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Winners and Losers: 2021 Orlando Magic Edition, Part I

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

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

As it currently stands, the Magic are back in a recognizable place. The rebuild that we knew is dead; long live the latest rebuild. On one hand, the haunting familiarity of a mountain of losses. On the other, the alluring promise of better times to (eventually) come. A season that started with playoff intent was soon radically realigned, a race to the bottom just the first step towards a more meaningful future. As we did at this time last year, let’s take a moment to figure out Orlando’s winners and losers for 2021, free from the actual standings and unmoored from singular results. Who (or what) stood out and shone? Who (or what) crashed and burned? Let’s go!

Winner: The ‘blow it up!’ contingent

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Well, there’s certainly one way in which Orlando’s season can be considered to have gone off with a bang. Despite the mild success of the last couple of seasons, a suffocating sense of stagnation had settled over the roster. It was difficult to see how the team as constituted would ever rise above the deep fringes of the playoff race, with a veteran core already largely at their ceiling and a clogged salary cap inhibiting major additions.

The solution: blow it up!

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Magic’s decision makers made the call to smash the reset button, jettisoning almost every major veteran presence on the roster for a haul of distressed young assets, draft capital, and the chance at a genuine do-over.

Out went Nikola Vucevic, the undisputed face of the franchise over the last seven years, and easily it’s greatest success story during that same period. Out went Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, two of the team’s highest usage players and the other part of the triumvirate around which the team had revolved for a half-decade. Out went Khem Birch and Al-Farouq Aminu, a pair of trusted veterans with guaranteed roles in the rotation.

In their place: Wendell Carter Jr., a young center desperate to escape the Chicago doghouse (and who was taken, interestingly, with the pick immediately after Mo Bamba in 2018). A version of Gary Harris seemingly long removed from his previous peaks. RJ Hampton, a raw rookie who often closely resembles mercury when on the court. Otto Porter Jr., injured and forgotten. A trove of picks of varying value. Opportunity.

It’s that final point that might be the most important element in all of this. Trapped on a treadmill of mediocrity, the Magic were going nowhere at a depressingly slow speed. It wasn’t clear where a sizable injection of talent might be coming from, with little chance of the draft, free agency or the trade market returning the type of contributor that would vault the existing core to the level of genuine contention. Even if the decision had been made to once more stay the course, turning the ill fortune of injury into some lottery luck and adding an elite rookie to the mix, would that have done anything to untangle the competing timelines already constricting the side? Would that hypothetical star have gotten much of a look playing alongside the established core? It’s unlikely.

Instead, Jeff Weltman and John Hammond read the less-than-subtle tea leaves and made a move for the future. They may not have torn things down entirely to the studs, but it was pretty close; in opting for a renovation and not a simple redecoration, the Magic are hoping that they can reshape the franchise’s fortunes now that the foundation has been realigned.

Loser: Orlando Magic, playoff participant

Milwaukee Bucks v Orlando Magic Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Only two years removed from snapping what was at the time the third-longest postseason drought, the Magic have once again tethered themselves to the race that heads towards the other end of the standings. Rather than chasing a seed on the fringe of the playoffs the team made the decision to shoot for something greater. It’s just going to be years before we’ll know whether or not the plan is successful.

So how did the Magic seal their fate? The five previously mentioned outgoing players — Vucevic, Fournier, Gordon, Birch and Aminu — combined for 8.4 win shares in their time in pinstripes this season, more than half of the 15 total victories the team had accumulated by the trade deadline. Removing their contributions from the lineup — while replacing them with a quartet who would provide just 1.4 of their own in Orlando — made certain the end of the Magic’s streak of consecutive postseason appearances.

