Already a date that many will remember for all the wrong reasons, January 6 took on an even darker pall for fans of the Magic only minutes into their contest against the Cavaliers.
With 7:37 still to play in the first quarter Orlando’s young point guard, Markelle Fultz, spotted a gap in the heart of the Cleveland defense. With Andre Drummond staying attached to the threat of Nikola Vucevic on the perimeter, it meant that the painted area was basically empty. Fultz recognized this and at the 7:36 mark accelerated into the lane, taking a slight bump at the free-throw line from his direct opponent, a furiously sliding Isaac Okoro. This nudge was enough to shift the ball handler’s body weight, adding his own mass to the momentum already generated by his movement left. At 7:35, ‘Kelle planted his left foot hard with an eye towards euro-stepping back to his right and under Okoro’s leaping shot block attempt. Devastatingly, the knee buckled, Fultz crumpled, and a fanbase found themselves collectively lost for words.
Two seconds. That’s how long it took for the complexion of the Magic’s 2020/21 season to change irrevocably, a moment of time played out across about 20 feet of hardwood. A sequence indistinguishable from so many that occur in this league on a nightly basis as to be entirely unremarkable. Except, of course, for the outcome; an utterly dispiriting conclusion to a routine play, the consequences of which will hauntingly echo for some time for both player and franchise alike.
The long term impact
The only place to start with a consideration of the impact of this injury is with the player at the heart of the tragic circumstance. Fultz has already dealt with more than his fair share of challenges in his relatively short career to date, and the reality of an ACL tear that will likely require at least 12 months of rehabilitation is yet another cruel roadblock he must work to overcome.
The good news for Fultz is that an ACL injury is hardly a career-killer, particularly for someone as young as he is. There’s no reason that he won’t eventually return to 100% of his physical capacity, and we know that he’ll be receiving the best care and attention to facilitate this. He’s also already proven himself capable of overcoming long odds, with a much greater level of understanding and support likely to be experienced in regards to this sort of understood injury.
Instead, the biggest concern for Fultz is the impact that this injury blow will have on his development curve. After proving last year, in what was ostensibly a rookie-like campaign, that he undoubtedly belongs in this league, he was already showing signs this season of improved play that suggested he was on his way into developing into a solid starter in the league. He was passing the eye test.
Through seven games Fultz’s shooting was an obvious concern, both in terms of jump shots and finishing around the hoop, but his general court vision and ability to quarterback a team were traits that had evidently developed. He was much better at controlling the tempo of any given possession; he was one of the team’s most frequent and incisive visitors to the painted area; he was simultaneously distributing the ball more effectively than last season while also committing less turnovers; and he was the key to the team’s new-found love of pace and transition. In many ways he was a barometer of Orlando’s success - when his game was singing, so too were the Magic.
Lost now in the wake of this injury is the chance to build on a solid start and develop the consistency needed for the mercurial guard to genuinely establish himself among the above-average names at his position. Instead, when he returns in 2022, Fultz will be back at what feels like square one, working on his shooting stroke and rediscovering the rhythm of NBA games. Selfishly, it’s also a chance lost to the Magic to turn their three year, $50 million extension gamble into a below-market value win; the prospect of Fultz wildly outperforming that size of investment has now been significantly shrunk.
The injured elephant in the room that we haven’t addressed yet is the hauntingly similar injury that has already sidelined Orlando’s other perceived young foundational piece, forward Jonathan Isaac. Alongside Fultz, this pair of talented youngsters were envisioned to be the duo that would one day help lead the Magic back to a state of genuine contention, a projection which would cruelly seem so far from reality at this current moment as to be an impossibility. Orlando now has somewhere in the vicinity of $130 million tied up in these two moving forward, a number that already carried some known risk that has since been only further amplified.
Fultz is just 22. Isaac only 23. Both players will make a full physical recovery, and there’s every chance they still reach their development ceilings. Whether that happens on a timeline that maximizes the possibility of the Magic making the leap to genuine contention, however, is now sadly more uncertain than ever.
The immediate aftermath
There is a more immediate impact to Fultz’s terrible news than hand-wringing over the state of the franchise in the years to come. Specifically, what happens to the team when they next step onto the court against the Rockets on Friday and then over the next 64 games? The Magic have raced to a 6-2 record against an admittedly soft early slate, racking up the equal second-best win percentage in the league to date. Fultz was playing more than 30 minutes each night for a winning basketball side. What happens now?
The first piece of the puzzle is the new starting point guard, who is almost certainly going to be Cole Anthony. Although Head coach Steve Clifford resisted the urge to start the rookie alongside Fultz when Evan Fournier missed time, that was a decision made because it would have required Anthony to step outside of the role he has been playing on the team to this point. Now? The Magic need him to make a much greater contribution.
Anthony is possessed of many skills that theoretically should help him replicate Fultz’s offensive output. He has a reputation as a scoring threat, and his speed on the court should also assist the team in maintaining the quicker pace that his injured teammate has helped to establish. Anthony is already an excellent rebounder for his size, a fact that theoretically could allow him to hunt out quick-strike transition opportunities in much the same way as Fultz has been doing. He’s not possessed of the same natural play-making instinct, as his significantly lower assist percentage demonstrates (23.9% compared to 30.7%), but the relative care with which he has protected the ball (a minuscule turnover rate of just 7.6%) should help balance that somewhat.
