By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
An established coach. An All-Star big man. A solid roster and a top-five defense. All those things contributed to the Orlando Magic’s breakthrough season a year ago, when they snuck into the playoffs and then put an early scare into Toronto on the Raptors’ way to a championship parade. It worked last season for Steve Clifford’s crew. So why mess with the winning formula? But whether or not staying the course is enough to keep them in the Eastern Conference playoff mix requires internal growth from several members of the team’s young core group.
The Magic kept All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in free agency with a four-year, $100 million deal, keeping the same starting five that propelled them to the playoffs … Veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu signed a three-year, $29 million deal with Magic, adding another long and athletic forward to a roster filled with several players in the mold. Aminu was a great fit in Portland but will play off the bench with the Magic … Former Kia Rookie of the Year and backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams re-signed in the offseason on a one-year deal and backup center Khem Birch also re-signed on a two-year deal … The Magic selected Auburn forward Chuma Okeke with the 16th pick in the June Draft. But he’ll spend his rookie season in Lakeland, Fla., with the team’s G League team rehabilitating the torn ACL he suffered during the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament run. Basically, he’ll be redshirting this season with no pressure to try and join the Magic ...
1. Investing in the future. In a sign that they like the player development work that’s going on with former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, the Magic picked up the contract option on Fultz (and young bigs Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, too). You expected it for Isaac and Bamba, the Magic’s last two lottery picks. The decision on Fultz suggests the Magic believe he still has some of the star potential that made him the top pick in his Draft. Time will tell if they’re right.
2. All-Star representation. The All-Star ballots won’t be out for a while, but the Magic already have some confirmed representation for the league’s annual showcase. A rematch of the 2016 instant classic dunk contest between Gordon and Chicago’s Zach LaVine, on LaVine’s home court at the United Center, would be a spectacle on its own. But if the field included a wild card like New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson, among others, things could get really interesting. Gordon, of course, has designs on attending All-Star weekend and participating in Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) affair as well.
3. Health matters. If availability is as crucial to success as most coaches preach, the Magic enjoyed the full benefits of their top six players staying on the active list as much as they did a year ago. Their top six players -- D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Gordon, Isaac and Vucevic -- missed a combined 16 games, with Isaac accounting for seven of those. Having that sort of good health allows for continuity and the development of chemistry that was desperately needed in the first season with a new coaching staff.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Since the Magic didn’t make any big moves in the offseason, their improvement has to come from someone on the roster adding a wrinkle or two to their game. Jonathan Isaac showed considerable improvement from his rookie season and figures to have taken another giant step after starting 64 games last season. That first taste of the playoffs provided him with a little extra education on where his game can go if he stays on track and keeps grinding. If Issac develops the skills to match his physical talents, watch out.
D.J. Augustin | 11.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.3 apg
Steadying presence is the sort of no-nonsense floor leader that thrives under Clifford.
Evan Fournier | 15.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.6 apg
Has made the necessary adjustments to his game in recent seasons to be a more complete two-way player.
Aaron Gordon | 16.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.7 apg
Quieted early-career concerns about his game by polishing his perimeter skills.
Jonathan Isaac | 9.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.1 apg
It’s time for a giant step in his overall development, after incremental steps up to this point.
Nikola Vucevic | 20.8 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 3.8 apg
Vucevic is an ideal inside-outside fit for Clifford’s system.
Terrence Ross | 15.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
Could probably start for most teams but is a solid sixth man in Orlando.
Mo Bamba | 6.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.4 apg
Potential defensive menace must continue to add strength and fill out his frame.
Wes Iwundu | 5.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.1 apg
Provided quality minutes off the bench and will have to do more of the same this season.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Magic should be even better than they were last season, but there’s no guarantee they make the playoffs again in a reshuffled Eastern Conference. So much depends on the internal progress made by Isaac, Bamba and even Gordon, who still hasn’t reached his full potential. The wild card here, of course, is Fultz. If he’s got half of what was expected of him when Philadelphia made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, the Magic could make a run at a second straight division title.
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