NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Orlando Magic
Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Orlando Magic.
Over the course of July and August, Basketball Insiders embarked on grading all 30 NBA teams on their offseasons — additions, subtractions, draft picks, trades, etc — and their potential headed into the 2019-20 campaign. Between today and autumn, franchises will be tasked with figuring out how their roster pieces, both new and old, might mesh together on the floor.
For the upstarts in Florida, the Magic, hopefully, only have room to improve on a surprise playoff berth last season. Led by Nikola Vucevic — who just re-upped for another four years — and Aaron Gordon, Orlando secured a 42-40 record, their best effort since 2011, on the back of an impressive post-All-Star break surge. Armed with a healthy roster — and the ever-enticing someday-maybe potential of Markelle Fultz — the Magic will look to build on a strong foundation and find the consistency they’ve lacked since the Dwight Howard era of yesteryear.
In the beginning, there was little-to-no Magic for Orlando — if anything, the proceedings were simply sticking to the status quo. With a few tight, gritty wins and a whole lot of blowout losses under their belt heading into the New Year, the Magic appeared as-is; a roster with undeniable talent, but still learning to gel under first-year head coach Steve Clifford, but, ultimately, it would another bridge season at-best. But as the calendar flipped to February — and the trade rumors surrounding their would-be big-time unrestricted free agent heated up — something unexpected began to unfold: The Magic had seemingly figured it out.
From Jan. 31 to Feb. 14, Orlando reeled off seven wins in eight games — a streak that included victories over the Pacers, Nets, Bucks and Hornets — and moved into the break period with renewed optimism. In the weaker Eastern Conference, of course, the final seeds were up for grabs and the Magic, trying to grab a taste of postseason basketball for their potential-laden foundational pieces, went for broke. Vucevic stayed put in Orlando all year, racking up 20.8 points and 12 rebounds per game; while Aaron Gordon, fresh off an $80 million dollar extension, averaged 16 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists as a 23-year-old.
In early February, the Magic pried away Fultz from Philadelphia with a decently-priced package — Jonathan Simmons, a protected first-rounder in 2020 and a second in 2019. Fultz wouldn’t play for Orlando following the trade, but he could play a large role this fall, a could-be bold, forward-thinking move for a franchise that has long needed a cornerstone at the position.
Following the All-Star pause, Orlando lost just eight games the rest of the way, quickly morphing into one of the NBA’s hottest teams. Even better, with their postseason lives on the line, the Magic finished the season by going 11-2, cementing their status as the No. 7 seed.
If that wasn’t enough, the Magic one-upped their surprise run and stunned the eventual champions in Game 1, taking down the Toronto Raptors on the road. In that trade deadline decision-affirming effort, veteran D.J. Augustin tallied 25 points and six assists and Gordon pulled down a double-double in his first-ever postseason contest. To wit, Toronto would lose just three more times at home on their way to the trophy — and two of them were to the Golden State Warriors.
Take a bow, Orlando.
So, how do you follow up an act like that?
According to the Magic, then, the best course of action was no major action at all.
Quietly, Orlando kept their young core — Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba and Gordon — intact, re-signed Vecevic to a well-deserved deal worth four years and $100 million and filled out the rest of the roster with sensible moves.
Terrence Ross — 15.1 points, 3.5 rebounds — was re-signed to a four-year deal at $54 million, ensuring that Orlando would keep a reliable scoring punch at the guard position. Michael Carter-Williams, who joined Orlando in March, returned on a one-year deal as Fultz-related insurance. Over 12 regular season contests, Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner, tallied 5.4 points and 4.1 assists over 19 minutes per game.
Even Khem Birch, the Magic’s 6-foot-9 defensive-minded backup center, decided to stay put despite his position behind both Vucevic and Bamba.
The franchise’s biggest splash, however, was bringing in defensive specialist Al-Farouq Aminu to plug holes off the bench. Aminu, a nine-year veteran, played 81 games for Portland in 2018-19 and brought in 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, often hailed as the hardest worker on the floor and a jack-of-all-trades asset.
Gone is Timofey Mozgov, waived after one inconsequential season down south. After the Howard-Mozgov salary dump swap during the last offseason, the Russian center was weighed down by injuries and never made an official appearance for Orlando.
In the draft, the Magic scooped up Chuma Okeke at No. 16 overall, a bonafide playmaker that would’ve been selected higher if not for an unfortunate ACL tear in the Sweet 16. The 6-foot-8 forward had grown into a starring role for Auburn as the Tigers stormed the floor as shock SEC Tournament champions. Okeke had dropped 20 points and 11 rebounds on 8-for-11 shooting prior to the unfortunate injury, a game in which Auburn trounced first-seeded North Carolina by 17 points.
Needless to say, the Magic will not rush Okeke back in his rehab — but once he returns, they’ll have another strong-minded defender for their blossoming rotation.
And, finally, there’s Fultz, the NBA’s biggest wildcard since the enigmatic point guard was drafted No. 1 overall in 2017. Although he’s struggled to stay on the court for a variety of reasons — both physical and mental — Fultz remains a piece to monitor closely. Fultz, 21, had shown signs of improvement in Philadelphia in brief moments, but never played for Orlando after his February move. It’s not something worth gambling too heavily on at this point — hope is such a bitter weapon, after all — but should the explosive guard find any sort of footing, it’s the type of low-risk, high-reward move that would send the Magic’s unforeseen growth to an entirely new gear.
PLAYERS IN: Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Michael Carter-Williams, Khem Birch, Josh Magette (two-way), Amile Jefferson (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant
Well, for a team like Orlando, more young and successful than they’ve been in nearly a decade, simply wanted to run it back — and who could blame them? It is certainly heavy money to promise Vuecevic through 2023, but he’ll provide plenty of consistency and leadership for the collection of lengthy, athletic up-and-comers on the roster. The key, of course, is whether or not Gordon continues to grow — not just as a scorer, but as a defender as well. Isaac offers more shutdown potential, particularly in minutes alongside an older, improved Bamba, but Gordon remains the biggest domino.
The Magic are so clearly confident in what they’ve already got — Ross included — and instead of hastily throwing around iffy contracts as they’ve done before, Orlando doubled down. Aminu joins a crowded frontcourt, but he’ll provide some versatility and direction on a more-than-fair contract to boot. And with the Southeast Division still in an unpredictable state, there’s absolutely room for the franchise to stick in postseason pictures moving forward.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B-
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