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Winners and Losers, Part II: Orlando Magic injury clouds and silver linings

Although injuries rocked the Magic in 2021, a pair of late season peaks at least hint at some good to come

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s time for Round Two! Previously we pondered some of the big picture predicaments that emerged for the Magic across the 2020/21 campaign, noting the decline of short term expectations that accompanied the side’s radical long term realignment. Join me first here and then later in the comments as we continue to unpack the season that just was in Orlando.

Loser: Jonathan Isaac’s and Markelle Fultz’s lost seasons

Chicago Bulls v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Even amidst all the uninspiring eventualities — the broken playoff streak; the trading of another All-star center; the admission of a failed rebuild — it’s difficult to imagine a blacker mark against Orlando’s season than the injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. They’re a pair of circumstances both harmful in the present and potentially devastating in the years to come.

Isaac and Fultz have both already lost much of their young professional careers to date to the grim reality of injury. Taken in the upper echelon of the 2017 draft class, the pair have combined to play in just 249 of a possible 636 games, a rate that sits a shade below the 40% mark. No team is in a position to succeed when two of its expected pillars suit up less than half of the time.

Another unfortunate element of these devastating setbacks is the timing. Wiping out the fourth and final year of the duo’s rookie contracts is a nightmare on two fronts. Firstly, both JI and ‘Kelle have lost the developmental opportunities that come with the increased roles and responsibilities of a fourth year player. If it’s going to happen, this is usually the point in a career when the promise of potential takes shape in a more distinct form, when a clearer view of what the player might become in their prime is made apparent. Instead, Isaac and Fultz largely remain enigmas.

From a second perspective — the franchise’s — the dual injuries in Year Four reflect another awkward reality: Orlando is about to start paying premium dollars to a pair of freshly extended players afflicted with a significantly reduced threshold of certainty. While it’s true that there are no sure bets in the world of professional sports, Isaac and Fultz should now, unfairly and unfortunately, be considered pretty long odds to ever reach their respective ceilings. That they’re about to start combining for more than 30% of the team’s salary cap carries some cause for concern.

Having fallen to a torn ACL way back in the bubble, the expectation is that Isaac should be ready to go during the early stages of the 2021/22 season once it rolls around. Considering his history, however, it would be fair to expect the team to take a seriously conservative route with his latest comeback. The Magic will already be incentivized to win as infrequently as possible; exhibiting caution with the jewel of their most recent lottery forays plays further into that.

Fultz is a different story. This season’s late start combined with the fact that he didn’t succumb to his own ACL horrors until the eighth game of the campaign means that the chances of seeing the unique point guard back on the floor in 2021/22 are pretty slim. Orlando figures to be way out of contention at even the earliest point at which he could conceivably be cleared to resume playing, almost ensuring that he’ll sit out the entirety of his fifth year and instead focus on coming back at something resembling 100% the season after.

It’s possible to use some convoluted mental gymnastics to position these injuries as a silver lining for the Magic franchise. They combined to force the team to reckon with the extremely limited ceiling of their current reality, finally triggering a rebuild that was both necessary and inevitable. However, that sort of contortion uncomfortably glosses over the fact that injuries like these — especially when they’re being added to a pair of health histories that already evoke serious concern — have the capacity to derail the careers of the players and the fates of franchises attached to them.

Isaac and Fultz both lost a chance to take the next step in 2021. Let’s hope that the trajectories of both the players and the team can get back on course smoothly in the years to come.

Loser: Health in general

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

We’ve obviously already covered the grim reality of the extended absences recorded by Isaac and Fultz, but those were hardly the last bites of the injury bug that the Magic suffered in 2021. When the dust of the season settled the Magic had just two players suit up in every contest on their individual schedule this season — Dwayne Bacon, who featured in all 72, and Nikola Vucevic, who played each of the 44 before his trade deadline departure. No one else on the roster enjoyed a similarly charmed run.