Another way of slicing it can be seen in a consideration of the Value Over Replacement Player model (VORP), a figure that aims to measure the average contribution of points per-100 possessions that a player provides relative to a replacement level peer. Orlando, unsurprisingly, had just five contributors (who played more than 200 minutes on the season) accumulate a positive VORP rating. Of those five, Vucevic (2.9), Fournier (0.6) and Gordon (0.5) were first, second and third. Box plus/minus figures paint an even uglier picture; the aforementioned traded trio were the only Magic regulars to crack a positive result by this metric. No team is crashing the playoff party with such a miniscule number of above average contributors, let alone after trading away the three most significant.

So Orlando turned their back on the playoff race. However, the limited nature of the Magic’s pre-trade roster was such that any reverberations within the NBA community were only really felt in Central Florida. Not many were tipping Orlando to again taste playoff action before the season started anyway, but by the end of February, with the team mired in the midst of a nine-game skid and almost 10 games below .500, the hopes of even the most optimistic holdouts had been extinguished. The team had topped out as first round roadkill, and now injuries and the slowing of internal improvement meant that standings regression was an unavoidable reality.

The short-lived days of the Magic as a playoff participant are over, at least for the near future. At least, although those campaigns never rose to any great heights, we’ll always have the memory of DJ Augustin’s dagger and a reputation as Game One Goliaths.

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Winner: Orlando Magic, lottery lock

2020 NBA Draft Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With playoff expectations in the rear view, it would almost certainly be a mistake to bet on a quick turnaround in Orlando. Head Coach Steve Clifford was clearly of the belief that the road back to relevance is going to be a long one for the Magic, indicating a disinterest in piloting a rebuild of any sort and instead coming to an agreement to part ways with the franchise. He was easily Orlando’s most successful and effective clipboard presence since the Van Gundy era, but he (rightfully) doesn’t have the stomach for the Floridian future he foresees.

Beyond the simple fact that a rebuild of any sort doesn’t align with the job that he was brought on to do, why might Clifford have been so keen to get out of Orlando before the going got grueling? A reasonable guess: his front row seat revealed with painful clarity just how deep the hole is that the Magic now find themselves in.

The jewel of the roster, Jonathan Isaac, is an oft-injured youngster coming off two incredibly serious lower leg setbacks. Markelle Fultz, his recently extended running mate, is himself rehabbing a brutal injury of his own, a torn ACL that could very well keep him out for all of the 2021/22 season. Mo Bamba’s developmental trajectory to this point is haunted by the looming specter of bust potential. Cole Anthony’s destiny may be as a score-first spark plug off the bench. Carter Jr. is an undersized big without the shooting range that the modern game seems to require. Chuma Okeke figures to have a long career as a rotation regular, but All-Star potential is a wild expectation. Hampton is a project. Everyone else is replaceable or forgettable.

Even with a chance at two lottery picks come June 29, it figures to be a long way back for the Magic. On their own a pair of rookies aren’t going to be enough to meaningfully improve either the side’s 29th ranked offense or its 26th placed defense. Free agency will additionally contribute little in this regard, with Orlando possessing restricted salary cap space and a slim likelihood of attracting a genuinely impactful player anyway. Trades are also difficult to construct at the moment, primarily because the Magic have little to offer beyond the draft capital they would never surrender. The side’s avenues for improvement are operating under a reduced speed limit.

What this demonstrates is that there are no quick fixes out there for the Magic to pounce on. Instead, with the initial tear down completed the rebuild itself is only now really underway. The fanbase might be holding out hope for a hasty return to the play-in mix; internally, it would be a shock if the team’s brass is circling any sort of playoff date on a calendar before 2023 at the absolute earliest.

It was only two years ago that the Magic were finally able to break down the door that had for so long kept them on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Now, the team is a certain lock for the lottery, both next year and beyond. Settle in for a long ride.

With an evaluation of the Magic’s radical realignment now behind us, so we arrive at the end of our first installment. I’ll be doling out more Ws and Ls in the days to come, so be sure to check back in so you can check out my thoughts on opportunities both seized and lost, the duality of the Bamba and WCJ experience, Chuma Okeke, and the baffling black hole of Bacon, among others. Until then, I’ll catch you in the comments.