2023 figures to be an integral year for the growth of this current Orlando Magic outfit.
Soon the team will pass the two-year anniversary of the trade deadline flurry that signaled the end of the previous rebuild, a ‘blow it up!’ fire sale that shipped out the old ‘Vooch / AG / Fournier’ core and essentially re-established ground zero. In undertaking a hard reset at that time the front office committed to a new direction for the Magic, one that really had a window of a few years in which to achieve phase one – the laying of a solid foundation – if the overall plan were to succeed.
That window? Well, thanks to dashes of both good work and good luck, the Magic have actually started to inch it shut already. Orlando’s decision-makers have done an admirable job of securing young talent in the formative stages of the rebuild, with a decent chunk of a high-ceiling core already in place. However, that success is what now puts them on the clock. Moving forward the challenge will no longer simply be asset accumulation, but instead to sufficiently add to what they have built in a way that raises the roster’s overall talent level and elevates the team’s potential. This will also need to be achieved while navigating the looming deadline that rookie extensions can impose on a side’s salary cap situation and future acquisition flexibility.
As such, it is essential that in the next twelve months Orlando’s front office has the team positioned to leave behind the rebuild and to begin the process of meaningfully chasing wins.
The Magic won 20 games last season. This time round they’re on pace for about 30, a figure which will still leave the team short of the play-in tournament. Even generously factoring in relatively linear improvement for the youngsters on the roster, what might the ceiling be for this particular configuration of players should they stick together moving forward? Would there be any future in which the team is a legitimate contender? Almost certainly not.
It would be errant to think that the Magic will continue with the roster as currently constituted. Each season brings with it natural turnover, and usually a good deal more than Orlando experienced this offseason just gone. However, the team is about to face a very real crunch, with decisions required as to who will stay and who will go – not to mention who will be added in the years to come. With a finite number of spots available and the Magic still some ways from where they need to be in terms of talent, consolidation is a necessity.
Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are the obvious foundational pieces, a pair of plus-sized playmakers on the wing that provide all manner of offensive firepower at that end of the court. Wendell Carter Jr. is a solid starter alongside the duo, dependable on defense and a scoring sidekick capable of doing a little more when the moment calls for it. Bol Bol and Jalen Suggs are both suitably intriguing – albeit in very different ways! – that they can be penciled in as components of the team moving forward, even if the final role of each is still to be determined.
Realistically, that’s about where the roster certainty stops for the Magic. Markelle Fultz has a knack of being on the court during wins, but is he the optimum backcourt fit alongside Paolo and Franz? Cole Anthony’s recent stretch as a sixth man has been promising, but is he going to be happy in that role long term? Can Chuma Okeke get healthy and establish himself as the two-way connector his potential promises? Will Jonathan Isaac’s body allow him to ever again be a legitimate NBA player?
Elsewhere, there already appears to be some writing on the wall regarding Mo Bamba and RJ Hampton, while Terrence Ross, Gary Harris and Moe Wagner are ultimately fungible veteran pieces. There’s a chance that one of this collection sticks with the team through its next iteration, but the nature of roster churn makes anything more than that unlikely.
If the plan is to be a legitimately good basketball team, the Magic need to add more top-shelf talent. The 2023 Draft will provide the front office with a shot (or two) at precisely that, but it’s also going to be necessary to turn to the trade and free agency markets in search of another big banana to add to the bunch. Consolidating some of the current assets for a legitimate difference-maker would also help to declutter the rotation in a way that makes sense moving forward. Think of the difference it would make if you could add a top 50 level player to this team – one on a similar timeline to Banchero and Wagner, of course.
With a number of conveniently-sized contracts and plenty of draft capital Orlando should be able to get in on any potential trade negotiations that emerge and appeal. The favorable nature of some of the deals currently on the books – Isaac, Harris, Bamba and Fultz, specifically – also ensures that the team will have basically as much flexibility in the coming free agency period as they desire.
Each of these avenues – the Draft, free agency, and the trade market – represents an (admittedly nebulous) chance to improve this team. The job of the front office will be to identify how to best navigate each and, most importantly, to pounce when the right opportunity reveals itself.
The Magic are certainly trending in the right direction. They appear, in many ways, to have successfully navigated the first phase of this current rebuild over the last twenty-four months. High-ceiling young talent? Check. Good vibes and evidence of improvement? Check. The absence of cap-crippling contracts? Check again, all of which serves to highlight the juncture at which the team finds itself in 2023.
If we hit this point next year and Orlando’s path forward is still uncertain, if the team is still mired in a mid-lottery-bound quagmire, there’s a real risk that the rebuild stalls out. Roster evaluation and rotation experimentation can’t continue in perpetuity. The Magic need to be focused on meaningful in-game reps for their identified core, motivated by an acknowledged intention by the franchise to win games. The front office must make the moves that can bring this reality to fruition.
The immense promise of Paolo and Franz – and the sketched outline of a roster around them – means that Orlando’s rebuild has the necessary foundation in place. It also means that the team is now on the clock in terms of phase two: elevation to the league’s middle class with the possibility of further growth still to come.
2023 is the year that the Orlando Magic must move on from the rebuild.