The last week of basketball has made abundantly clear the fact that there are a number of problems with the Magic as currently constructed.
At this stage that’s not a controversial take, but simply a statement of fact. There’s no transcendent talent on the roster. The lineup lacks scoring punch. Injuries have undone the season’s greatest hopes. The front office hasn’t hit a home run in the draft. The salary cap circumstances make free agency maneuvering difficult. We could keep going.
The biggest problem of all, however, might be the duality that’s only evident upon close inspection. Casting a critical eye over the team reveals a fissure that cleaves the franchise and its plans for the future clean down the middle.
The Magic are a team torn between two timelines.
Orlando’s roster has been constructed in such a way that two distinct and dueling goals have emerged: win now and win later. But in attempting to navigate two tightropes at the same time the team has tumbled from both.
It’s an assessment that the injuries of this season — capped by last week’s turned ankle that will now sideline Aaron Gordon for a month or more — have emphasized in painful fashion. The Magic aren’t a good team right now.
And, worryingly, it’s not clear that they will be later.
A little from column A, a little from column B
In one corner we have the established triumvirate of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. In a variety of ways they account for basically 50% of the current Orlando basketball experience: combine their individual production and you have about half of the team’s points, rebounds and assists. Combine their salaries and you have $61 of the $128 million the Magic are on the books for this season. Assuming health, at any given moment one can turn on a game and expect for them to account for at least half of the active lineup.
The trio is a known quantity, a core that has been in place for six seasons now. As a collection of talents they lean towards deliberate half-court basketball, largely taking turns to dominate the ball and steer the side’s offense. The recent confluence of their own individual career peaks has allowed the Magic to enjoy two consecutive postseason appearances, albeit as a lower seed dispatched with relative ease by true contenders.
In the other corner we have the alluring promise of potential, headlined by Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz. Much is expected of this triad of high lottery picks, although it is understood that their best is still yet to come. Each has already shown flashes, however, and considering them alongside each other reveals clearly the outline of a functional team that may one day be realized. It’s more than possible for any fan of the team to talk themselves into this future.
So what we’ve currently got are two collections of talent that distinctly sit apart from, and separate to, each other. Veterans versus youth. Fundamentals and experience versus excitement and wingspan. Half court snails versus fast break gazelles. Expensive contracts versus rookie deals. The leftovers of the old regime versus the shiny toys of the new. Win now versus win later.
Dispiritingly, the healthy versus the injured.
The hope would be that these parts could combine to form a greater whole. However, it has fast become apparent that this is not what’s happening in Orlando. Even before the injuries, there was a gulf evident between the two parts of the franchise’s plan. For the Magic to take the next step they need these two distinct sections of the roster to coalesce in a way that complements and strengthens the individual components. But that’s not what’s happening. It never has, and almost certainly never will.
How have we ended up here?
The forest for the trees
The overlapping of skill sets and positional deployment — and the minutes and opportunities that come with these — is where the clashing nature of the opposed timelines is perhaps most pronounced. The jewels of the Hammond/Weltman draft hauls are undoubtedly Isaac and Bamba, who just so happen to aspire to spots in the rotation that are currently locked up by two-thirds of Orlando’s veteran core. Fultz is the key addition from the open market, but when healthy he’s being asked to share the backcourt with a high usage partner used to operating with ball in hand as the team’s crunch time closer.
So at the same time that Gordon, Fournier and Vucevic aren’t talented enough as a combination to propel the Magic to the status of true contenders, so too do they inhibit the chances of the young guys establishing themselves and developing into the stars imagined. Their presence, unfortunately, imposes a ceiling on both the present and the future.
In a perfect world you’d have the established crew eventually cede their starting spots and assume a complementary role, abusing the opposition’s outclassed subs once the young guns prove they’re ready to hold their own as the top dogs. Just imagine - two units capable of comprehensively winning their direct matchups! However, the very presence of the veterans in the first place makes this transition more difficult by denying developmental opportunities, while also indicating no understanding of the human component at the heart of any team. Good luck convincing entrenched talent, possessed of significant usage rates, that the side’s best bet is to have them play less.
As a hypothetical exercise this is relatively pointless anyway, because what’s abundantly clear to any observers of Magic basketball is that none of Isaac, Fultz or Bamba are currently yet ready to anchor a team, even when they’re injury-free and on the court. Unfortunately, they’re not the sort of foundational talent that can assuredly and single-handedly change the fortunes of a franchise. There’s a chance for all three to have very long and very good careers, but nothing is yet certain.
