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The Orlando Magic enter this year hoping internal consistency and growth will help them stay competitive in a suddenly more crowded Eastern Conference. Here are their five biggest questions for 2020-21.
1. An impossible task: Try your best to explain what the Orlando Magic’s goal is for this season.
What is a good season for the Magic, exactly? The team has been the East’s seventh or eighth seed over the past two years, and looks to be in the mix for one of those two spots this year. They haven’t made any meaningful roster changes, with former Charlotte Hornets fourth guard Dwayne Bacon as their only free agent signing. And most of their core is in their primes — there’s little growth to expect from Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, or Terrence Ross. Unless Markelle Fultz takes a leap, or Cole Anthony is another Donovan Mitchell, the Magic continue to be the league’s standard bearer for mediocrity, a clear step below the Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers talent wise, but far too competent to be challenged by the Cleveland Cavaliers or Charlotte Hornets.
It’s not a particularly inspiring life, but the Magic’s goal this season might just be to wait in the wings for chaos to strike elsewhere, and prepare to take advantage. There are more talented teams than Orlando in the East, but some teams have very tenuous situations that could go south, quickly. The four teams most likely to be right ahead of Orlando are Indiana, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington; The Pacers and 76ers might be impacted by chemistry issues, Atlanta’s defense is completely theoretical, and the Wizards might be the most shallow roster in the league, meaning injuries or COVID hitting them might quickly have them bottoming out fully. Even Brooklyn, relying on two crinkly stars coming off season-ending injuries, might have a nightmare season that mucks up the low end of the East playoff race.
If any of these disasters becomes reality, who is best poised to capitalize? Steady, boring, capable Orlando, riding what should still be a top-10 defense to another comfortable No. 7 or 8 seed.
2. What are the expectations for Markelle Fultz in 2020-21?
Fultz has done a reasonable job of fleshing out his skill set despite playing like a 90s point guard. Last season, his finishing ability found its footing, and he truly looked to have NBA strength for the first time, which allowed him to take a leap as an initiator and put his outstanding defensive instincts to full use at the point of attack. Without jumper confidence from outside, he isn’t going to deliver on the promise of his number one pick billing, but he’s turned into a capable mid-range shooter and finisher, which is enough scoring punch to keep Orlando’s offense flowing with him on the floor.
The next step for Fultz probably should come as a facilitator, where he’s been up and down through his three NBA seasons. Fultz’s strong handle has allowed him to remain a low-turnover initiator, but he rarely forces the issue, and is mostly a reactive passer instead of a proactive one. To take the next step, the expectation should be that Fultz be a little more aggressive this season as a passer, taking more risks and trying to pass teammates open and create opportunities for others out of his attacking chances. If Fultz is going to be a score-first point guard without a 3-point shooting threat, he needs to take the initiative to make his passing pair with his scoring, because that can keep the lanes open for him to get to the rim as defenses adjust to him. If Fultz can hover around six assists per game this season, he’ll probably be a lot more effective, both in his individual numbers and Orlando’s overall offensive output.
3. Why couldn’t Cole Anthony be a meaningful contributor right away?
Anthony, the Magic’s first-round draft pick, has some tools that should help him contribute right away at the NBA level. His athleticism and instincts will allow him to have an impact on the defensive end early on, and he was UNC’s best defensive backcourt player from day one last year, which hopefully means he will pick up the Magic’s system quickly. He also has a good, functional pull-up jumper, and if that clicks early on, there’s potential two-way impact for Anthony as a rookie.
The problem of course, is why Anthony fell from potential top-three pick to the Magic at pick 15. Anthony has the opposite problem of Fultz; Fultz is a good finisher but horrible outside shooter, whereas Anthony can shoot, but has shown nothing at the rim as a finisher. The hope is that his finishing numbers at UNC were because of a bum knee and crowded spacing, but just 20 percent of Anthony’s shots came at the rim, and he hit 53.6 percent of them. That’s bad, and his slight frame is going to ensure that those numbers continue through at least this season. And if you can’t finish, it’s very hard to have gravity as a young point guard unless you’re a Trae Young-level shooter, which Anthony isn’t.
4. Why should I get excited about Chuma Okeke this season?
Okeke returns from his ACL surgery recovery at a perfect time, with Jonathan Isaac likely missing the entire season with an ACL recovery of his own. It may seem difficult to get hyped about a 16th overall pick who missed his entire first season with injury, but make no mistake — if the athleticism returns for Okeke, he’s one of the most fun prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft class. On offense, Okeke doesn’t have many go-to skills, but he doesn’t take anything off the table, either, showing good passing decision-making while at Auburn and filling space well as a dive man and transition finisher. He’s going to be the fifth man in the pecking order whenever he’s on the floor, but he’s a very capable outlet guy, and will surely capitalize on what he’s given in looks at the rim, probably with a few high level dunks thrown in for good measure.
The real fun will be on the defensive end, where he’s a perfect fit for the Magic’s defensive system. Okeke might have been the most advanced help defender in last year’s class, and he cuts off driving lanes from the weak side with the best. We will still have to see if his agility returns to its former levels, but Okeke’s a joy to watch as a reactive off-ball defender, snuffing out drives with quick rotations and full-bodied kamikaze challenges of opponents at the rim. It helps that he’s particularly nimble and quick-witted at a large 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame, and it’s likely he’s going to be a positive on this end of the floor from the jump. Expect him to do a reasonable Isaac impression at the four of Orlando’s defense, which is high praise for a rookie.
5. What should the Magic be doing with Aaron Gordon?
This seems like an ideal time to really see what the extent of Gordon’s new-found passing acumen looks like. Quietly, Gordon has blossomed as a facilitator over the past two years, peaking last season with 3.7 assists per game. In a way, adding Jonathan Isaac has helped Gordon get more opportunities for creation — the Magic obviously want to allow Isaac to make use of his court vision and on-ball scoring ability, and that has meant building plays into the offense for the three or four to initiate, benefitting Gordon in the same role.
Now, Isaac is out, and Gordon is going to be the primary guy tasked with making those secondary playmaking reads. Still an effective driver, getting Gordon in more pick-and-roll opportunities is probably on the radar for the Magic on offense, which will allow him to see the floor more effectively and turn his passing from nice perk to necessary asset. It also might help him bump his scoring numbers, though pull-up shooting has never been a huge part of his arsenal.
Gordon can get lost in discussions about the Magic, operating as the team’s fourth option behind Vucevic, Fournier, and Isaac. But with Isaac out, Gordon’s performance in taking on additional responsibilities might be the thing that pushes Orlando over the edge from mediocre to legitimately good on offense.