Seven years later, the Orlando Magic are still dealing with the fallout of their separation from Dwight Howard.
A slow, incremental rebuilding process that ownership hesitantly embraced in the first place is finally finished. The Magic made the playoffs last season for the first time since Howard’s swan song, and with stoic second-year coach Steve Clifford, have forged a culture of style and personality that had been notably absent under the four previous coaches that followed Stan Van Gundy. Orlando spent lavishly in free agency this summer to both sustain and accelerate its progress into one of the league’s hardest-working and most technically-sound teams, an identity forged first and foremost on defense.
“We’re just trying to build a way of playing where we know who we are, where we know how we win, and where we have the right players and the right people to support one another, and get through hard NBA seasons together the right way,” Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in mid-July.
Continuity is one of the most overlooked avenues to success in the modern NBA. Player movement has reached a new zenith, and combined with the prioritization of rest and rehabilitation ahead of lengthy, full-contact practices during the regular season, leaves many teams with no other option but to coalesce on the fly.
The Magic, returning all nine rotation players from last season’s playoff run plus top-five pick Mo Bamba, are poised to reap the rewards of that fact in 2019-20. The likelihood it won’t mean this team will compete at a meaningfully higher threshold, though, is indicative of just how starved Orlando is for mere respectability as its eighth season in the post-Howard era dawns.
The Magic went 42-40 last season, seventh in the Eastern Conference, on the strength of a quietly dominant finish. They were 19-8 after the trade deadline, ranking first in defense and seventh in offense over that timeframe per NBA.com, good for the third-best net rating in basketball. Orlando didn’t just beat up on tanking lottery teams, either, with wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers.
Even believers in that late-season surge didn’t think the Magic had turned the proverbial corner into one of the several best teams in the East. That impressive level of play was always more about Orlando’s unceasing intensity and commitment to scheme than anything else.
Teams coached by Clifford have posted a better net rating after the All-Star break every year but 2014-15, sometimes to season-altering extent. The doldrums of late February and March are real, and his overarching strategic aims of owning the defensive glass, getting back in transition, defending without fouling and taking care of the ball are naturally maximized when players start to really feel the mental and physical grind of an 82-game schedule.
The Magic’s post-deadline performance shouldn’t exactly have been surprising, but their dramatic Game 1 victory over the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs shocked, and rightfully so. The rest of the series played out how everyone knew it would, with Toronto taking four straight games by a combined 75 points as Orlando’s offense fell expectedly flat.
After dropping 25 points on 13 shots in Game 1, including the go-ahead triple with three seconds left, D.J. Augustin failed to reach double-digits in three consecutive games. Nikola Vucevic shot 25 percent on nearly seven post-ups per game against Toronto, according to NBA.com, leaving the Magic without their offensive safety valve. Evan Fournier was swallowed up by the Raptors’ collective length and activity, and Aaron Gordon, predictably, proved unable to lift his team as a primary scorer and playmaker when the struggles of teammates shoehorned him into that role.
Failing to score at an efficient rate in the playoffs versus a team like Toronto is hardly some death-knell for the future. The champs absolutely carved up the short-handed Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, but squeaked by the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers the prior two rounds on the back of their defense.
Toronto was an especially bad matchup for Orlando given the presence of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, defenders with the size and smarts to make Vucevic’s life hard on the block and the perimeter. There wasn’t a single offense-defense matchup in the first round Orlando could have counted on winning consistently. It’s hardly shameful being unable to produce against defenders the likes of Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol. The Raptors, after all, won the title for a reason.
But it’s worth wondering how comfortable the Magic would have been maintaining the status quo offensively if Augustin hadn’t stolen Game 1 – and more importantly, put up a career season out of nowhere at age 31. Orlando apparently expects Augustin to duplicate that effort in 2019-20, but even if he does, it wouldn’t be enough to push the team toward the type of improvement that management seems to believe is coming.
The Magic were 22nd in offensive rating last season, worst among all playoff teams. Gordon is still getting better as a shooter and playmaker, but dreams of him evolving into an alpha dog on the wing are gone. Though Isaac is a long way from his offensive ceiling, he never profiled as that missing piece. Terrence Ross, newly re-signed, realized his destiny in 2018-19 as one of basketball’s most flammable bench scorers, but there’s no guarantee that’s his new normal. Fournier is a known commodity, for better and worse, at this point. No other returning player will garner enough touches or minutes to potentially push Orlando up the league-wide offensive ranks.
Most discouraging? The Magic’s major additions only compound matters of positional redundancy and a lack of floor spacing and creativity.
Al-Farouq Aminu was one of the more confounding signings of the summer, irrespective of price tag. How does he fit into an overflowing frontcourt rotation that already forced Gordon, and less frequently Isaac, to serve as Orlando’s small forward and de facto third ball handler? Those three guys fit exactly the same playing archetype, and that’s before accounting for first-round pick Chuma Okeke, another live-wire athlete with only some perimeter skill who’s best suited for power forward.
It’s still unclear whether or not Markelle Fultz will even play this season. The Magic were smart to buy low on a player who not that long ago was the consensus top prospect in his draft class. This roster badly needs that type of upside, no matter how unlikely it is to fulfilled. But even with the off chance Fultz is part of the rotation, that just adds another questionable shooter, at best, to a roster chock full of them. Will Clifford really feel comfortable rolling with a reserve backcourt of Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams?
Make no mistake: The Magic will be hell to play against in 2019-20. In a league always in need of of quality wing defenders with passable offensive games, Orlando somehow has too many of them. Vucevic took significant strides defensively last season, a theme for big men under Clifford, and Bamba’s impossible length looms – if he manages to beat out Khem Birch for backup center minutes.
The Magic finished eighth in defensive rating last season. Any finish outside the top five a year later, with another impact defender like Aminu in the fold and additional experience in Clifford’s system, would be sorely disappointing.
The problem is that it’s entirely plausible Orlando was already playing over its head on other end of the floor. At least one of Vucevic, Augustin and Ross is due for regression, and possibly all three. The offensive growth of Gordon and Isaac will again be mitigated by not just playing out of position, but in five-man lineups that allow defenses to shrink the floor, sagging off shooters who won’t routinely make them pay. Both Fultz and Bamba need developmental minutes for the Magic to make their investments worthwhile, and both project as negatives offensively.
After tasting success for the first time since Howard left, the Magic were so excited about doubling down that it’s almost as if management never wondered whether or not doing so would be the team’s best path forward. Continuity for continuity’s sake isn’t enough, a reality Weltman seemed to acknowledge after Orlando’s season was ended by Toronto.
“Continuity is something that everybody strives for, but it’s something you can’t force. Continuity of something that hasn’t been working does you no good,” he said.
The Magic could have maintained their burgeoning identity by making moves this summer to better balance the roster with shooters and playmakers. Clifford is arguably the driving force behind it anyway. Instead, Orlando leaned even further into strengths and weaknesses that were only “working” to the tune of 42 wins and a gentleman’s sweep that should have been shorter.
Odds are this team will be a bit better in 2019-20. Either way, the Magic will almost surely have done nothing to deviate from the status of present and future playoff also-rans – the same one they could never get past until Howard arrived.