Still, this line of thinking is illuminating as it reveals an inconsistency in the decision-making of Orlando’s front office. When exactly were they planning on moving off of Vooch, AG and the man they call Never Google? How were they going to clear the way for their recent draft picks? Was there an intention to cash the veterans in for other assets that might improve the team’s long term prospects? Both Vucevic and Gordon possess contracts that keep them tied to the Magic even after an extension for their youthful counterpart is required; is there any world where spending something in the ballpark of $40 million for a pair of players that fill the same position is a good idea? What does it say that the team is tracking to have two sets of this same type of mistake on the books at the same time?
The current front office inherited Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier, and in many ways it’s understandable why they’ve stuck with them. They’ve helped to propel the team to a modest level of success for the first time in a long time. Some signed team-friendly deals that decline in the later years. They’re all young enough that a precipitous decline in production probably isn’t imminent. In fact, it’s still possible to talk one’s self into further improvement!
As such, the bets were hedged as Orlando’s decision makers decided to shoot for wins with one chunk of the roster while at the same time looking to the future with another. A plan to both possess the cake and eat it too, even if the very act splinters the timeline into two.
So what happens when calamity strikes a team that failed to decisively commit to one objective?
Hello darkness, my old friend
The recent spate of injuries have laid bare the faults at the heart of this Magic roster. When Isaac went down with his injury it seemed fortunate to have someone like Gordon to pick up the slack. Knowing that the team still had Fournier to rely on in the backcourt softened the blow of Fultz’s injury. And Bamba’s own health struggles didn’t seem a huge deal because the team had Vucevic (and Birch) to turn to.
However, all of those conclusions are reached in the context of trying to win now. With injuries having decimated the roster and torpedoed what was already a tenuous foundation for success, the Magic find themselves in an unenviable position. At 8-14 and sporting the worst differential in the Eastern Conference, it’s clear that they won’t be able to achieve their desired aim of winning basketball games this season. The current timeline is close to petering out.
Most of the moves made by the Magic in recent years have been intended to help the team win now, a fact that only serves to worsen the fallout of this current disaster. By hedging their bets and asking their current and future triumvirates to awkwardly coexist, the team has failed in two ways: firstly, in constructing a playoff-caliber basketball team this season; and secondly, in best positioning the team to succeed in the years to come.
Let’s consider the latter: how was this team maneuvered to be better in five years? Does anyone believe that Gordon’s trade value is at its peak right now? What about the expiring Fournier? Could they move on from Vooch at this point without obliterating team morale? In the long-term is Khem Birch’s development worth the hit to Bamba’s opportunities? Is there any world in which it made sense to add Aminu to the roster? Choices made with the intention of helping the team reach what was already a relatively low ceiling seem so much worse now that the height of those expectations have been forcibly scaled back.
The other angle also raises questions. If the team really did want to climb the ladder in the current day, how did potential-laden but unproven and injury prone youngsters help that equation? Few would ever have seriously advocated for moves like this, but it’s still emblematic of the fact that the Magic were neither in nor out. Were they going for it or building something better?
Unfortunately, injuries have denied Orlando the opportunity to spend this season developing the players who can carry this side into the future. Isaac and Fultz obviously remain in street clothes, while Bamba has been seen only briefly in garbage minutes. It’s going to be hard for a team to take a leap when the players possessed of promise aren’t even playing.
It’s likely that the Magic will lose many games in the weeks and months to come. Hell, there’s even a chance that they finish the season with the league’s worst record. But the fact remains that the decisions made in recent times will hinder those odds to at least some degree. The tank is not yet fully operational, and may never be; an All-star worthy big man flanked by a handful of veterans will almost certainly steal a handful of unexpected wins. Do that too often and the ping-pong balls might not bounce as hoped, even in a world of flattened lottery odds. And why would a team in Orlando’s position want to give themselves anything but the very best chance?
Injury has obviously clouded the future of the Magic franchise. But it’s the indecisiveness of recent times that truly frustrates.
The last week, replete with dispiriting losses and capped by what is just the latest health blow, has taught us that the Magic should have charted a more deliberate course long ago.
Failing to do so has instead brought us to where we uncomfortably stand now: a team both collapsed in the present and facing an uncertain future.
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