It took Jonathan Isaac a long time to return to the court that January evening against the Boston Celtics.
Years of recovery and setbacks finally were put to the side to step on the court for a game. A long journey that finally had the reward that hard work is supposed to provide.
Isaac admitted he was nervous before his return game. He missed his first shot badly. But when that second shot went down, he said the nervousness of the moment left him. It felt like he belonged.
Isaac had a strong game in his first game in nearly three years. He contributed to an Orlando Magic win over the Boston Celtics. His defense was on full display even with the short burst of minutes he played as the Magic tried to manage his return after such a long absence.
That was on full display as he played through the rest of the schedule. And then it all stopped.
After 11 appearances and nearly a month of playing, Isaac was shut down for the season. A torn left adductor required surgery and ended his season prematurely. It felt like another year had passed him by.
His promise and skill were evident. But availability is the best ability. And Isaac still has not proven that, as much as he has proven so much else on the floor.
The Magic front office and organization in totality has continually shown support for Jonathan Isaac. But with the new era of Orlando coming into the fold, this upcoming season will be a make-or-break one to see if Isaac will continue being with the team moving forward.
The Orlando fanbase has sadly become all too familiar with getting notifications on Jonathan Isaac being injured or set back in his recovery. Fortunately, this time he is expected to make a full recovery and be available for training camp.
But that time is running out. The Magic are transitioning forward. Isaac has probably already lost his place in the team’s future starting lineup in favor of forwards in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. Things have already changed around him.
The Orlando Magic have remained patient and steadfast in their belief in Jonathan Isaac. But as the team evolves and grows, time is running out for Isaac. He faces a make-or-break season.
So too have the expectations for this franchise. Banchero has already declared next season as playoffs or bust — in multiple interviews — and his teammates surely agree. If Isaac cannot contribute to that postseason run, then the answer for his future is obvious.
Quite simply, if Isaac cannot play a reasonably healthy season, it is time to move on. Whether by trade or by waiver.
Certainly, that suggestion has already started to hit the wires. Eric Pincus of Bleacher/Report suggested the Magic might be ready to move on from Isaac, although his reporting was unsubstantiated. It certainly does feel like Isaac’s place on the team is coming to a head.
His inclusion on Pincus’ list was a statement of the frustration of Isaac’s constant injuries but also a recognition that he can still contribute and play.
Isaac has had the promise and the talent of turning into an All-Defensive, perhaps even Defensive Player of the Year-type player since his second year in the NBA back in 2019. The 6-foot-11, 230-pound forward has displayed perimeter and interior mobility that rivals only the top defenders in the league.
Orlando would adore having that style of player at their disposal especially since Isaac has slowly built a decent ranged shot.
Yet how can an organization build with a player who over the last six years has played 147 out of a possible 473 games? That is a 31 percent appearance rate.
It has left a big hole in the Magic lineup. Orlando has essentially already planned its roster and developed its roster without Isaac in mind. He is a bonus for the team.
The question then is what do the Magic do with him and how long can they wait.
Orlando built flexibility into his contract. Only $7 million of his $17 million contract is guaranteed for this year and no money is guaranteed for the final year of his contract next year. That gives the Magic an out if he simply cannot return.
Trading him would be difficult at this point because of how rarely he has played. It is not like teams are looking to clear cap space for an underwhelming free-agent class. Without attaching picks or a player of higher value, the Magic cannot even expect to get a few quarters to the dollar. Let alone find a player with a matching salary that makes sense for this team.
What Isaac’s promise once sold the fanbase and organization to continuously loosen the reigns and allow his multiple injury rehabs to go by without question of sustainability has come to an end. There is no place now in a franchise with promise around exciting youth to allow for cap to be taken by someone who, sadly by betrayal from his own body, can’t contribute game in and game out.
What Isaac has done for the community will be beloved, what he means to the rabid fans cannot be erased, even his value as a positive role model to our players is superb. Yet taking minutes from other possible solutions in the rotation when he cannot be relied on is doing a disservice to the organization as a whole.
Still, there is value in keeping Isaac. And he can prove himself still to be a valuable player for the franchise.
Isaac could be integral to winning if he has a healthy year. But any long-term injury will likely be the straw that broke the front office’s back. It will be time to move on.
It is rare in today’s NBA to see a player be as valuable as a sixth man or as invaluable to be possibly waived from the team entirely and sadly that is where Isaac finds himself with the Magic as of this moment.