation tweet after an initial deletion — for that excitement to give way to a sentiment much more recognizable to Magic fans.
No influx of talent was coming. All of the familiar faces would remain in pinstripes. The offense would continue to look much as it had, uninspiring and non-threatening. The next move for a franchise only recently and infinitesimally removed from an interminable and excruciating rebuild would be to simply keep the tires spinning.
Steps forward. Steps back. Motion without progress.
The treadmill of mediocrity.
Orlando made one deal on Thursday afternoon: they sent out a second round pick owed to them by the Lakers and brought in James Ennis, a swingman with some scoring juice who had recently fallen out of the rotation in Philadelphia. It isn’t a bad move; the pick is as close to worthless as one can be, and Ennis is a player with some record of contribution. His averages immediately make him one of the more dangerous shooters on the roster, and he should help solve an injury crisis that has resulted in Khem Birch lining up as a starting power forward. The trade will also likely have the welcome side effect of pushing Aaron Gordon back to the four, the position at which he has generally experienced the most success.
At first blush, it’s a nice move that adds talent to the rotation without requiring the sacrifice of a meaningful asset. Sounds good, right? What’s not to like?
And yet, after it was announced the prevailing mood amongst the fanbase was one of *shoulder shrug emoji*. In some corners that extended all the way along the spectrum to anger.
‘This is it?!’
At this point, it feels like it’s abundantly clear who the Magic are. They’re a strong defensive outfit combined with a borderline incompetent offense, a team with a very limited ceiling but enough veterans and talent to (usually) beat up on the league’s lower class. Last season’s drought-busting stretch run delivered a first round playoff appearance, a great outcome for an organization desperate to claw their way out of the doldrums brought about by the Dwightmare. But even in the moment it was pretty apparent that the roster as constructed wasn’t good enough for meaningful contention, nor did it have the capacity to develop into one.
Consider: To claim 42 wins in 2018/19, Orlando required a career-best, All-Star level campaign from Nikola Vucevic; the most impressive single season of Terrence Ross’ professional life; an unfathomably lucky run of injury-free basketball from their starting unit; and the beneficial rub from teams essentially ‘sitting out’ down the stretch as they instead turned their attention to ping pong balls. What were the chances of catching four bolts of lightning in a bottle again?
The insouciance of fans started fermenting during the offseason. The front office decided to roll it back, banking on stability, internal improvement from players like Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, and the addition of veteran depth free-agent Al-Farouq Aminu to keep the team heading in the right direction. And while some of those hopes panned out — Isaac and Fultz are the two untouchables now on the roster — the rest haven’t provided the necessary returns to counterbalance the dips in performance elsewhere that many saw coming.
Injuries. Poor shooting. A paucity of playmaking. Post pay-day regression.
As a result, the Magic find themselves eight games below .500 and trending in the wrong direction as the mid-season showcase looms. They’re still hovering in the eighth and final playoff spot, but that says more about the state of the Eastern Conference than it does about consolidation of last year’s improved play. As a unit the team has failed to demonstrate meaningful improvement.
It’s for this reason that a lot of fans would have been hoping to see something major go down yesterday. At this point there’s pretty compelling evidence to suggest that Vucevic, Gordon and Evan Fournier are not the foundational pieces that can support a genuinely good basketball team. At the very least, it should be evident that they’re not tenable as a triumvirate moving forward.
In isolation, each theoretically has the potential to be a positive contributor as a starter on an NBA winner. However, the realities of the Magic’s roster and payroll means that’s not going to happen in Orlando. They simply don’t provide $65 million worth of output.
The goodwill generated by last season’s one-and-done playoff appearance has pretty much run dry. Getting the gang back together has only resulted in regression. It’s time to figure out how to either make some major renovations or completely tear the house down.
There is no doubt that franchise-altering trades are hard to execute. Each NBA season really only brings a few at most, so expecting the Magic to completely overhaul their team in the space of 48 hours is somewhat unreasonable. But the lack of decisive moves yesterday seems to demonstrate an uncertainty in direction or an inability to execute. Maybe both. Fournier’s circumstances as a pending free-agent who could be lost for nothing aren’t going to change. AG’s trade value isn’t likely to be higher in the offseason. Vooch and Ross both still possess contracts that are paying for the career year and not the present reality. What’s the plan to get better?
It’s fair for fans to want more. To crave success. To expect their team to chase winning at all costs. Whether those wins are coming now or at some point in the near future, if the direction is clear the fanbase will largely buy in. The Magic took a step towards relevance last season, but what’s pushing the next foot forward?
Last year’s success was only momentary satiation for those desirous of winning basketball, an entree that now demands a second course of greater quality.
Unfortunately for the Magic, what they’re offering has been exposed as rotten at the core.