The Magic Have To Make Some Major Decisions After An Encouraging Step Forward

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After a stunning and exciting Game 1 victory for the underdog, the first round series between the Orlando Magic and the Toronto Raptors ended with a thud. Given that the Raptors were widely expected to make quick work of the Magic, this came as no surprise and, in Game 5 back in Toronto, Orlando put up little resistance on the way to a 115-96 loss in the clincher.

In the coming days, a lot of attention will be paid to the Raptors through the prism of their upcoming match-up with the Philadelphia 76ers but, on the Orlando side, this is the end of the line after an encouraging season-long performance. Orlando entered the campaign with a Las Vegas over/under of 30.5 wins and, despite some early struggles, Steve Clifford’s team lapped those modest expectations in grabbing 42 victories.

On one hand, it would be fair to note that the competition for the bottom three playoff slots in the Eastern Conference was not one to chronicle with intense fervor. On the other, it is worth pointing out that Orlando was comfortably the fifth-best team in the conference during the second half of the regular season, shining without a gigantic influx of talent midseason.

Part of the team’s success can (and should) be attributed to the steady hand of Clifford. The veteran head coach arrived with the reputation of someone who could coax quality defense out of sub-optimal talent and, while the Magic do have some intriguing players on that end, headlined by rangy second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, Orlando was able to perform better than the talent would indicate. Fortunately for the organization, Clifford is on track to be on the bench when the 2019-20 season commences but, from a roster standpoint, there is some uncertainty.

The Magic have more than $85 million in salary committed for next season, including an unsightly $16.7 million for Timofey Mozgov. Mercifully, the 2019-20 campaign is the last one in which Mozgov will be on Orlando’s books but, in the same breath, the Magic will have only $19.3 million in salary cap space as the season begins. That figure does not include salary cap holds for Nikola Vucevic or Terrence Ross.

In short, that means that Orlando has very little in the way of functional wiggle room, with Vucevic having a $19 million cap hold after his breakout campaign. For the season, the veteran center averaged 20.8 points and 12 rebounds per game on the way to his first All-Star appearance and, by all accounts, Vucevic reached a new level this season. However, that success did not translate to the postseason, as his efficiency dropped markedly against a high-level defense in Toronto and the alternatives simply weren’t there for player or team.

With that in mind, the Magic will have an interesting decision to make. On one hand, it may seem obvious to pay Vucevic in the form of a lucrative, multi-year contract, simply because he was the biggest reason for the team’s success this season. On the other, Orlando invested a high-end lottery pick in Mo Bamba prior to the 2018-19 campaign and, beyond that, there is an argument that Isaac needs to be used more as a small-ball center option in the future.

Ross presents a similar problem, albeit on a lesser scale. He provided a solid element of offensive punch this season, to the point that Orlando held onto him instead of taking the best available offer on the table on the table. Unless the Magic are looking to operate over the salary cap and pay him using Bird Rights, however, the most likely result could be an exit to another franchise in free agency.

Orlando also does not have a lottery pick coming in the draft this time around which, of course, is the lone downside of ending the franchise’s playoff drought. One could argue that the Magic haven’t enjoyed huge success when using lottery picks but, simply put, it remains better to pick in the lottery than in the middle portion of the first round.

There is reason to believe that the Magic will receive greater contributions from Isaac, Bamba and even Aaron Gordon, as the trio continues to age and mature. Still, players like Vucevic (if he re-signs) and D.J. Augustin are, if anything, more likely to regress than continue improving, with only the looming X-factor of Markelle Fultz to provide theoretical upside on the current roster.

Orlando should certainly enjoy what they were able to do this season, making their mark in the form of a much-needed playoff appearance. That 42-win campaign doesn’t necessarily ease things from an off-season perspective, though, and the Magic’s first order of business will be deciding what will happen at the center position, whether that includes a $20+ million annual salary for Vucevic or a lot more of Bamba for 2019-20 and beyond.