As Jonathan Isaac crumbled to the ground in pain after landing awkwardly on his left knee while driving to the basket on Sunday, Orlando Magic players, coaches, front office staff and fans collectively held their breaths.
Isaac, who had just returned from an injury to the same knee on New Years Day, was helped off the floor by the athletic training staff, and taken straight back to the locker room for further evaluation. With a sudden dark cloud lingering over them, the rest of the Magic cobbled together the final nine minutes of their dominating victory over the Sacramento Kings.
Following the game, the message was clear that everyone was hoping for the best for the third-year man, but also absolutely gutted for him after seeing the amount of work he put in to get back to be able to suit up for the leagues anticipated restart.
“That one brought me to tears instantly just because I know how good of a guy J.I. is, and I know how hard he works and how hard he has worked to get back since hurting himself in D.C,” said Aaron Gordon when asked about Isaac’s injury. “I hope it’s nothing serious. I know when you do come back from injury, and you do feel a twinge or pain, you always think the worst. So, I’m just hoping it’s not as bad as it seems.”
Unfortunately for Isaac, and the Magic, it was the worst case, with the team announcing late Sunday night that Isaac would be out indefinitely with a torn ACL. The news was a crushing blow to the Magic, who notched their fifth straight victory, and moved to 2-0 in the NBA’s bubble against the Kings.
On Monday, Orlando’s president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman met with the media, saying that the team didn’t bring him back too fast from his previous injury.
“Absolutely, unequivocally not brought back too early,” said Weltman. “As a matter of fact, again, those of you guys that follow us locally know that if we’re ever going to be criticized as to the timing of returning our players to play, it’s at the other end of the spectrum. It’s that we’re too cautious, we wait too long, and take too careful an approach. The approach to Jonathan’s injury was no different than any other injury we’ve had in the last three years.
“We were very careful. There were a series of progressions that he had to work through. After each one we visited with [the] performance [staff], with the doctors, with Jonathan’s agent, and with Jonathan himself. We talked about it, how he was feeling, what the numbers were showing, and we’d move on to the next hurdle, and he just kept clearing the hurdles. So, I can unequivocally say that he was not brought back too soon and that he’s followed the same protocol that every one of our injured players has followed since we’ve been here.”
Weltman also went on to add that Isaacs’ injury on Sunday night was not a bi-product of the previous injury Isaac had faced, and that with the landing and subsequent impact, the injury would’ve happened to any player in the league.
Now, with Isaac out of the picture, the Magic are once again searching for some answers in the short-term, and now possibly in the long-term.
As it pertains to this season, the likes of Gary Clark, Wes Iwundu, James Ennis and possibly even Michael Carter-Williams will likely see an increase in minutes. With many teams employing smaller lineups, the Magic can use some of their longer, more versatile wings as small ball fours where Isaac may have normally played.
It will also put more pressure on Aaron Gordon to perform at a high level.
Dating back to the final ten games before the season shut down in March, and picking up Sunday night, Gordon has put together one of his best stretches as a professional, and taken a major step forward as a facilitator. Add in his prowess on the defensive end, and willingness to take on the opposing teams best perimeter player, and Gordon’s role with the team is going to take yet another step forward.
Another thing on the Magic’s side is the fact that they had grown used to playing with Isaac before the league’s unexpected shutdown in March, and were really beginning to find their groove without him.
The shorter-term aside, the injury raises even more questions for the Magic long-term.
Isaac has one-year left on his rookie scale contract, and would be eligible for an extension come the offseason, but with his injury history, now it could be hard for the Magic to lock in long-term money on him. If they did, and he continued to have lower body injuries like he has had, it could lead to another Grant Hill type situation for the franchise.
I think the Magic likely would’ve tried to work out a deal with Issac this fall, but with this latest, and to this point his biggest, injury I’m not so sure. The more likely path now is that the team extends a qualifying offer for him following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, making him a restricted free agent.
We’ve seen how they’ve handled players who have dealt with injuries previously. Gordon hit restricted free agency, after suffering a broken foot his rookie season, and countless other bumps and bruises along the way. Nikola Vucevic, who had problems with concussions before signing his first post-rookie scale deal, took a team friendly 4-year, $48 million deal, albeit under former front office leadership.
Add in the fact that the Magic have Chuma Okeke waiting in the wings to step in after taking a redshirt year in 2020, and the future of Isaac in Orlando could get murkier.
Would the Magic be willing to offer up a ton of money to a guy who has missed the better part of two seasons with ankle and knee injuries? Is Isaac still a guy, along with Markelle Fultz, that you’re going to hitch your wagon to for the long-term, or does Isaac’s growing injury history make you weary of a four or five year commitment?
Injuries are never good, especially when they happen to important, franchise type players, but the Magic are going to have a lot to think about for the future now when it comes to Jonathan Isaac.