After years of treading water as a perennial 8th seed/1st round playoff fodder (delete as appropriate) and, frankly, being the NBA’s most uninteresting franchise, the Magic are finally, FINALLY, in the midst of a rebuild.
In the 15 months since the Magic traded their veteran core, they’ve rebuilt around a raft of talented youngsters imported through those trades and a few very exciting youngsters drafted by the team over the past few years.
That said, the Magic still finished the 2022 season with just 22 wins which saw them sit at the foot of the Eastern conference. There is a lot of road left to travel on this rebuilding journey. Patience is a virtue.
How can the Magic continue to accumulate the men that will lead their next playoff team?
The Magic’s playing list is fascinating, especially when you consider who didn’t suit up this season.
Two of the Magic’s prime assets are Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Fultz came back from an ACL injury to play 18 games towards the back end of the season. Isaac, still just 24 years old, has missed the past two seasons as he recovers from his own ACL tear. When healthy, the two of them are legitimately vice-like defensively, Isaac especially. Offensively they’re both good without being genuine star like. Isaac is a solid scorer who probably taps out at the 20 ppg level. Fultz, who’s trials and tribulations are well known, is a potential triple double threat despite his shooting woes.
In Isaac’s absence, the team have rebuilt their front line around Wendell Carter Jr, who enjoyed a career year in 2022. A solid rebounder, he’s not the sort of player that can anchor a defense, but his is capable at that end of the floor. He’s also a wonderful complimentary offensive player. He’s an excellent passer and solid shooter from deep who also flashes a good dive game.
Mo Bamba is a fascinating player. The 6th overall pick in 2018 had looked for all the world a bust until this season. Whilst some would attribute his ascension to more court time (interestingly, his per 36 minute numbers have declined), you can see the difference in Bamba when you watch him play. His length makes him a genuine rim protector yet in seasons past he was easily distracted by off ball action and would jump at literally every pump fake. This season he’s calmed down considerably, demonstrating a patience that all the best shot blockers employ. He moves his feet well and, as a bonus, hit over 38% of his treys this season. He’s becoming a legitimate stretch five.
In the back court, Orlando have the fearless shot making of Cole Anthony and the highly touted Jalen Suggs. For all of his clutch play, Anthony did shoot sub 40% from the floor, just as he did as a rookie. Suggs couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, connecting on just 36% of his field goals. If neither of those two develop into efficient scorers then it’s tough to see how they fit with Fultz.
On the wing, rookie Franz Wagner was a delight to watch. He hit the rookie wall late on, but was legitimately in the Rookie of the Year conversation for most of the campaign. It’s clear that he’s Orlando’s small forward of the future.
When you throw in RJ Hampton, Chuma Okeke, Bol Bol and even Franz’ older brother Mo, there is a plethora of young, untapped talent on this roster.
Stacked with young talent that could potentially bust out in the very near future, the Magic perhaps lack a genuine star. When you scan their roster nobody really stands out as a talisman. Anthony is capable of making some incredible shots when he’s cooking. He’s no star, though. At best, Anthony projects as an all-offense heat check scorer: think a Jamal Crawford type. Again, that’s IF everything comes together for him.
Wagner is outstanding and has already demonstrated that he can do a little bot of everything. He’s a decent shooter, shown some intriguing play making flashes, is surprisingly athletic and he’s also a mean and physical defender. Many draftnik’s projected him to be a similar player to Mike Dunleavy Jr. As a rookie, he’s already at that level. Wagner will move past him soon enough. Still, is he a genuine 1st option for a contender? Probably not. This writer thinks he maxes out as a very good 2nd wheel.
Assuming he’s something close to the player he was when he last set foot on an NBA court, Isaac is a similar case. He’s a potential All Defense candidate, but offensively he’s a B+ type. A decent shooter, Isaac hasn’t demonstrated the handles of the play making instincts that are required of a true offensive hub.
The Magic still need to find their leader.
