The Orlando Magic’s disappointing 2020 season makes the future look cloudy. The team is either ahead for a rebuilding team or behind as a playoff team.
The Orlando Magic are not likely to inspire a lot of excitement among the NBA’s Twitter elite.
They are an end of the playoffs team that is not chock full of young players to get excited about for the next five years — at least not as things are looking now — and they are not good enough it seems to do much more than sit at the end of the playoffs.
Somehow the Magic were probably more promising and exciting when they won 25-plus games with Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless than they are now with Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon growing in the wings. Somehow eking in the playoffs is seen as a final destination rather than a stepping stone.
Of course, there is some reason for that. Orlando made the playoffs last year and then seemingly did not take the step forward to reach the upper half of the Eastern Conference.
If there was excitement for this team, it was at the beginning of the season when several national writers believed the Magic could take the leap into the upper half of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
To see them stagnate, especially early in the season when things get set for the standings, was especially disappointing.
The fact the Magic sit at 30-35 and seem likely to finish seventh or eighth whenever the NBA season resumes, is at least partially a sign the team has hit something of a ceiling. The Magic confirmed last year was no fluke — they are indeed a playoff-caliber team in the Eastern Conference (a moving target, however). But they want to be and should be more.
And they know it.
The question is how do they get better? It is the most difficult and puzzling question the Magic have to answer. It is the question nobody really has an answer for quite yet.
Orlando is still young enough — only one player, D.J. Augustin, is older than 30 years old — to claim their brightest days are ahead of them. But the team has two straight years in the Playoffs to make you wonder why things are not happening quicker. And the Magic’s upper bounds do not seem to reach the elite levels of the game.
As currently constructed, it feels like the Magic’s best outcome is getting out of the first round with the right matchup. But the team does not seem to have the pieces to make a conference finals run, let alone perennially get there.
Orlando is certainly not at the end of its work to get better and compete for something beyond a playoff berth.
The Magic’s future outlook might really depend on how you choose to look at things. But in either case, there is not exactly a rosy short-term picture.
ESPN.com came out with its Future Power Rankings (subscription required), ranking the Magic at No. 21 for its future outlook. The Magic ranked in the top 15 in the league only for their market (and they were tied for 15th at that). Essentially, the Magic were still in the bottom half of the league in every category they considered from players to management and beyond.
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Orlando is ranked as the worst playoff team. For whatever it is worth, the Orlando Magic are still ahead of the Atlanta Hawks, a team that many are excited for with Trae Young’s development and the aggressive addition of Clint Capela.
This is all to say then that Orlando has a lot of work to do and there are several teams knocking on the door behind the team trying to get in. The Magic cannot afford to be stagnant.
It is essentially a statement of how unproven the Magic are in so many areas. A second playoff berth is not a cause for celebration — everyone would agree with that — or necessarily a sign things are headed in the right direction.
Danger and uncertainty still lie ahead. The team will have to take some risks and be calculated to improve the team while trusting its player development most of all.
But here too perspective matters. And while Jeff Weltman surely senses the team has reached its ceiling, he is not about to take a sledgehammer to the roster. And it is because he probably recognizes the reality this is still a young team with plenty of room to grow.
Really at the heart of the Magic’s project is the internal development of their young players.
They need Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba to develop into starring players to take their next step. They need Aaron Gordon to realize his full potential. And they need Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (at least while they are still on the team) to keep their level of play.
Some of those goals may end up bumping up against each other. Isaac and Gordon seem on a collision course for playing time as Isaac continues to grow offensively. His defense is already the lone elite individual skill on the team.
And the Magic will have to find space for all of them to achieve their individual goals.
At some point, the team will have to make room to highlight the players they really want. And at some point, the team will have to consolidate players to go get that star player to tie everything together if one of those young players is unable to get there.
The Magic’s young players have had a slow build among their promising young players. The low ranking is as much about impatience on that development than anything else.
Making moves and chances will remain difficult. The Magic are capped out and may not come into cap room again until 2021. That summer, however, Orlando will have to renew contracts with Isaac and Fultz. Mohamed Bamba comes the year after that.
The next two seasons — and really next season — are going to determine just what this Magic team can be.
It all centers on their young players improving and one perhaps taking the leap into true stardom. That has been the elusive element from the Magic. The thing that seemingly keeps them on the precipice of catastrophe. Orlando’s margin for error for success is still small.
Let alone when the team gets into the playoffs, their inability to have a playmaker who can topple good defenses becomes even more apparent.
It is this reason the Magic still seem to be a step behind. The Magic do not seem to have that one galvanizing force.
Whether that is a reason to panic or not is a matter of perspective.
Orlando indeed still has a young team with several young players who have not reached their potential yet. But the team is also old enough to have a firm sense of its identity. And that identity has not taken the team far.
No matter what, big decisions lie ahead for the Magic. The kind of decisions that will map out the short-term future and determine whether this team has a bright or dim future.