The Orlando Magic were incredibly lucky in terms of health last season. Their top six rotation players—Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin, Jonathan Isaac and Terrence Ross—combined to miss only 16 games. They rode that good fortune to a 42-40 record and their first playoff berth in seven seasons.
They’ve been far less fortunate in 2019-20.
Vucevic is currently sidelined with a right ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him at least until late December, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Orlando’s “big” free-agent acquisition, Al-Farouq Aminu, is now out indefinitely with a torn meniscus in his right knee, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. And Fournier suffered a hyperextended knee Sunday against the Golden State Warriors, per Josh Robbins of The Athletic, although he returned to the game to score a team-high 32 points in the 100-96 Magic win.
With Vucevic and Aminu sidelined, the Magic’s bloated frontcourt is suddenly looking perilously thin. Behind Gordon and Isaac are second-year big man Mo Bamba, third-string center Khem Birch—who has been starting in Vucevic’s absence—and rarely used reserve Amile Jefferson.
Wings Fournier and Ross, along with point guard Markelle Fultz, have absorbed more offensive responsibility with Vucevic sidelined, but Isaac may be the key to keeping the Magic afloat amidst their recent wave of injuries.
Orlando’s offense has been atrocious all season—the Magic rank 29th in the league with 102.5 points per 100 possessions—but they’ve been particularly impotent without their All-Star center. In the five games since Vucevic went down, the Magic have gone 2-3 while mustering only 100.4 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst mark leaguewide.
Fournier has led the way with 24.8 points on 46.2 percent shooting, while Fultz and Ross are chipping in 14.6 and 14.2 points, respectively. But no Orlando player provides the type of two-way upside that Isaac does.
He is one of only two qualified players—joining Los Angeles Lakers big man Anthony Davis—to be averaging at least two blocks and one steal per game this season. Among the 56 players who have defended at least four shots at the rim per game while playing at least 10 games, Isaac ranks fifth in field-goal percentage allowed (47.6 percent).
He is also currently second leaguewide in defensive box plus/minus (5.5)—trailing only Oklahoma City Thunder center Nerlens Noel—and he’s tied for sixth in defensive win shares (1.2). Isaac’s 6’11” frame allows him to guard anyone from wings to centers, which is a huge reason why the Magic boast a top-10 defense at the moment.
That type of defensive impact should have Isaac in the running for an All-Defensive team nod if he keeps it up. But he’s also making strides on offense in his third NBA season, which is critical for an Orlando team that is woefully short on reliable shot-makers.
During the Magic’s first game without Vucevic, Isaac erupted for a team-high 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting in a 111-106 loss to the Indiana Pacers. He’s cooled off since, averaging only 12.0 points on 37.3 percent shooting, but he’s still setting career highs in points (13.0), assists (1.5) and made three-pointers (1.3) per game.
“I want to be better offensively, regardless,” Isaac recently said, per Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “… I want to be a two-way player who wreaks havoc on offense and on defense. I just focus on that, figuring out what I can do to get better and keep on trying my best to be aggressive and figuring out ways to help the team.”
Isaac isn’t quite a go-to scorer yet, but he’s quietly carving out a larger share of the offensive pie, particularly in Vucevic’s absence.
Last season, 76.3 percent of Isaac’s made field goals were assisted. This year, he’s down to 69.0 percent, including only 59.3 percent of his made two-point shots. The Magic won’t routinely ask him to create off the dribble, nor should they, but Isaac’s proving increasingly capable of doing so in a pinch.
His shot profile is also taking a turn in the right direction: He’s attempting a career-high 36.0 percent of his total shot attempts within three feet of the basket while taking a career-low 9.3 percent of his shots between 16 feet and the three-point arc. Although Isaac’s three-point rate has dropped from 43.5 percent last year to 36.0 percent this year, he’s setting new personal bests in true shooting percentage (55.8) and effective field-goal percentage (52.6).
With Gordon scuffling this season—he’s averaging only 12.4 points on 39.2 percent shooting—Isaac is becoming the two-way force Orlando hoped it had in Gordon. He’s doing so while logging 67 percent of his minutes at small forward, too, even though he might be better suited as a stretch-4 who can blow past plodding traditional bigs.
The Magic have three winnable games coming up against the Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers, although none are gimmes with Vucevic and Aminu sidelined. But after that, they embark upon a seven-game stretch against the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers.
All that could put them into a troublesome hole, even in an Eastern Conference where the eighth seed seems destined to finish around .500 at best.
For the Magic to survive in Vucevic’s absence—additional games against the Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers loom large at the end of the month, too—they’ll need Isaac to continue his smothering defense while absorbing a larger role on offense. If he does so, Orlando may be able to weather this early-season storm and solidify itself for one of the East’s final few playoff spots.