The Orlando Magic finally tasted success for the first time since Dwight Howard’s exit, making the playoffs last season behind first-year coach Steve Clifford. But where Orlando is likeliest to go from there is a matter of debate as training camp dawns.
Here’s what to know about, watch for, and expect from the Magic in 2019-20.
The Magic will enjoy more continuity this season than any other team in basketball. They return all nine players who appeared in every game of the first round against the Toronto Raptors, while last year’s No. 5 overall draft pick, Mo Bamba, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz are the only players poised to break into Clifford’s existing rotation. Considering those realities and even gradual improvement from several key young players, Orlando should be better this season.
But the same deficiencies that prevented the Magic from rising any higher than seventh in the Eastern Conference last season still exist, too.
D.J. Augustin is back to start at point guard after a surprise career-best season at 30. He’ll be backed up by Michael Carter-Williams, still a complete liability outside the paint offensively, and Fultz will surely be given every chance to earn playing time on the ball, too.
A backcourt of he and Augustin would work in theory given the latter’s prowess as a spot-up shooter, but don’t expect Fultz to share the floor with Carter-Williams. Most of his minutes will likely come beside Evan Fournier, entrenched as a starter despite a quietly troubling 2018-19 campaign.
The Magic gave Terrence Ross a four-year, $54 million deal this summer that makes him one of the highest-paid reserves in basketball. He was awesome on offense last season, especially given context of a team that needs all the shot-making, and taking, it can possibly muster. Wes Iwundu is a strong defender and made strides from deep as a sophomore, but for now is best suited for the smaller role he’ll play off the bench.
Most vexing about Orlando’s roster is its saturation of big wings who would ideally play power forward. Aaron Gordon, still this team’s best hope for another All-Star, is the likeliest among them to spend most of his minutes out of position at small forward.
Jonathan Isaac is hugely important to the Magic’s hopes of ultimately emerging as a title contender, but the presence of free-agent signee Al-Farouq Aminu – who wasn’t signed to a three-year, $30 million contract to ride the bench – will cut into his playing time.
Orlando drafted Auburn’s Chuma Okeke, another athletic forward with merely nascent perimeter skills, midway through the first round, but he won’t play this season as he recovers from an ACL tear.
The Magic’s surplus of power forwards would be more easily addressed if they could shift Isaac or even Aminu to small-ball center for certain stretches, an option that’s not there after the team fully committed to Nikola Vucevic following a breakout All-Star season.
Bamba is arguably Orlando’s most significant developmental piece, while the underrated Khem Birch will undoubtedly force his way onto the floor, too.
Orlando was always bound to get better this season, and the Eastern Conference is weaker now than it was a year ago.
The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are hardly guaranteed top-four seeds in the playoffs again, while the Indiana Pacers are largely unknown even before accounting for Victor Oladipo’s midseason return.
The Magic, it seems, expect to be fighting with those teams, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Miami Heat for home-court advantage in the first round below the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
Any regression would be a major disappointment, and call into question the front office’s decision of maintaining the status quo.
10/28 at Toronto Raptors – The Magic looked at their five-game loss to the Raptors in last year’s playoff glass half full, gleaning a lot of optimism from a stunning Game 1 win that the series’ remainder proved was an aberration. Needless to say, they would love nothing more than to get some revenge on the defending champions early in the opening week of the season.
3/4 at Miami Heat – Orlando’s only nationally-televised game of the season comes against Jimmy Butler and in-state rival Miami, which happens to have meaningful playoff aspirations of its own. Clifford’s teams normally peak after the All-Star break; this game will serve as a telling test of the Magic’s ability to do so in 2019-20.
4/10 to 4/15 vs. Boston Celtics, at Indiana Pacers, at Chicago Bulls, vs. Raptors – Orlando would be dismayed if its postseason hopes came down the last four games of the regular season. But even if they’ve already locked of a playoff berth by then, this quartet of contests against quality Eastern Conference foes will go a long way toward deciding the Magic’s seed.
Projected Record: 44-38
Orlando has a seemingly impenetrable ceiling of something just better than mediocrity unless Gordon, Isaac, or Fultz surpasses expectations and takes a massive leap toward stardom.
If Vucevic, Augustin, and Ross, all coming off career years, fail to reach the level of play they did a year ago, just how will this team manage even league-average offense – which it failed to manage even in 2018-19?
The defense will be borderline elite at worst, and Orlando, under the stewardship of Clifford, will be hell for opponents to play against.
Any expectation of the Magic making considerable progress in terms of wins and losses, though, relies on widespread individual-player hopes unlikely to come to fruition.