Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
After finally tearing down a core trapped in NBA purgatory (aka the sub-middle), the Magic are now tasked with the most arduous part of their rebuild: giving it discernible shape.
Trading Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic nodded to their intent. It is not a blueprint. Nor is acquiring Wendell Carter Jr., R.J. Hampton and draft equity. Each of them represent an undefined opportunity, embodying the overarching position in which the Magic sit. As Mike Cali wrote back in March for the Orlando Pinstripe Post:
“The jarring part isn’t the dismantling itself—shocking as it may be that a two-time All-Star somewhat unexpectedly was sent packing—it’s that the Magic have very little of a tangible nature to show for it compared to what they gave up. That’s not to say in any way that the trades were a failure, because they weren’t.
“But you can’t buy a Traded Player Exception jersey. Well, I guess you technically can have one made and it would actually be pretty funny. Nevertheless, after these trades, the Orlando Magic are no longer the basketball team you see on the court. The Magic are draft picks, and salary cap flexibility, and ACL rehabs, and hope.”
The extent of the Magic’s hope is in the eye of the beholder. Left relatively untouched heading into next season, they are neither playoff-bound nor roaring toward rock bottom. Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac will return from ACL injuries, deepening the roster’s well of talent without profoundly reinventing it.
Isaac comes closest to meeting the alpha-cornerstone criteria, someone who seems fully capable, at peak health, of winning Defensive Player of the Year. But apex building blocks need to have fleshed out offensive games, whether they’re from-scratch creators or play-finishers. Isaac’s utility is more nonspecific, though he tilts toward the latter. His struggles to stay healthy bring his polestar status into further question.
Nailing the draft isn’t just the Magic’s best shot at reeling in their face of the future. It could be their only one unless they hold an additional fire sale before next season. On the bright side, Orlando may get two bites at the apple. It has a 66.8 percent chance of landing a top-five pick and will slip no lower than seventh. It has a 79.2 percent chance of netting an additional top-10 pick from Chicago.
Past draft results should leave fans skeptical. The Magic have housed five top-seven prospects since 2013: Victor Oladipo (No. 2 in 2013), Aaron Gordon (No. 4 in 2014), Mario Hezonja (No. 5 in 2015), Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Mo Bamba (No. 6 in 2018). None of them turned into The Guy.
Hitting on this year’s class will be slightly easier if Orlando lands inside the top four. The hierarchy seems set within that range. Selecting any lower turns the draft into more of a crapshoot, increasing the odds that the Magic enter next season with a potpourri nucleus: youngsters of varying ceilings who don’t offer a singular springboard into the future.
The pressure is on Orlando to hit with this year’s draft pick(s) either way. Failing that, there must be a commitment to remaining in the top-pick hunt next season.