Orlando Magic are back down a position without Jonathan Isaac

The Orlando Magic are again playing short at the power forward position. With the Playoffs coming up, the team will need to find a way to fill it in.

When the Orlando Magic were struggling to find their rhythm and something resembling their identity through January and February, general manager John Hammond took to saying the team was playing without an entire position.

The team lost forward Jonathan Isaac and was already without Al-Farouq Aminu, who tore his meniscus in December. The Magic were relying almost exclusively on Aaron Gordon to fill the power forward position. All the while he was dealing with his own lingering injury.

Health has been the story for the Magic the entire 2020 season. The Magic have not been able to be fully healthy with every player on the roster available since the beginning of the season. And even that was short-lived.

The beginning of the restart to the season was about as healthy as the Magic have been all year — and that was even with James Ennis returning from his own COVID-19 diagnosis and Markelle Fultz regaining his conditioning after entering the campus late to deal with a personal matter. Orlando’s inspired play in the first two games certainly suggested a team that was re-energized and ready to play.

The way the Orlando Magic played in Tuesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers suggested a team that had to learn how to play all over again. They were again without a position, their depth stretched thin and their margin for error too small.

Orlando is back where it was in January and February.

The most immediate impact of Jonathan Isaac’s absence from the team is how much it guts the team’s depth at forward and how it takes away the team’s size and length, the two physical traits the team has gone out of its way to acquire and feature.

And the playoffs are all about matchups. The Magic now have a clear matchup disadvantage once again. One that will be tougher to cover up as the games matter more.

Look no further than that game against the Pacers.

Aaron Gordon did not play a strong defensive game — T.J. Warren still went off for 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting. But as the Magic were trying to work their way back into the game, Gordon picked up his fourth foul and had to leave.

Wesley Iwundu checked in to give the Magic more versatility and speed to defend T.J. Warren. T.J. Warren almost immediately took Wesley Iwundu to the post, spun off him and finished at the rim with the foul. Iwundu, a good defender in his own right, could do little with Warren’s size and speed.

The play was a microcosm of how much more the Magic are going to have to lean on Gordon.

Filling in the minutes

Coach Steve Clifford seemed to sense that too. Perhaps recognizing the importance of the game and needing to make up ground, Steve Clifford leaned heavily on Aaron Gordon throughout the game. He played 32 minutes, by far the most since the team entered the campus and resumed the season, including the entire first quarter.

Steve Clifford said before the game that filling in Jonathan Isaac’s minutes would be somewhat by committee. It would depend on the matchup more than anything else.

Playing Gordon more is certainly part of that equation. Clifford said the medical staff’s data and observations suggested to him Gordon was one of the players who could handle more minutes.

The other part is figuring out which situations and which matchups fit Wesley Iwundu or Gary Clark more. Clifford decided Iwundu was the better matchup for the Pacers’ smaller lineups. Clifford will still have to get a feel for the right time to deploy players and the right way to make the rotation. That is still a work in progress.

Orlando of course played without Isaac, a point everyone within the organization is willing to make. Isaac’s addition to the roster for the resumption of the season was always something of a bonus.

From Jan. 2 until March 10, the Magic were 15-16 with a 110.5 offensive rating and 111.3 defensive rating. These numbers are higher than their season averages, but the net rating tracks the overall season average too. The defense is significantly worse — Orlando had a 106.3 defensive rating before Isaac’s injury.

Isaac indeed makes a major difference defensively. That was evident from his brief spurt of minutes in the scrimmage against the Denver Nuggets and his time in the games against the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings.

Missing Isaac

The big thing the Orlando Magic probably missed from Jonathan Isaac was the energy he provides with his defensive playmaking. It really does make everything easier for all the players. They are able to make mistakes because Isaac can clean them up or make up for it with plays elsewhere.

All that is gone. And the team struggled to fill those minutes with Aaron Gordon off the floor in the time Jonathan Isaac was out.

From Jan. 2 until March 10, the Magic had a 112.3 offensive rating and 112.7 defensive rating (-0.4 net rating) with Gordon on the court, the best mark of any starter on the team. With Gordon off the floor, the Magic had a 102.7 offensive rating and 103.9 defensive rating (-1.2 net rating).

That is close to Gary Clark (114.4/115.3, -0.9 net rating) but the clear differences in the numbers are present. And neither is particularly good. The Magic struggled to fill all those minutes.

Orlando signed Clark hoping he could provide some versatility and shooting off the bench. But even that has been a mixed bag. Clark has played in 19 of the Magic’s 25 games since he signed with the team and played more than 10 minutes in 12 of those games.

Most notably, the Magic opted not to use him against the Pacers on Tuesday.

And this is where the difficulty comes in. It is one thing to have a set rotation or play by-committee during the regular season. But the lack of depth will become more apparent and evident when the playoffs come around.

The matchup problem

The Playoffs are all about matchups. Teams can hone in on every weakness and every advantage they can find on another team. And they exploit it.

So this weakness behind Aaron Gordon now at power forward is a clear weakness. One the team seemed to recognize even after last year’s playoff appearance.

The Orlando Magic doubled down on big, versatile forwards in free agency exactly for this reason. They saw how Pascal Siakam dominated Terrence Ross on the low block as the Magic went to its smaller lineup to finish, opting to go with Ross’ shooting over Isaac’s defense late in Game 3 especially.

The Magic, in signing Al-Farouq Aminu, hoped they would always be able to play a tough-minded, switchable forward on defense at all times. It seemed like that was their insurance against guarding Siakam when they met again.

They doubled down on it again for next season in drafting Chuma Okeke. He figures to have a key role in the rotation now with Isaac likely to miss the entire 2021 season.

Isaac’s injury — and Aminu’s continued injury — has left the Magic exposed at power forward once again. It has left them leaning on Gordon even more — he leads the team in minutes per game at 32.7 per game for the second straight year.

Gordon said after Tuesday’s game he believes he has another level to reach before the Playoffs. His determination to try to get the Magic back into Tuesday’s game was some sign he could elevate his game again. And indeed, Gordon was the Magic’s best player during the 2019 Playoffs.

The Magic will be leaning on Gordon again. He will have to do anything and he has become the Magic’s most indispensable player in trying to secure the 7-seed and trying to make noise when they get to the playoffs.

Orlando is down a position once again. And the team is scrambling to find the right way to play again with the postseason on the horizon.