Orlando’s other challenge is a longer term situation: sorting the wheat form the chaff.
With so many talented youngsters on the books, the team surely knows that the can’t keep and develop all of them. The Magic will eventually need to figure out who they want to move forward with and who they want to move on.
Fortunately for the club, they’re so early in their rebuilding efforts that this off season – and possibly the next – will not be the time they need to make those decision.
The Cap Sheet
As you would expect from a team that has seven rostered players still on rookie scale contracts, the Magic’s cap sheet is very clean. As things stand they have $84 million committed to 11 players, giving them a princely sum of $38 million to burn before they hit the projected salary cap.
There are free agents that the team will need to make decisions on, some far easier than others.
Veteran centre Robin Lopez will not be retained, though he won’t be a free agent for long. He performed well when called upon, but at age 34 is a clear victim of the youth movement.
Son of the late NBA cult hero Manute Bol, 22 year old Bol Bol is an intriguing mixture of length, skill and agility. He’s a legitimately blank canvas, seemingly capable of anything on a basketball court. Yet there is surely a reason two clubs, including the rebuilding Magic, haven’t trusted him with any significant court time. He’ll find a home in the NBA – a player of his rare physical gifts is afforded more chances than most – but might be squeezed out of the picture in Orlando as Isaac returns.
Gary Harris is still, somehow only 27 years old. It feels as though he’s been around for ever, doesn’t it? After a few seasons where he just completely lost the ability to shoot a basketball, Harris finally recovered his offensive game this past season, hitting 38.4% of his deep shots. He remains an underrated passer and a very good defender. Whilst he won’t earn anywhere near the $20 million he raked in this season in the last year of his old contract, he’s still a valuable player in just about any situation.
On a rebuilding team like the Magic, he’s the old head, though not so old that he can’t relate to the youth. Harris is reportedly a hard worker and a fine example to less experienced ballers. That said, a player who can defend both back court positions, hit open jump shots and doesn’t demand to have plays ran form them is even more valuable to a contender. Could the Magic employ a sign-and-trade to get an asset back in for Harris? He’d certainly fit on any number of playoff teams (the Sixers, Suns, Bucks and Heat would all love to have him).
The most interesting free agency watch in Orlando is Bamba. He was so poor in his first three seasons that the team declined to extend him. Of course, his form this season makes for a potential stand off with the front office. Bamba’s too good just let go, yet his fit with Carter is poor. On paper, he should work well with Isaac – those two wouldn’t let a shot in the paint go unchallenged – but what version of Isaac will we see? Expect the team to look to re-sign him for something north of $10 million a season knowing that they have a tradable contract if the fit doesn’t work.
As far as expiring deals go, veteran guard Terrance Ross is the only notable name. With Fultz back, he’s likely to be thanked for years of fine service to the team and sent on his way. He’s on an $11.5 million deal.
The Magic’s 1st rounder is slated to fall at pick two at the time of writing, with the lottery draw less than 12 hours away.
The Magic will most certainly look to take the best offensive player available, the question is the position they choose to fill.
If the team decide to focus on the front court, Jabari Smith Jr is likely their man. The Auburn product is a genuine three level scorer who has the ability to shoot over defenders and bustle his way to the basket. Defensively he’s long, active and diligent. He’s not by any means a game changer at that end of the floor, but he’s no liability, either. He could form a formidable partnership with either Isaac or Carter.
If the Magic look at their young guards and determine that there is not a potential superstar amongst them, Jaden Ivey will come off the board. Ivey is clearly the best athlete amongst the top prospects, a legitimately terrifying open floor player who finishes in traffic like some ungodly hybrid of Ja Morant and Dwyane Wade. In the half court he’s a crafty ball handler with a much improved three point shot. He can use speed, craft and strength to get to the hoop. Defensively he’s a pest, getting right up in his opponents grill, using his long arms to poke away at the basketball. The Donovan Mitchell (with the defense that Mitchell was expected to provide) parallels are hard to ignore.