By: Ryan Brock
It’s been nearly two years since Orlando blew it up with the trades of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier. With franchise cornerstones Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner in place for the long-haul, time is running out for the Magic to decide which players on the current roster will stick around them.
Run it back. That was the tune the Magic were singing after a year in which they finished with the second worst record in the league. The Magic returned virtually every piece from last season, banking on a healthier roster and the addition of first overall pick Paolo Banchero to help the team “level up.” That may very well happen, but the start of the season hasn’t quite gone according to plan.
Although trending in the right direction after winning four straight, at 9-20, the Magic have one of the league’s worst records, once again struggling to keep key players on the floor due to a plethora of injuries. Combine that with the disappointing start for the Chicago Bulls, who traded a top-4 protected pick in the upcoming draft to the Magic in the Vucevic trade, and two potential high lottery picks lurk in the shadows.
The value of those picks in what is believed to be an extremely talented 2023 draft class, compounded with the reality that the Magic need to desperately add shooting to its current roster, leads you to believe that the end of the first phase of this rebuild is rapidly approaching. Few players on this roster feel safe as Orlando looks to build around their two blossoming young stars; 20 year old Banchero and 21 year old Franz Wagner.
Those two are considered the future. Two 6 '10 wings who can create for themselves and be playmakers for others is a pretty good start to construct a high-level team in the modern NBA. Sprinkle in the frontrunner for most improved player in Bol Bol and one of the most underrated players in the league in Wendell Carter Jr. and the Magic have one of the most promising young cores in the league. But how does Orlando build around them? Who else on the current roster sticks around? With a roster that is deep on paper but never healthy in reality, the Magic could find themselves in a tough position moving forward, forced to make decisions that they may not yet be ready to make.
The Magic will soon have to wrestle with how they want to approach the second half of the season. If they are within striking distance of the play-in, a possibility that the team is clinging on to, will they look to become buyers? Or will the appeal of top-3 draft odds be too enticing to pass up?
What would help the Magic answer some of these key questions would be to not only get the team healthy, but to stay healthy. The Magic can’t seem to catch a break on the injury front, as one or two players return and another goes down. At this point It’s like clockwork.
On top of that, Orlando is still waiting for the long-awaited return of Jonathan Isaac. Yes, people are tired of the injury excuse, but the fact remains it’s impossible to evaluate a team that never has a real opportunity to play together. According to Spotrac, the Magic rank 1st in the league in total games missed due to injury for three consecutive seasons. It’s an unfortunate series of events that Orlando just can’t seem to shake. But time doesn’t care about injury concerns, and for a young team with a multitude of talented players, time is of the essence.
On the surface, that may seem ridiculous to say. How could a team so young, one who just drafted first overall, be running out of time? For one, multiple players on the team–including fan favorite Cole Anthony–are up for contract extensions at the end of the season. Perhaps Cole will find his niche as a score first guard off the bench, but to this point, it’s proven difficult to measure what his future role is on the team. The same can be said for Okeke, who has proven to be a solid defensive player but hasn’t been able to offer the consistent shooting to lock up a spot in the rotation. The Magic will have to decipher how much they value those two young pieces, because despite the losing, my guess is they’re probably ecstatic to add more top-level talent via the draft, and there will only be so much room on a team that needs to fill some gaping holes.
Those holes mostly come in the form of the guard rotation. With the front-court locked down by the new faces of the franchise, it’s critical that the team finds answers on the best way to compliment them. Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, and the aforementioned Anthony constitute the current group of core guards on the team, but the injuries that have plagued their young careers continue to hinder their development and the ability to gauge their long-term fit with the team.
Markelle Fultz brings plenty to the table, with his ability to organize, get to the rim, and create for others, but his lack of perimeter shooting puts a cap on his overall ceiling as an NBA player. While you won’t find a bigger Fultz fan than myself and the early returns are extremely positive, it’s fair to question how his game will mesh next to players like Franz and Paolo. The same can be said for Suggs, who similar to Fultz, hasn’t yet proven that he can be consistent with his jumpshot.
Suggs was showing major improvement in that area to start his sophomore campaign, especially with his pull-up, but Suggs is currently out with an ankle injury, the same ankle he had off-season surgery on to repair a stress fracture, and there’s cause for concern with his ability to stay on the floor for a prolonged period of time. Assuming the Magic get a high draft pick, it’s almost a certainty they will be looking to upgrade at guard. Which means that the trio of Fultz, Suggs, and Anthony will be fighting to keep a spot on the future roster as the season progresses.
The impending February trade deadline could hint at what the plan is for the future. The team has a few players on expiring deals that could be attractive to contenders; Terrence Ross, Gary Harris, and Mo Bamba come to mind. I would expect the Magic to deal at least one of those players, but it will be interesting to see what archetype of player the Magic bring back in any potential deal. Orlando has desperately needed to add shooting to the roster for what seems like a decade, and those three players represent some of the better shooters on the team.
As players return from injury and minutes begin to tighten, they could look to deal them to simply open up playing time for other players on the current roster. The team is still firmly in the developmental stage, and players like Suggs, Fultz, Bol, Anthony, and Isaac will all demand significant playing time.
On the other hand, looking to add a solid veteran to help stabilize the team and add more leadership isn’t out of the question. It may seem counterintuitive to a team that is trying to develop young talent, but a veteran presence could potentially help expedite the development of certain players on the roster, reminiscent of the Chris Paul acquisition to a young Phoenix Suns team, albeit on a smaller scale. A name like Mike Conley is one that comes to mind. It seems like a long shot for a front office that would be apprehensive to hurt their chances at higher draft odds, but the possibility remains nonetheless.
Another option is to consolidate a few of their players to add more young talent that needs a fresh start in a new city. It’s probably still too early for any sort of franchise altering deal, and there doesn’t seem to be a big name on the trade market that would peak the Magic’s interest, but in an off-season where I expect a lot of roster turnover, the team could elect to get a headstart as they look towards the next phase of their rebuild.
The most likely outcome, however, is that the Magic continue to stay the course. They chose to run it back for a reason, and they still have yet to reap the benefits of a fully healthy roster. The team will sit back and pray to the basketball gods that once these players return, they’re able to remain on the court. That’s really the only way to know what type of team they truly have.
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