It took a few seasons, but the Orlando Magic finally put together a playoff campaign. Shockingly, or may not shockingly considering how bad the team has been, it was the first trip to the postseason since Dwight Howard was patrolling the paint for the Magic. Given the signings and improvements, a second-straight playoff run is not out of the question and, dare I say, may even be expected.
Orlando was propped up by Nikola Vucevic, who had by far his best season ever. The 28-year-old center averaged 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game en route to being named an NBA All-Star. He stayed healthy, too, playing in a career-best 80 games last season. Just how necessary was Vucevic to Orlando’s success? Nearly one-third of the offense ran through him (28% usage rate) and his win shares were an eye-popping 10.1, up from 3.8 the previous year. For his success, Orlando rewarded Vucevic with a 4-year $100 million contract extension, which we feel is worth every penny. The Magic are hoping so too, as their playoff hopes once again rest on him replicating or at least coming close to what he did last year.
The position that was in question, and will be beyond this season too, is the point guard. D.J. Augustin is perhaps one of the more underrated players in the league, and he was very dependable last season. He played in 81 games, averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists per game, and did everything that was asked. But the position also has the potential for the biggest upside with Markelle Fultz. After being unceremoniously traded out of Philadelphia, it appeared that the former number one overall pick was going to be out of the league in a few years. But Orlando has persevered and kept Fultz out for all of last year despite his agent saying he could return. The medical team for the Magic has kept things quiet on Fultz’s healing process, but early preseason action shows he may have turned a corner:
Okay Markelle ??pic.twitter.com/hCTVC2GnSQ
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) October 8, 2019
That coast to coast take is a great sign for the Magic, but an even better sign for the 21-year-old. So far in the preseason, he looks confident with a turnaround jumper from just outside the key. His tight handle gets himself into the paint and the soft touch on the shot shows a good level of body control.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) October 8, 2019
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) October 6, 2019
Obviously, two jump shots in the preseason do not signify that Fultz is totally healed. But it is an important step in his recovery and unlocks his ability to use his impressive arsenal of offensive tools, like this wonderful up-and-under reverse layup:
Markelle Fultz goes up and under! ?
— NBA (@NBA) October 8, 2019
Fultz may be the player who can drastically improve the outlook for Orlando but there are other young players who are looking to take the next step. Aaron Gordon is already one of the better young players in the NBA and seems much more comfortable playing his more natural small forward position. But both Mo Bamba and Johnathan Isaac are to players that Orlando needs to make some leaps forward if they want to take the next step.
The jury is certainly still out on Bamba, especially after an injury-riddled rookie season. Since then, he has added some weight and improved his conditioning. He can space the floor too, which was showcased in the preseason as well as he nailed three 3-pointers against the Pistons:
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) October 8, 2019
Johnathan Isaac is the other young gun, and Orlando would certainly like to see his offensive number improve. Defensively, Isaac has things handled. He is an above-average shot blocker and contributed 3.1 defensive win shares last season. The trouble is on the offensive side, where Isaac has some work to do. He shot 42.9% from the floor last season including 32.3% from deep. The former is actually better than last season (gulp) but the latter is just a tick worse. The issue could be that Orlando had him taking significantly more threes (43.5% of his shot attempts came from beyond the compared to 31.7% the year before). His turnover percentage and offensive win shares went up from the rookie campaign, but Isaac needs to be a little more complete on offense.
Last season, the Magic had a very thin margin for error as they clawed their way to the seventh seed in the East. They even walked into Toronto and stole Game 1 from the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. This season, the roster changes and expected (really, hopeful) growth puts them as more of a comfortable playoff team barring any major injuries. Orlando added Al-Farouq Aminu and kept volume scorer Terrence Ross. Couple that with both Bamba and Fultz taking steps in the right direction, and the Magic will have a deeper bench that should provide a necessary burst when needed.
This almost transitional year in the Eastern Conference, with Kevin Durant coming back next season and Kawhi Leonard headed West, heightens the ceiling for Orlando. Some experts say they would not be surprised to see the Magic hanging around the four or five seed in the East. The growth year over year for Orlando might not be a four-spot jump, but the East is weak enough that it makes that possible. The five-eight seed in the East seems more realistic, and safer in terms of a prediction. But the Magic are a young, defensive-minded team that will put up a fight night in and night out. Head coach Steve Clifford is just as underrated as his team was last season, and there should be more tools at his disposal to help Orlando make a leap up the standings.