Orlando Magic’s playoff run feels empty without Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is making progress in his recovery from a knee injury. But the Orlando Magic's season has felt empty without him. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Jonathan Isaac is making progress in his recovery from a knee injury. But the Orlando Magic's season has felt empty without him. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Jonathan Isaac started to make moves for his return to the court. But it is unclear if and unlikely he will join the Orlando Magic when the season returns.

Jonathan Isaac was jovial but still serious as he met with the media last Friday.

He was doing a lot of good in helping provide food and a little bit of joy to families in need throughout Central Florida. Jonathan Isaac’s devotion to the community and serving others has stepped in during this hiatus and period without basketball.

The questions for Isaac from the media quickly turned to his own recovery.

He like everyone else is as eager to return to the court. And just getting back into the AdventHealth Practice Facility was a step in the right direction for him and for everyone involved with the Orlando Magic, let alone the NBA.

For Isaac especially the opportunity to get back inside the team’s facility is a big deal. He was in the midst of rehabbing a major knee injury and slowly inching his way back. It would be near impossible for him to do this on his own from his own apartment — even with the Magic’s best efforts of delivering workout equipment and personalized plans to do from home.

There is no way around it, nothing replaces being in the gym. Before the season went on hiatus, Isaac was starting to shoot set jumpers. That was at least a sign of his progress from the posterior lateral corner injury he suffered on Jan. 1.

Now, with the training facility opened again, Isaac has started to run on the team’s Alter-G machine (a machine he likely could not have at home). In other words, Isaac can now make more significant progress in his return from his injury.

And that only raises the biggest question facing the Magic as the season gets ready to restart likely in mid-July with training camp beginning in mid-June.

Will Isaac be able to return?

This question feels bigger than anything else the Magic might face as the season prepares to return. It is bigger than whether the Magic will make the Playoffs — in whatever format the NBA decides to choose — or even how far they advance.

Isaac is centrally important to the Magic’s future. And his absence has put a pall on the season.

Yes, the Magic likely would have made the Playoffs for a second straight season under normal circumstances this year. And that is valuable in itself for such a young team. Orlando’s players need to go through the experience of preparing for and playing in a Playoff environment — if not with the crowd, then with the intensity and pressure that comes with it.

But one of those key young players — perhaps, the key young player — is not there. He has not been there for half the season. And that has left the season with a sense of emptiness.

When Jonathan Isaac’s left leg wrapped around Bradley Beal’s leg in the first half of that game in Washington, D.C. as the new year began, it felt like the whole season crashed down with him. Never mind, the Orlando Magic recovered and blew out the Washington Wizards in that game — a vital game in the playoff chase it turned out.

The season has not felt the same without Isaac out there.

Magic miss Jonathan Isaac’s promise

The disappointment this year is that young players have struggled to create their opportunities.

If the Magic were going to take a leap from the back end of the playoffs to flirting with true contention, they needed to see young players take major steps forward.

They hoped Aaron Gordon would take a leap in his game, growing off his strongest all-around season in 2019 and a great Playoff showing, to become the leader of the team. That never really happened. He has struggled with his shot and the Magic have once again floundered trying to make the most of his versatile talents.

Aaron Gordon still has not crystallized into a complete player.

The Magic are also relying on the development of Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz.

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  • Markelle Fultz has established himself as the team’s starter and has had an impressive year to date. Mohamed Bamba has shown some promising signs as he fully recovers from his own leg injury last year and gets better acclimated to the NBA game.

    But undoubtedly this year, Jonathan Isaac showed the most promise, averaging a career-high 12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. Isaac was filling up a box score and making a real impact defensively.

    The Magic are rightfully excited for Isaac.

    But his knee injury rendered much of this season pretty irrelevant. Isaac was starting to come into his own, building confidence offensively to take shots (sometimes bad shots) while dominating defensively.

    The Magic were starting to build their defense around Isaac’s rim protection and they had to find their way without him. Orlando had a 105.2 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. For the season, the Magic have a 108.7 defensive rating, and at the time of Isaac’s injury, the Magic had a 106.3 defensive rating.

    That certainly suggests the Magic were stronger defensively with Isaac on the floor. And certainly the Magic have lost something without Isaac.

    But perhaps the biggest thing they lost was watching him gain more experience and confidence on the floor. With another season-ending injury, the Magic have had to rebuild Isaac from the ground up.

    It is not good that we are irrationally excited about seeing Isaac running on a zero-gravity treadmill. The team should be eagerly seeing him blossom and mature as a player, forged in the fires of another playoff run.

    Last year — Isaac’s first full season after an ankle injury cost him most of his rookie season — saw Isaac mature and gain confidence. He had several big moments and owned his role as the Magic’s defensive stopper.

    That confidence came into this year when he staked a claim to an All-Defensive Team spot for the next decade it seemed. His offensive confidence was following along.

    Isaac may not ever develop into a go-to offensive option. But he was starting to become a more reliable offensive player. His increase in scoring certainly helped point toward that.

    Jonathan Isaac’s promise with the Magic

    Entering his contract year in 2021, Jonathan Isaac still holds a lot of promise and the Orlando Magic remain invested in him, but there is still a ton of mystery.

    Some of that mystery could have been quieted by going through the Playoffs and the journey of making it. Isaac’s progress just stopped.

    More than anything else, that has been the disappointment of the season. The Magic needed to see improvement from their young players and a pathway to get better.

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    That pathway inevitably leads through Isaac — pressure that is perhaps a bit unfair to place on just one person, especially one who is still so young. The only way Isaac reaches his potential is to play and get time on the court.

    That time was taken away from him this year.

    The Magic’s philosophy has been to develop players within a winning environment. They put their young players in roles that fit their current abilities and will help the team win.

    No doubt, this process was working for Isaac. And it was the central project for this season.

    The Magic’s biggest long-term issue is their lack of top-end talent. The drafts have not played out for the Magic to pick up those players and they have stuck to their veteran players instead of tearing everything down and starting over.

    Isaac for now is the lone player that has shown top-end ability. The real buzz he got for making the All-Defensive Team is about the only national award buzz the Magic have gotten. Judging by how Isaac made an immediate impact defensively, this breakthrough this season seemed like just the beginning.

    The story of this season was about his development. His continued emergence and maturity — perhaps even forcing a decision on the roster to free up more opportunities for him — was the story of the season.

    Even though Orlando is likely to achieve its playoff goal, it still feels a bit empty. The surest sign of the team’s progress was left behind.

    The Magic will undoubtedly be cautious with his return. They are not going to throw him out there for a few games if they are not certain of his long-term health. There is a bigger project.

    Next. Aaron Gordon needs Playoffs to salvage season. dark

    Isaac is still working to come back — whether now or when the 2021 season begins. He is eager to get back. And Magic fans are eager to see it.