By Ryan Brock
This was always the plan. With just 12 games left in the season, this young and upcoming Orlando Magic team is exactly where they’re supposed to be: playing meaningful games at the end of the season and fighting for a spot in the play-in. While the latter is unlikely, they’ve already eclipsed their pre-season over/under expectation of 27.5 wins (per Caesars Sportsbook), a number that anyone who truly follows the Magic knows was a ridiculously low calculation to begin with. And after a 5-20 start to the season, the Magic have largely been a .500 team since, playing exciting, albeit inconsistent basketball.
Well, spoiler alert, but that's precisely what young teams are supposed to do.
Orlando’s two best players, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, rest at ages 20 and 21, respectively. The oldest player in their rotation is 28 year old Gary Harris. Jalen Suggs is 21. Markelle Fultz is 24. Wendell Carter Jr. is still only 23 years old. The list goes on. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be frustrated with the Magic when they make silly mistakes or blow late game leads, but the point is as we approach the end of the season, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture.
The Magic are finally being talked about amongst national media as one of the best young teams in the league. Markelle Fultz is finally being recognized as a good NBA player. Orlando has finally regained some semblance of respect - something they haven’t truly had since the Dwightmare.
Even during the pinnacle of the Vucevic, Gordon, Fournier era, the Magic weren’t respected. They were largely talked about as a joke and one of the laughing stocks of the league. Was it fair? Not quite. But it doesn’t change the facts. Orlando’s biggest accomplishment over the last decade-plus has been two game 1 playoff wins over the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks in subsequent seasons. While D.J. Augustin will forever go down in Orlando Magic lore for his game winner in Toronto, it’s not exactly something to write home about.
But the sun has finally shined down once again on the city of Orlando, and skies are only going to get brighter over the next several seasons.
The Magic have positioned themselves perfectly to become a legitimate, sustainable Eastern Conference contender within the next few years. They’ve built an exciting, young core of high IQ basketball players who possess tremendous chemistry and are extremely fun to root for. But in what is arguably one of the most important offseasons in Orlando Magic history, they must remain patient. What we don’t want is a Minnesota Timberwolves situation. A young promising team with two stars who jumped the gun too early and are now paying a steep price, on top of the ridiculous cost it took to trade for Rudy Gobert in the first place.
That’s not to say if the right opportunity presents itself that the Magic shouldn’t pull the trigger, but a trade for anyone who makes an enormous amount of money better be the right fit. To be honest, as I assess the free agent and trade markets for this upcoming season, I don’t really see a need for the Magic to make a big move.
Of course, there are always players who become available that we would never expect, but unless that happens, the Magic should look to stay the course and continue to focus on in-house development. Let Franz and Paolo take another step forward. See what the promising Jalen Suggs can actually become. Allow Wendell Carter Jr. and Markelle Fultz room to grow. Let Cole Anthony continue to thrive as a scorer off the bench. The Magic already have a plethora of solid pieces, not to mention two potential top 10 draft picks.
The Magic should have one goal this offseason, and it isn’t trading for a star. They absolutely, positively, no questions asked, must add shooting. It’s a non-negotiable. Jeff Weltman and John Hammond have done an admirable job since taking over, but have largely ignored the all-important skill of shooting the basketball in lieu of finding raw talent.
It’s not a bad approach, as they have been looking for high upside basketball players who can help build the foundation of their team for sustained success. Well, thanks to some lottery luck, a few shrewd trades, and solid drafting, they’ve seemed to complete that phase of their mission. Now it’s time for the support phase, and Weltman and Hammond must prove that they understand what it is this team is missing.
The Magic haven’t shot over 35% from three since the 2018-2019 season and are continuously in the bottom third of the league at launching it from deep.
If the Magic want to successfully build around soon to be Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero, they have to find ways to space the floor and give him more room to operate in the paint. Sure, they hope to see continued shooting improvement from Fultz, Suggs, Franz, and Banchero, but that alone won’t be enough. The problem cannot continue to be ignored.
How they go about implementing that shooting will be a fascinating prospect, as there’s not currently a ton of minutes to be had with this current core. A lot of it will be predicated on where they fall on lottery night. A jump into the top of the draft makes the decisions a bit easier, but the Magic brass will have to navigate cautiously to not interrupt what they’ve already established while simultaneously filling the holes that currently exist.
The Magic will have some difficult decisions to make that will solidify the future of the team. Either way, they've put themselves in an envious position as one of the most promising young squads in basketball, and it feels great to once again be excited about the future of Magic basketball.
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