Orlando Magic must decide whether now is the time to focus more on young players

The Orlando Magic are at a crossroads where their future is clearly getting set up yet they cannot let go of the past. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are at a crossroads where their future is clearly getting set up yet they cannot let go of the past. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic have added some great young talent to their team. Now they must decide if now is the time to shift their focus to them fully or continue their hybrid model.

The Orlando Magic’s biggest acquisitions this offseasion will be two first-round rookies with forward Chuma Okeke signing his rookie contract after a year recovering from injury following his draft selection in 2019 and guard Anthony Cole who was picked in Wednesday’s draft.

Both join other young prospects on the team including Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, who is likely to miss the entirety of next season with an injury.

Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, when he was healthy, played important roles in the rotation last season and, while Mohamed Bamba endured a frustrating campaign, he still has the potential to play a key role going forward. Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke will no doubt be relied upon to make a decent contribution too in their rookie seasons.

The team has used the opening days of free agency to establish more depth on the roster. Wing Dwayne Bacon has joined his former coach Steve Clifford, while swingman James Ennis and guard Michael Carter-Williams have signed up for another season with the Magic.

These early moves suggest Orlando will be content with keeping things largely the same while trying to develop the young players on the roster. It certainly appears as though there will be no big free agency moves, so attention has quickly turned to the trade market.

The team is at a real crossroads this offseason. Putting aside Isaac’s injury, a point has now reached where Clifford could name a starting five compiled of the exciting prospects mentioned, all of whom are 23 and under and all acquired by Jeff Weltman. Weltman has begun to put his stamp on this team.

The future in focus

That much will not be expected from the young players this early on in their careers, but a team of Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba is intriguing. It has the characteristics Jeff Weltman, Steve Clifford and company have tried to implement and build around — notably speed, length and defensive fundamentals.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Fultz made important strides forward last season after a nightmare start to his NBA career but still has plenty more improving to do. Meanwhile, Isaac and Bamba’s development stalled slightly due to injury and lack of time on the court respectively.

They all still have a promising future that is the focus for the Orlando Magic and their building.

But ultimately, the team’s offensive focus remained on the trio of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. That future is still under development for the time being.

All three have been instrumental in getting the team back into the playoffs these past two seasons but have not been able to push the team past the first round, though Aaron Gordon was absent for the entire Milwaukee Bucks series through injury.

Vucevic once again drove a lackluster offense into the postseason, averaging 19.6 points per game as the main focal point of the team. His impact on this team has been tremendous. But at 30, he has likely already reached his peak.

Evan Fournier, who has taken up his player option with the team for next year, had his best season as an NBA player, averaging 18.5 points per game and shot 39.9 percent from three. For a team that lacks shooting, especially from deep, his presence on the court was an important one.

Unfortunately, he endured a very tough postseason which raised question marks over his future.

Gordon’s season was disrupted by injury but he appeared to take a slight step back offensively, averaging 14.4 points per game and shooting just 30.8-percent from three. Nevertheless, it proved to be another season where Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon formed the core of a team that made it to the postseason.

That is something. But not the progress the team needs. And there is no standing still in the NBA.

Rising tides

The question is how long the front office should stick with this. The bottom half of the Eastern Conference is growing significantly stronger and the team simply cannot afford to risk standing still.

The Washington Wizards have an All-Star guard in John Wall returning to partner Bradley Beal and picked up a very exciting prospect in Deni Avdija in the draft.

A young Atlanta Hawks team looks to have acquired Bogdan Bogdanovic according to reports and Danilo Gallinari and drafted Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth pick. The Charlotte Hornets opted to select the intriguing LaMelo Ball at three and has also signed Gordon Hayward according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, while Chicago’s new head coach Billy Donovan will be seeking to mount a playoff push with new prospect Patrick Williams.

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The trio of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier are still young enough and good enough to carry on performing well and have proven their ability to get a team into the postseason. There is a real possibility that they could do this again next season even with the increased competition in the Eastern Conference.

But the path back to the playoffs is harder now. And the team does not seem to have a clear path beyond the 7th- or 8th-seed.

The Magic will be in the conversation of at least making the play-in tournament next season with the roster in its current format. But after several years of continuity, it seems as though we know what we are getting from this team. It would take a lot of internal improvement and some big rookie performances to take that next step.

If the desire is for another season of playoff action and there is the belief that the current roster can improve on winning just one series game then staying the current course is justifiable.

But at some point, the front office will have to make some bigger, riskier and more ambitious moves. There is the possibility of soon tying two fascinating young players down to bigger contracts in Isaac and Fultz, setting up the team’s future even further.

The likes of ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst have suggested that the Magic may be interested in going younger and sacrificing another season of competing for the eighth seed, which is certainly a viable option.

One of the most frustrating places to be in the NBA is stuck in the middle of the conference, finishing seventh or eighth to be eliminated in the first round and drafting at 15th or 16th. That is what the Magic have been and could continue to be without any big moves.

That has forced the Magic to consider their focus more closely.

Seeking the market

Losing Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon would undoubtedly be an enormous risk. There is the potential for it to backfire if the deals are wrong and it is a long way back from the very bottom.

However, with Fournier’s contract expiring at the end of next season, Gordon having only two years left on his deal and Vucevic hitting the age of 30, the Orlando Magic cannot afford to miss the window of opportunity that is still available.

The Gordon debate is a particularly intriguing one. At 25, he could still form a part of the young core going forward, but he has so far failed to reach the heights many had hoped when he was drafted after six years in a Magic jersey. The forward pairing of Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon does not exactly complement each other either.

Various reports have suggested that the front office is having discussions about Aaron Gordon trades. His combination of offensive and defensive skills makes him an attractive proposition at an affordable contract so the team has a decision to make over whether they want to call time on his Orlando career, despite the possibility he could still improve.

Vucevic’s bigger contract is more difficult to trade but his form these past two seasons and his ability to stretch the floor and knock down shots from the center position is a sought-after skill set in today’s NBA. When it comes to Fournier, a trade scenario would have to be found with a team that needs a short-term scoring and shooting boost, for example at a contending team.

All three at least have some value in the trade market. The deals might not be perfect and may happen nearer to the deadline as opposed to the offseason, but there is an opportunity to acquire pieces to help build for the future while maintaining some experience to help the younger prospects.

There is clearly a path and a decision the team needs to make. Especially with the team’s high payroll and future financial decisions set for Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz.

Orlando cannot keep walking both paths. They have to prepare for their future and make that the priority. Even if it means a short-term loss.

Play-in series a double-edged sword for Magic. dark. Next

The Magic’s draft picks have established a future for the team. Now, a decision has to be made on whether it is the time to move more towards the future at the expense of the current core.