Despite looking a more dynamic scoring threat, Anthony has actually been a worse shooter than Fultz from basically every spot on the floor this season, with only the mid to long-range areas inside the arc providing him a greater rate of conversion than his teammate. However, he does have a significantly higher free throw rate, drawing a trip to the charity stripe on almost one out of every three shooting possessions. As such, there’s a path towards offensive consistency for the dynamic backcourt player, who has already demonstrated a capacity to avoid glaring mistakes and overwhelming stretches. When his shot eventually starts to fall with greater frequency his box score impact will look more healthy.
Defense would seem to be an area of genuine concern, if only because of the growing pains that rookies traditionally experience at this end of the court. Those struggles will almost certainly be amplified for Anthony moving forward, who will now be asked to guard top line opposition instead of the reserves he was largely battling previously. Running counter to that, however, is the fact that he’ll be backed by a composed veteran core with a recent record of effectiveness, as well as his own individual instincts and traits. Don’t sleep on the fact that he’s already flashed the ability to use his body in an impactful manner — evidenced in a selection of effectively drawn charges — as well as good timing on blocked shots and challenges. The sledding is about to get tougher, but he’s got some raw skills that should help in that endeavor.
It’s undoubtedly a daunting request of a rookie just eight games into his professional career. There’s a genuine risk of ‘too much, too soon’, as well as an argument that this could set back the more gentle development curve that Clifford had previously outlined for his rookie. However, adversity can also serve to strengthen, and it’s this that the Magic will be hoping happens assuming they can get the strategies and support right around Anthony.
It’s also probably fair to expect the playmaking duties to be split a little more evenly with other players already in the rotation. Aaron Gordon experienced his best stretch of last season when empowered as a passer and playmaker in read and react sequences later in the season. It’s almost a certainty that the team will ask something similar of him given this latest development; it’s a look the side already used in the second half of last night’s contest. Evan Fournier is also likely to increase the number of possessions he enjoys as the lead ball handler, with a steady diet of 2-5 side pick and rolls alongside Vucevic guaranteed to resurface once he’s back on the court. The Magic have experienced some success with both of these strategies in recent times, so it’s not asking a great deal of the players to return to these familiar rhythms.
There are also other players on the roster who will assume greater responsibility. Michael Carter-Williams, himself currently out of the rotation with a minor injury, is capable of running the point even if his recent play has moved more to the wings. Jordan Bone figures to see short bursts as the backup point guard, with quick four and five minute spells for the incumbent to catch their breath. There’s also a possibility that the team adds an extra player to the roster to address the depth concerns, although the options available at this stage of the season won’t be setting any hearts aflutter. Importing a difference-maker would seem to be long odds.
Orlando isn’t going to be able to seamlessly replace Fultz, whose absence from the lineup threatens to stretch an already thin roster until it snaps. However, with some measure of good fortune — related to both health and performance — there exists already among the available options the possibility of doing enough to apply a temporary bandage.
The tough decisions
Beyond the long term concerns over Fultz’s development and the immediate necessity of rotation and gameplay alterations, there’s something to be asked about how this positions the franchise moving forward relative to their other assets. It’s one that we’ll dive into in greater depth in the days and weeks to come, but for now it’s enough to simply pose the question: should the Magic be in the business of trying to win basketball games? Or is it time to blow things up?
Coming into the season the majority view already was that this was a team, as currently constructed, with a limited performance ceiling. The Magic had served as first round roadkill in consecutive postseasons, and with a roster that returned the vast majority of minutes from 2019/20, it was unclear how they would be significantly better. It also wasn’t clear how they were positioned to significantly improve in the seasons still to come.
Between this expected ceiling and the looming threat of free agency for a key cog like Evan Fournier, it seemed almost inevitable that eventually Orlando would enter the trade market. The decision makers appeared to be happy taking their time in making any decision, though, perhaps with an eye towards letting a decent chunk of the season play out to see how close this team was to the playoff race. Not everyone has the stomach for another rebuild so soon after the painful and interminable process that played out after Dwight left town; maybe it was better to spend one more year in the middle and on the fringes as opposed to racing to the bottom.
As it stands, the Magic are right in the thick of the current standings. Whether they remain there, with a horrific stretch looming and the injury crisis worsening, isn’t as certain. As such, the next couple of weeks figure to reveal plenty about the potential for this team over the season’s final 64 games. If they can stay afloat during a period of extreme difficulty maybe the feeling is they ride it out with moves at the deadline only aimed at recouping value for soon to be lost assets. If they sink like a stone, perhaps a more complete teardown — one that says goodbye to at least two-thirds of the current triumvirate core — becomes the means through which the team positions itself for future success on a timeline relative to their two injured pillars.
Wednesday night’s injury to Markelle Fultz was a devastating blow, one that leaves the player, team and fans alike with heavy hearts. Although disheartening now, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that when he does eventually rejoin the team he will be doing so at full health and in a position to successfully pick up right where he left off. What the team looks like when he returns, however, is now a matter of much uncertainty.