Due to a variety of ailments Aaron Gordon was sidelined for a total of 19 games. Evan Fournier missed 18 of his own. Al-Farouq Aminu managed just 17 in his return from surgery, racking up less than five minutes total across the season’s first 28 contests. Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba both missed 26 apiece. Cole Anthony was knocked out of 25. Okeke was less lucky than the lot of them, with 27 games spent in street clothes.

We’re not done with the difficulties just yet. Michael Carter-Williams was on the shelf 41 times, with James Ennis joining him on 31 occasions. Otto Porter Jr. barely played once he arrived in Orlando, while Wendell Carter Jr. missed 5 games of his own down the stretch. Add it all up and it’s … a lot. More than any other team in the league, in fact, and by a sizable margin.

(A quick aside: although the Magic did lead the league in games lost to injury, their absences weren’t the most impactful. Valued by the metric of win shares, the cumulative total of Orlando’s injuries actually cost them less than the vast majority of teams. The quality of sidelined players simply wasn’t the same when compared to, for example, the likes of Brooklyn, Atlanta, Toronto or the Lakers.)

The final tally of 422 man games lost is a little inflated as a result of the late season tank job, but even accounting for that it’s easy to see why the Magic’s season fell apart at the seams. The team couldn’t keep its most important players on the floor, forcing a reliance on players with greater limitations. The constant adjustments also resulted in a lower level of on-court cohesion, with players often having to assume unfamiliar roles in lineups lacking in consistency. The result was a predictable backwards step.

Winner: Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton, opportunists

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Although the injuries undoubtedly left a sour taste, there was at least a hint of sweetness detected amidst the developments that emerged from the collective wreckage of poor health and rebuilding. Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton, the Magic’s pair of first round rookie guards, flashed promising signs of development late in the season, seizing the opportunities that presented themselves as teammates unfortunately fell by the wayside.

Anthony ended up starting 34 games for the stretched-thin Magic, largely improving his output month over month as his responsibilities increased. He shouldered a greater scoring load, lifting his field goal, three-point and true shooting percentages on his way to 16.3 points per game in May. He nudged his assist numbers up to 5.3 per contest in April while also protecting the ball at the best monthly rate of his rookie campaign (just 1.7 giveaways each night). He also continued to seek out and convert some of the team’s most important shots during this stretch, frequently calling for the ball in crunch moments and adding a second game-winner to his brief resume. The biggest blemish is undoubtedly the poor plus/minus figures that plummeted off a cliff after the season’s opening month, but considering the Magic’s tank-heavy context they’re numbers that can be forgiven.

Hampton, surprisingly, experienced a similar story. He started slowly in Orlando after barely playing in Denver, but by the end of the season he was posting some impressive numbers in featured minutes. The speedster guard averaged 16.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists across 8 contests in May, pushing his accuracy from the field up to 45.7% in the process. This was buoyed in large part by a rejuvenated three-point stroke — 43.5% of his almost 3 long range attempts each night rattled home — and an almost doubled free throw rate. Did I mention that he also had just 12 total turnovers during this same stretch? It was a hell of a closing run!

Perhaps most impressively, Hampton compiled one of the best net ratings on the team during this stretch. In the more than 30 minutes he spent on the court each night in May the team was only outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions; it might seem absurd to be celebrating a number like this, but one needs to keep in mind the horrifying fact that the Magic lost their last seven games by a truly ghastly average of 21.2 points per contest. By way of comparison, Hampton’s numbers were more than 24 points better than those posted by Dwayne Bacon during the same stretch.

There are still some valid concerns about the effectiveness of a theoretical backcourt rotation that features Anthony, Hampton and Fultz as three of the central cogs. Regardless, the Magic would have to be thrilled by the early returns they’re seeing on the pair of rookie guards that emerged from the back half of the NBA draft’s most recent first round. Amidst a tough season defined by re-calibration their emergence stands out as a genuine victory.

And with that we bring to a close the second installment in this ongoing process of evaluation. Join us back here in the days to come for one final round of season review, in which we’ll dig deeper into the cases of a handful of specific players. Until then, I’ll see you in the comments.