Orlando Magic tested their future with Jonathan Isaac at center

The Orlando Magic explored their possibilities throughout the season. That included lineups with Jonathan Isaac at center. Could this be a hint of their future?
The Orlando Magic moved Jonathan Isaac around a lot in the Playoffs. They were stretching his versatility and previewing the kind of team they still aim to be moving forward.
The Orlando Magic moved Jonathan Isaac around a lot in the Playoffs. They were stretching his versatility and previewing the kind of team they still aim to be moving forward. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Isaac was in for the fourth quarter of the Orlando Magic's comeback win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team's defense was picking up steam and the lead was dwindling. Isaac was still on a minute restriction, but as the lead shrank and the time ticked down, coach Jamahl Mosley did not take him out. He was too important and gave the Magic such a huge advantage.

He stayed on the floor that evening with the Magic's starting group, playing forward alongside Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter.

The Magic were finally unleashing the size and versatility their roster construction promised. It was at least the germ of an idea of how versatile this team could be to face anything.

It did not take too much longer for the Magic to begin experimenting with another "crazy idea," but one everyone anticipated was coming sooner than later.

By mid-March, Isaac was playing the backup center minutes. He was getting a crash course in new responsibilities as the Magic tried to maximize his size, versatility, rim protection and everything that makes Isaac one of the best defensive players in the league.

By the time the Playoffs rolled around, Isaac was regularly playing center, finishing the last month of the season playing more minutes at backup center than ever before. Orlando kept pushing the envelope on what Isaac could do and how they could deploy his unique blend of speed, athleticism and rim protection.

It was a position Isaac said he needed time to get used to. He was still learning the finer points when he got thrown into the fire for the Playoffs.

This is as much part of the Magic ideal as anything else. They want players who can do everything on offense.

But they also want defenders who can do everything. And Isaac is their secret weapon. If the Magic learned anything perhaps in the Playoffs, it may have been Isaac's limitations as a do-everything defender. But the fact the team could try these ideas and have confidence in them is a testament to Isaac's ability.

Isaac was everywhere for this team. And that is a powerful tool for the Magic ultimately.

"I think the basic principles are the same and then it's really what the game calls for," Isaac said after shootaround before Game 6. "If it's [Darius] Garland, if it's [Donovan] Mitchell, if it's a big, if it's [Evan] Mobley. Just trying to play to their weaknesses really and try my best to use my length to limit them. Really, I just play. I'm not necessarily thinking about one particular guy or if I switch onto somebody else. I'm just going to guard as best I can and see what happens."

The Orlando Magic used Jonathan Isaac's versatility in several ways during the Playoffs

Jonathan Isaac had a lot on his plate as the Orlando Magic tried to figure out the best way to use him defensively, bouncing him from center to defend Jarrett Allen to the perimeter to guard Donovan Mitchell directly at the end of the series.

In all, the Magic had a team-best 102.1 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. Even for a good defensive team, that is quite a leap. It was easy to see why the Magic wanted to get the most out of Isaac defensively.

In the Playoffs though, the Cleveland Cavaliers were very successful in moving him out of the play as the Magic tried him in unusual places—as the primary defender on main perimeter players and as the team's starting center. They did a good job eliminating his ability to be a help defender and ultimate rim protector.

Orlando had a 98.7 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. That was still an improvement over their 100.0 defensive rating for the season, but not nearly the same impact.

The Magic's starting lineup with Isaac at center during the Playoffs still had a -20.3 net rating (85.9/106.2 offensive/defensive rating split). Orlando got off to poor starts in both Games 1 and 2 when it was clear that group was struggling.

Isaac especially had a difficult offensive series, averaging only 6.3 points per game. He made only 41.0 percent of his shots during the Playoffs and while he still hit on 37.0 percent of his 3-pointers, his 1 for 7 showing in Game 2 stood out as a painful performance in such a close series.

The Playoffs seemed like an odd time to be experimenting and throwing Isaac off rhythm—he and the Magic played a lot better when he shifted back to his comfortable bench role. But the Playoffs also were a chance to explore how much the team could use him and how far his defensive impact could go.

That is what the team was doing playing him at center for much of the end of the year.

"He's putting the work in, and I think that's been great," coach Jamahl Mosley said after deploying Isaac at center for the first time against the Brooklyn Nets in March. "His ability to continue to know what he's able to do defensively: guard multiple positions, protect at the rim, finish possessions with the rebound. But then you know, guys are finding him in those corners and he's continued to put that work in to be able to allow his shot to fall."

The Orlando Magic tested how far they can use Jonathan Isaac's versatility throughout the season

The Orlando Magic were not crazy to try the lineup with Isaac at center in the Playoffs. That same group that struggled in the Playoffs had a +5.2 net rating (106.2/101.0 offensive/defensive rating split) in the regular season in 44 minutes.

That was the most-used lineup with Jonathan Isaac at center (playing without Wendell Carter or Moe Wagner). The next most-used lineup featured Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Jalen Suggs and Paolo Banchero and had a +44.7 net rating (148.1/103.4 split) in 13 minutes.

There are probably not enough sample sizes to draw any firm conclusions about Isaac's future at center. But the main point may be that it is an option. And an option worth exploring. An option Isaac was still learning.

"Definitely getting better. Playing pick and rolls, especially defending it, I'm learning how to do that better and just focusing on boxing out," Isaac said after the Orlando Magic's loss to the Sacramento Kings in March. "Playing [Domantas] Sabonis and the other big guys I'll be coming in to play, I have to box out and rebound and just be as physical as I can be and try to limit post-ups. Definitely feeling more comfortable out there running with the guys and finding places where I can be aggressive."

That aggressiveness and physicality is still what Isaac has to learn. That is what seemed to fall short in his Games 1 and 2 stint as Jarrett Allen had 38 rebounds in the first two games. That is something he and the rest of the team have to learn as they prepare for next season and a hopeful return to the Playoffs.

Ultimately, the Magic's end goal is the kind of supreme versatility they see in Isaac. The fact that they can throw a changeup and play lineups with Isaac at center and still be competitive is one of the advantages of their roster and their roster-building philosophy.

The Magic began testing these ideas throughout the 2024 season. And they will surely be growing them throughout their 2025 season as they look to build their roster.

Having a healthy Isaac goes a long way to changing the Magic. He is a game-changing defensive player for this team. The questions for the Magic are still what kind of team they can be and just how versatile a team can be and be successful in the Playoffs.

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Orlando tested out this future with Isaac throughout the year. There is still clearly something worth exploring.