While a number of playoff teams underwent seismic changes this offseason, the Orlando Magic largely opted for continuity instead.
Fresh off a career-best season, center Nikola Vucevic re-signed on a four-year, $100 million deal that descends in value each season. The Magic also re-signed backup center Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million deal and brought in former Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu on a three-year, $29.2 million contract.
Those three will join a trio of young lottery picks—Aaron Gordon (No. 4 in 2014), Jonathan Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Mo Bamba (No. 6 in 2018)—to form one of the NBA’s deepest frontcourts.
But since Gordon, Isaac and Aminu all operate best as 4s rather than 3s, Orlando may need to resolve its logjam upfront sooner than later.
The curious thing is they’ve had this problem for the last two seasons or so and, rather than addressing it by shuffling some parts, they appear to have doubled down on collecting “assets” whose value is depreciated by the league-wide spacing evolution.
The Magic have previously attempted to solve their dilemma by splitting Gordon’s minutes between both forward positions. Whereas he logged 91 percent of his playing time at the 4 in 2017-18, he spent only 60 percent there and the other 40 percent at the 3 this past season.
Orlando outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Gordon at the 3, according to Cleaning the Glass, compared to 1.8 points per 100 possessions with him at the 4. However, that lineup data is somewhat skewed since he logged a grand majority of those possessions at small forward alongside Isaac at the 4.
On a per-possession basis, Gordon was slightly more effective with Isaac off the floor. He averaged 23.2 points on 44.7 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per 100 possessions sans Isaac, whereas it was 22.0 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.8 blocks alongside the Florida State product.
The most noticeable difference was his three-point shooting. Gordon drilled 83 of his 218 three-point attempts sans Isaac, whereas he shot only 38-of-129 from deep (29.5 percent) with him.
Both Isaac and Vucevic are capable of knocking down triples, but neither shoots a high-enough volume or efficiency to command tight defense on the perimeter. Since third-year point guard Markelle Fultz’s long-range shooting also remains an enormous question mark for now—as does most of his game since he’s hardly played during his first two years—lineups featuring Gordon, Isaac and Vucevic put a ton of pressure on D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross to stretch the floor.
Perhaps zigging toward larger lineups while the rest of the league zagged toward small-ball will pay off for the Magic. The Golden State Warriors are no longer the preordained dynasty they were during the Kevin Durant era, and teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers could bring two- and three-big lineups back in vogue.
The Magic did have the league’s eighth-best defense last season, and they were fifth after the All-Star break. Having long, versatile forwards like Gordon and Isaac gives the switchability that teams desire, even if lineups featuring both may prevent the former from maximizing his offensive potential.
Offense will again be the big question in 2019-20. Orlando ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency this past season, and it was tied for the fewest points per 100 possessions (95.8) of any team during the playoffs. After stealing Game 1 from the Toronto Raptors on the road, 104-101, the Magic failed to crack the 100-point threshold throughout the rest of that series.
Fultz may end up being the X-factor for this rotation. If he regains the shooting form that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, he’ll give Orlando a much-needed long-range threat and shot-creator. That might allow Gordon and Isaac to continue playing in tandem for the next few years.
It’s unclear when (or if) that might happen, though.
In mid-July, Magic head coach Steve Clifford told Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson of SiriusXM NBA Radio that Fultz has “made good progress,” but the team still doesn’t have a timetable for his return. However, he did speak to how Fultz could hypothetically rectify some of Orlando’s offensive issues:
“If you look at us and you’re speaking about offense, we got a lot better on offense as the year went on. Our biggest problem is—everybody talks about the three-point game. The game is still the same thing offensively. It’s all about penetration, and that part doesn’t change. Our biggest weakness is we don’t get the ball going into the paint consistently every night, so we don’t get as many spot-up threes and we don’t shoot enough free throws, which are Markelle’s strengths, potentially. So his fit, or his strengths of what he could bring to our team, obviously stand out.”
Even if Fultz is ready to go by training camp, the Magic can’t count on someone with 33 career regular-season games under his belt to immediately cure their offensive woes. Instead, they may need to run more of their offense through Gordon—who averaged a career-high 3.7 assists per game this past season—if they insist on trotting him out at the 3 alongside Isaac.
Bamba, who averaged 16.3 minutes per game as a rookie, is more of a long-term project, so the Magic figure to continue leaning on Vucevic at the 5 for now, especially with that shiny new contract. When Vucevic rests, they could downsize with Isaac or Gordon at the 5 alongside Aminu at the 4 if they want to dabble in small-ball lineups.
This would seem to indicate Birch and Aminu will play the least, even though both may be the highest values when comparing their defensive production to their palatable contracts. Neither moves the needle on offense, however.
Finding the optimal pairings will be the tricky part, but something eventually has to give. Barring injuries, there won’t be enough minutes to go around to keep everyone happy.
Orlando wisely structured Vucevic and Gordon’s contracts to descend each year, which should only increase their trade value. Gordon will make a paltry $16.4 million in 2021-22, below the likes of Terry Rozier ($17.9 million) and Ricky Rubio ($17.8 million). He could be the salary-matching centerpiece of a blockbuster Magic trade.
For now, the Magic should wait to see how Gordon and Isaac build upon their partnership from last season and whether Fultz can be the missing piece for their foundation. But if Orlando gets off to a slow start and the frontcourt logjam leads to bubbling tension in the locker room, a trade-deadline shakeup may be necessary.
The Magic curiously doubled down on last year’s problem, but they also may have created the flexibility to solve it once they figure out who is worth building on.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.