30 Teams in 30 Days: Solid finish, playoff push prompts Magic to run it back

NBA.com Global on Sep 18, 2019 11:38 AM
30 Teams in 30 Days: Magic run it back after playoff push
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 1: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic dunks the ball against Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers during a preseason game on October 1, 2018 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Like most summers in the NBA, the 2019 edition was chock full of trades, free agent news and player movement. From the defending-champion Toronto Raptors to just about every other team in the league, change was the most applicable word when it came to describing team rosters for the 2019-20 season.

With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today -- in order of regular-season finish from 2018-19 -- as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

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Today's team: Orlando Magic

2018-19 Record: 42-40, lost to Raptors in first round of playoffs

Key additions: Al-Farouq Aminu (free agency), Chuma Okeke (Draft)

Key departures: Timofey Mozgov

The lowdown: It perhaps escaped your notice, but the Magic actually raised a banner in 2018-19. They won the admittedly-weakened Southeast Division, and while that might make folks snicker, any progress is good progress for a franchise still looking to gain traction in this, the unfulfilled post-Dwight Howard era.

They were beastly down the stretch, going 11-2 to fight their way out of a midseason slump to reach the playoffs. Plus, they took a game from the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors in the first round. It helps to be in the Eastern Conference, but let’s not water-down what the Magic did too much. They received solid seasons from Aaron Gordon and Evan Fornier, a career season from Terrence Ross and an All-Star season from Nikola Vucevic. (It didn’t hurt that Vucevic and Ross were pending free agents playing for money.) The club also responded well to new coach Steve Clifford.

However, there were mild disappointments -- mainly from the last two first-round picks. Jonathan Isaac didn’t take a leap in his second season and seemed unsure whether to be a stretch-four or use his size advantage in the paint. He wound up being just OK at both (9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds per game). Rookie Mo Bamba looked like a project throughout the season as injuries limited him to just 47 games. All told, the Magic made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and won more games in any strike-shortened season since 2010-11. That was enough to pacify the home crowd and finally show up on NBA radar, however faint.

Summer summary: For the second time this decade, the Magic arrived at a crossroads regarding their All-Star center and had to make a decision with fairly large future ramifications. Last time, it was Howard. This time, it was the guy who replaced Howard. The decision now, as then: Should they re-sign the big man?

Actually, it was a dual decision. Orlando had to want "Vooch" and vice-versa, considering he was an unrestricted free agent, and it wasn’t an automatic call in either case. Vucevic and his family enjoyed Orlando, yet the franchise, despite finally posting a winning season, was hardly in contender condition. He had options as a number of teams -- the LA Clippers among them -- expressed interest in the center with a soft touch and sound footwork.

As for the Magic, they’d just drafted Bamba in 2018 with the No. 6 overall pick. The idea, at least you’d think, was having Bamba replace Vucevic at some point. By keeping Vucevic, what signal were they sending to Bamba? Why would they stifle the growth of a player whom they took over Wendell Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton?

In the end, both the Magic and Vucevic agreed and Orlando delivered a four-year, $100 million deal. The team's thinking? Vucevic is an asset and so it’s better to keep him, even at a high price, rather than let him walk and get nothing back.

Bamba must wait his turn, and he’ll need more time to develop after a raw rookie season.

The other investment was in Ross, who spent much of his previous six NBA seasons as an athletic swingman who teased a lot. Last season, he was (for once) a primary option and shot well from deep (38.3 percent), earning himself a four-year, $54 million deal from Orlando. The Magic believe Ross, 27, is tapping into his prime later than usual.

Then Orlando added depth at that position with Aminu. He can spread the floor and is decent defensively ... but isn’t a shot creator because of a weak dribble. At three years and $29 million, Aminu was a reasonable buy.

In recent years past, Orlando was a fixture at the Draft lottery, and then their fate changed abruptly by making the playoffs. The downside, though, is Orlando had a middle first-round pick, where future superstars don’t normally live. Those picks are where teams take risks, and the Magic did so by selecting Okeke, who missed Auburn’s Final Four appearance after injuring his knee in the Sweet 16. Before the injury, the 6-foot-8 Okeke showed strong instincts around the basket, especially rebounding, while also shooting 3-pointers. Most scouts believe he would’ve been a lottery pick, and perhaps taken in the top-10, if not for the injury.

The Magic spent the summer mulling whether to “redshirt” Okeke as they have another young player at his spot in Isaac. Plus, Okeke can heal thoroughly and also get reps in the NBA G League.

There's also former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz here, too, whom the Magic added in a deadline-day trade last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He's still recovering from the thoracic outlet syndrome he was diagnosed with last season and hasn't played a game for the Magic. Still, Orlando believed in him enough to exercise his contract option for 2020-21. If he's ever healthy and shows the talent that made him a star a Washington, Fultz could help Orlando rise up as a real East contender.

Other than big-money decisions on Vucevic and Ross, the Magic was content to make only minor changes. They still lack the superstar needed to rise the ranks in the East, yet their core is proven and capable of knocking on playoffs' door for a second straight season.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

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