Orlando Magic struggling to move forward because they don’t know what they have

Jonathan Isaac has all-defensive team potential but his place as a cornerstone for the Orlando Magic is still a mystery. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Isaac has all-defensive team potential but his place as a cornerstone for the Orlando Magic is still a mystery. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are a team between two paths.

It has actually been this way for a while. And it is the debate that is at the center of debates among fans and likely in the backrooms of the Amway Center as the Magic plan their next steps.

Orlando, when healthy, has proven itself capable of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But it is still uncertain if the team can take the next step to compete for home-court advantage or get out of the first round.

The Magic are staying on the periphery of the playoff race as things stand. They are one game behind the Miami Heat for the final spot in the play-in tournament and 2.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for sixth in the East.

It still feels unlikely the Magic would be able to climb out of this middling part of the conference — the play-in tournament is having its intended effect of keeping teams at the bottom of the standings in the playoff chase — and so the Magic are seemingly preparing to transition from one generation to the next.

The only problem is much of that future right now is on the bench with injuries. Two of the Magic’s most important players are out with season-ending ACL tears.

The Orlando Magic are trying to find their way forward and to move out of the middle of the Eastern Conference. They cannot plan that future with two key young players out for the year.

The Magic would like to spend this time trying to figure out how to build its future and begin taking steps forward.

But that time would be best spent if they could see those young players on the court in meaningful games. It would be best spent seeing just how good these young players have become and where they fit into the bigger picture and where they might still grow.

The biggest problem the Magic face in the 2021 season is simply not knowing what they have in their future. The typical information teams gather on their own players through the course of the season has been put on pause. And so has the team’s planning.

How is a team supposed to plan and look to the future when it is stuck in stasis? How is it supposed to understand its young players’ strengths, weaknesses and room to grow when they are not playing?

If there is hand-wringing about the Magic’s future, it is because of this absence. It is hard to look at what this team is supposed to be without seeing it on the floor. It is nearly impossible to plan for the future.

And to be sure, the Magic know they have a future to plan for. They know this team still needs a lot of work.

In his annual rankings of team’s young prospects in reserve, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic kept the Magic at No. 18. Even after adding a talented young point guard in Cole Anthony, the reason is very much that two of the team’s key young players are out for essentially the whole year with torn ACLs. And that does not even get into what their future prognosis is recovering from this major injury.

To say the least, even before the injuries, there was at least some skepticism about whether either Jonathan Isaac or Markelle Fultz could take that mythical leap to stardom and be true franchise cornerstones. Again, this was something the Magic had to find out on the court.

Orlando is deprived of this vital information gathering. And it is this uncertainty that likely has at least a section of the fandom rationally licking their lips at the potential of a high draft pick that an injured season usually leads to.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic are likely not thinking about that quite yet. The team is still in the midst of the playoff race. And for young players’ growth and for team development, the front office simply believes winning and playing in meaningful games is still important.

Still, the desire to begin flipping things over is present. The front office must be thinking of ways to take this team to the next step and begin flipping over the roster. Continuity only takes a team so far.

The Magic likely would have topped out even with full health as a middling playoff team that was still missing something to get out of the first round. The instinct to restart is warranted, especially to move on from players from the previous management regime.

The team’s failed rebuild under Rob Hennigan left Jeff Weltman with a roster that had no clear definition. It was still a relatively young roster, but one with players who were veteran players and who had not proven much in the league.

It seemed when Weltman arrived, the team was due to pull the plug and restart the whole project. If the Magic played the same way they had played the previous five seasons, that would not be too difficult.

Jeff Weltman has helped create some definition with a clear identity that coach Steve Clifford has spearheaded. The team found a competitive base to grow from.

But it is fair to say the team has not taken that next step to grow from that base. Nobody wants to stall out as a playoff also-ran, although in theory that is a better place than the Lottery whirlpool. If the Magic are going to miss the playoffs this season, they want to ensure that it is a one-year thing and they are back in the conversation next year.

Taking that next step though relies on Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz’s development especially. Those are the two players the Magic are most heavily invested in for their future and their upsides are where the Magic’s potential lies.

That was a risk in itself because neither has proven themselves at this level yet. Orlando bet on both with so much more information to gather and learn.

The team still has a lot to learn. But the Magic will not get to see that play out until next season. And it is thus hard for them to take that next step without knowing what these players can be and how to build around them.

So if the Magic are once again quiet at the trade deadline or in the offseason, it is their belief that adding these two players can take the team over the top. Or at least they want to see if they can.

There is already reporting suggesting this is the case. Orlando is going to project patience and try to wait to see what the team has.

The Magic are going to have to make a move eventually. But with the team keeping a mentality that winning is best for development pushing them to keep the mainstays on the roster, Orlando just does not know what it has to build for the future.

Next. Orlando Magic's leading trio carrying team on winning streak. dark

That uncertainty is what is truly crippling the franchise. And patience works to a point.