Orlando Magic face daunting future without Jonathan Isaac

The Jonathan Isaac's promising comeback crashed quickly and took the franchise's whole future into turmoil. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
The Jonathan Isaac's promising comeback crashed quickly and took the franchise's whole future into turmoil. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

With that gone, the Magic now enter more perilous and difficult waters. Isaac’s injury and his absence this year will make these decisions harder.

Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman is notorious for being cautious with how he words things and presents information to the public.

Jeff Weltman has even joked about this to the media as Jonathan Isaac prepared for his return. If anything, the Magic are always too cautious.

That caution likely plays a role in the definitive statement Weltman gave to the media in Monday’s postseason teleconference. The Magic will be without their most promising player for the whole year. That is a definitive statement as Weltman looks into the future of his team.

"“How do you assess the team? You assess it for what it is,” Weltman said in a teleconference Monday. “Obviously we will not have Jonathan Isaac next season. So that has to account into our thinking. We will get to all that stuff around the corner here as we start to really do a deeper dive into where we need to get better and start to discuss moving our team forward.”"

The air rushed out of the Magic’s balloon in that game against the Sacramento Kings.

The Magic were rolling, looking refreshed by the layover and excited to have an impact player like Isaac back. He was still playing limited minutes, but his impact and energy were undeniable.

He scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in 16 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets in the opener in the bubble following a 13-point burst in the final scrimmage against the Denver Nuggets.

Isaac had four points, four rebounds and two steals in what was a come-to-Earth performance against the Kings. The Magic were already well on their way to a blowout when Isaac tried to hop step through the lane and came down with a torn ACL.

The Magic lost their next five games in the bubble — more injuries started to pile up in addition to Isaac. It felt like everyone was a bit rattled from watching Isaac work so hard to return to play in time for the season’s restart.

Orlando had a lot to deal with inside the campus beyond Isaac’s injury. But looking to the future, Isaac’s injury looms large.

"“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that his injury is a kick in the teeth for all of us,” coach Steve Clifford said during a teleconference Monday. “He’s a big part of our plan going forward. He’s a very talented player and he also brings great intangibles to our team. To say that injury is not significant is naive on my part and untruthful to you guys.”"

It is still unclear how Isaac’s injury will affect the team’s future plans.

Filling in at forward

Certainly, Orlando will be more careful with how it treats Aaron Gordon, perhaps the team’s best young player without Jonathan Isaac and perhaps the team’s most valuable trade asset. The team played almost the entire season with two of its rotation-level power forwards out of the lineup. It proved difficult to compete at a high level.

Gordon’s importance to this team as currently constructed is now greater because of Isaac’s absence.

But the loss of Isaac goes far beyond the immediate issue at power forward. His development was perhaps the biggest key to the team taking a step forward. Isaac was on track to be on the All-Defensive team and is perhaps the one player on the roster with a clear elite skill.

His internal development was key to the team’s ultimate success and trying to get out of the bottom of the playoff picture.

It is hard to see the team get out of that ringer without him and his development. But the Magic will have to find a way. Just as they found a way without him from Jan. 2 until the resumption of the season.

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  • These are still the elite players, even if the task is significantly tougher.

    "“There are always ways you can get better in this league,” Clifford said Monday. “One of the things about coaching in pro sports as opposed to college sports is all these guys are terrific players. What we have to do is maximize those other 14 spots on our roster. We’ll have enough to win and be successful. We have these months to figure that out. But there are always ways to get better.”"

    Orlando was 13th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions from the time Isaac went out until the season went on hiatus. The team was 20th in offensive rating, scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions.

    The Magic still played like a team that was slightly worse than .500. The team’s defense also slipped considerably. And even the little spurt of offense after the All-Star Break was not enough to help the team climb.

    Isaac was not a dramatic impactor on his own. But the assumption too would have been that Isaac would have gotten better and more confident.

    Orlando found a way to stay afloat, going 15-16 with Isaac out of the lineup and on the shelf with his first knee injury. That stat is probably the most important. But the team was hardly the elite defensive group it hoped to be without Isaac.

    Facing the future

    The Orlando Magic will have a whole offseason to answer some of these questions.

    They will need to see continued improvement and consistency from Nikola Vucevic, someone Steve Clifford says can still improve and get better as a 3-point shooter and working in space. Clifford said he believed Vucevic’s playoffs showed there was another level to his game.

    Gordon is still only 24 and can keep getting better. Despite a poor postseason, Evan Fournier turned in a career season too. They are all young enough to get better and improve still.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    The Magic’s approach will be to treat this team as if it can still get better.

    Clifford said just because a guy is 26 or 27 years old does not mean they are at their peak yet. There is a constant improvement and adjustment. The offseason is where players put in their work to add things to their game.

    They truly return as different players in many ways.

    "“My point is that’s where for the summer or the offseason, we have to have great plans,” Clifford said Monday. “Guys can always get better if they have the right approach. It’s the one thing I’m comfortable with our team, we have guys who will work.”"

    Still, it is hard not to recognize how limiting this can be. The Magic still lack that elite talent on either end who can take the team to the next level. Unless a player takes a big leap this offseason — and it will be a weird offseason regardless with the league not setting clear workout protocols for the offseason — the Magic will essentially be that same team again.

    Sure, there will be changes. But Orlando should have an idea of what it can do.

    The question then will persist. How do the Magic improve with such an important piece to their puzzle out of the lineup for the year?

    Orlando had a lot of difficult questions to answer after this somewhat disappointing season even before Isaac’s injury. But a lot of the chances for success in 2021 road on Isaac’s continued improvement and development. What they could do rode on how confident they were with Isaac’s development.

    But first and foremost for the team is Isaac’s health. Everyone knows the team will handle Isaac’s injury and rehab with care. There seems to be a lot of confidence in this process.

    Orlando Magic left it all on the table, still need more. dark. Next

    With that gone, the Magic now enter more perilous and difficult waters. Isaac’s injury and his absence this year will make these decisions harder.