It’s been an unfortunate storyline for the Magic since day one of training camp: how many players are currently unavailable? From franchise cornerstones and valued veterans who are yet to play, to injuries and illness of both the short and long term variety, it’s been an ordeal for Orlando to field anything even close to a full strength outfit.
Perhaps, however, there’s another less-frequently asked but just as pertinent question to consider: how realistic is it to expect a clean bill of health for this team?
And a related line of inquiry: how do Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz figure into these calculations?
Let’s take a trip through the Magic’s casualty ward as we consider what injury and illness might mean for the rest of the season.
The ability that is ‘availability’
A fact that is, at this stage, painfully known by fans of the pinstripes, is that Orlando boasts a roster decimated by injury and illness, both short and frustratingly long term. The team has had to use 19 players across the season’s first 39 games, a number that already exceeds the pre-trade deadline figures from last year and that also doesn’t yet account for Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Michael Carter-Williams and E’Twaun Moore, all of whom should return at some point. Where the final tally eventually lands is anyone’s guess!
Somehow, Franz Wagner is the only player to have laced up his sneakers for every contest. Literally everyone else who began the season on the active roster has missed time, ranging from the worryingly significant (Jalen Suggs’ fractured thumb) to the thankfully minor (Wendell Carter Jr.’s knee injury). This has resulted in a fragmented rotation, with the Magic only logging two five-man units who have shared the court for more than 65 minutes – to provide some perspective, that’s a mark that approximately represents just 3.4% of Orlando’s total minutes pool this season. If the players feel like they’re seeing different faces almost every time they step on the court, it’s because they probably are.
It’s often said that what’s behind us is history, but it’s also true that the past can be prologue. Whether we’re attributing it to bad luck or injury-prone likelihood, many of the players on the Magic’s roster have made missing time a habit in recent memory. Of the current crop, the following players saw significant absence across the 2020/21 season: Isaac (82 games missed), Fultz (64), Carter-Williams (41), Harris (33), Okeke (27), Ross (26), Bamba (26), Anthony (24), and Carter Jr. (18). In 2019/20 injuries claimed Isaac (39), Carter-Williams (28), Carter Jr. (22), Harris (17), and Bamba (10). In 2018/19 there was Fultz (63), Carter Jr. (38), Bamba (35), and Harris (25) on the sidelines. As currently constituted, the Magic rotation is filled with players who, for whatever reason, have experienced difficulty getting on the hardwood.
That’s nine players who, if healthy, figure to be a part of Orlando’s preferred rotation. However, it feels fair to wonder if it’s a combination that we’ll ever actually see at something even approximating full strength. Remember, they’ve combined to miss 618 total games in the three campaigns preceding this one – and all of them have missed time already this season! Expecting this particular roster to ever have all of its key cogs available – particularly in times as chaotic as these! – seems to fall somewhere between ‘unerringly optimistic’ and ‘willfully naive’.
At the very least, don’t expect the rate of absence to slow down in the back half of this season. With the notion of a play-in wildcard slot long gone, the team will be incentivized to rest and manage players in a way that maximizes lottery odds. Expect further caution when it comes to rehabilitation and treatment, plenty of mystery ailments to arise on the injury report, and the continued cycling of players from outside the main roster.
Some final, connected thoughts looming over the evaluation and projection of team performance are the statuses of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Both have been absent from basketball for quite some time now, with the latter notching up, as of today, a full calendar year missed and the former not that far away from two. They’re two of the more experienced faces on the Magic’s roster, with a greater track record (to this point) of meaningful contributions than most currently donning the pinstripes. In a world of perfect health they’d have plenty to say about the team’s win/loss record.
The pair also happen to account for two of Orlando’s three highest salaries this season, and at this stage they’re slated to be the best remunerated on the roster into the foreseeable future. As such, their combined absences are all the more pronounced in terms of the impact on the team’s chance of winning. As a duo Isaac and Fultz are being paid about 30% of the team’s salary cap, a value that they frustratingly – for both player and team – haven’t been able to provide. In the earliest stages of a major rebuild the Magic are already competing at a number of disadvantages – talent, coaching, cohesion. That two of the biggest puzzle pieces are missing just makes finding a winning equation all the more difficult.
The most essential question that continues to linger when thinking about Isaac and Fultz is a simple one: when will they be back? Before we can even begin to consider what they might one day grow into as players and how they fit with the newly aligned roster, we have to know when they’ll return to basketball duties.
Thankfully, for Fultz it appears that the answer is ‘sooner rather than later, health and safety protocols notwithstanding’; the point guard is working out, practicing in Lakeland, joining the team for training sessions, and openly talking about being back on the court in the near future. The front office continues to remain incredibly cautious with the management of their young charge, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Fultz suit up before the end of January.
The status of Isaac, however, is a far different story. The rangy forward hasn’t played in almost twenty-four months at this point, and there has been basically zero information from the team about a return or even the state of his rehabilitation. In late November Jeff Weltman addressed the media, but provided little in way of detail let alone timelines for a return; instead, he just stressed the team’s commitment to handling it the “right way”.
Precisely what that entails remains unclear. It’s been an incredibly long stint on the sidelines considering the nature of Isaac’s initial injury, even for a player with a history of lower-leg problems. Naturally the extended absence has led some to speculate about setbacks and complications, but with no firm information to go on any such conversation is pure conjecture. There’s also a lingering thought for many that extreme caution actually benefits the rebuild in its current state, where winning in the present has little value for the future. Why rush someone back in the back half of a lost season when they might inadvertently reduce the lottery odds?
An indisputable fact is that the Magic project to be a better basketball team once either one or both of Isaac and Fultz are back in the lineup. Much less certain though is whether that will actually happen before the end of this current season. One might also wonder how significantly they’ll actually impact winning upon their return as they battle both the expected in-game rust and inevitable minutes restrictions.
Regardless of how this plays out over the next couple of months, it’s unlikely that Isaac and Fultz will do much to shift the Magic’s fortunes across the remainder of this season. Instead, any appearances will be about building for the future, ensuring that the pair are ready to come back and contribute at something as close to full strength as possible in the campaigns to come.
At that stage, the question will shift again: once they’ve found their way back onto the court, can this pair of players prove they’re capable of actually staying there?
In Orlando, the answer to that question is seemingly never certain.