Few teams surprised people more last season than the Magic. After years of falling apart mid-season, Orlando finally broke through its self-created ceiling with a surprising playoff appearance. Steve Clifford had his team playing to their fullest potential with the Magic defense coming into its own and great individual performances across the board.
That team also was absolutely at the peak of what it could be. The 2018-19 Orlando Magic managed to snag a game off the eventual champion Raptors and it was awesome for them; one of those moments that made the entire season worth it. The issue is that, even at the time, everyone knew how flawed that group was. The Magic were not a great team or one that seemed especially well constructed. They struggled to play consistent basketball throughout the season, relied on an inconsistent offense, and needed players to play beyond what was expected the on a nightly basis.
No better example of this was than with Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross who were the main source of Orlando’s scoring on most nights. Vucevic anchored their attack in the post, while occasionally floating out to the perimeter, and Ross coming in off the bench as a scorching shooter. Vucevic made the All-Star Game while Ross had the best shooting year of his career. While everyone knew they were going to get paid, the question was should the Magic be the ones to pay them.
On June 30, the Magic answered that question for everyone. Vucevic re-signed with a $100 million deal over four years in a move that, while expensive, felt a little predictable. The Magic didn’t have many other places to spend that money and Vucevic was expected to get a big pay day on the free agency market. Orlando has use for Vucevic as a competent big man while Mohamed Bamba continues to develop his very raw game behind him.
However, once 6 p.m. rolled around and free agency officially opened it became quite clear what the Magic were doing. They were going all-in on their surprise playoff team. They gave $54 million to Terrence Ross over four years and then went out and signed defensive-minded wing Al-Farouq Aminu for $29 million over three years.
The Magic aren’t just doubling down on this roster. They’re tripling. That is a lot of money invested in returning players that could easily see regression next season while also putting even more into a veteran that doesn’t really address any of their biggest needs.
The Magic are obviously concerned about where they’re going to find offensive production if they let both Vucevic and Ross walk, because that’s where it all came from in the previous season, but by adding Aminu they’re ignoring what happens on nights where those two aren’t shooting well. By going all in on the current roster as is, Orlando is putting a ton of pressure on its young players to get better quickly, while also not addressing their biggest position of need at point guard.
D.J. Augustin was a perfectly adequate point guard last year, but he didn’t raise anyone else’s game up with him. Beyond Augustin, their weakness at point guard became very apparent when the Magic had to rely on Michael Carter-Williams to help them finish out the season. Carter-Williams went from out of the NBA to playing crucial backup point guard minutes. That’s how desperate the Magic were at the backup guard position. They somewhat addressed this by trading for former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, but he, of course, has injury issues with his shoulder and as of this month, there was no update on his potential return to the basketball court.
The other area of need the Magic didn’t address with the money they spent on the opening day of free agency is shooting. Evan Fournier fell off a cliff in the 2018-19 season in terms of being a reliable shooter, hitting just 34 percent of his three-pointers. Outside of Ross and Augustin, who was unconscious from three last year, they had Vucevic and Wesley Iwundu as their next two best shooters. The lack of wing shooting was a real problem, especially once you went to the bench unity aside from Ross.
Orlando choosing to double down on the roster as currently constructed, and not addressing areas of need in free agency, is putting a ton of pressure on the young players currently on the roster. Obviously, the Magic want Gordon, Isaac, and Bamba to improve but the Magic need them to improve to a point to where it raises the entire team’s floor and ceiling. It’s hard to imagine those guys making that kind of substantial leap in one offseason, and they’re now likely to go into the luxury tax, at least to start the season, filling out the roster with minimums and their Bi-Annual Exception.
Orlando should be a good defensive team again next season, but that’s the only bit of consistency that should be expected. None of the moves the Magic made in a vacuum are egregious, but the problems come when you add context. Orlando is expecting players that had career seasons to maintain that level of production or in some cases exceed it. They need Vucevic to be just as good. They need Ross to have the best shooting year of his career again. They need Gordon to get better. They need Isaac to get better. They need a lot and there’s little guarantee they’re going to get all that.
Considering the situation the Magic are in, and how likely it is that they hit their ceiling last season, they’re putting a lot of money into a bunch of needs they can’t guarantee. That’s a problem. None of this is to say the Magic have no chance to be good or that they can’t even make the playoffs again, but it’s concerning how similar this summer seems to be to how the Heat approached 2016 after a surprisingly good playoff run, inking guys coming off career years to massive deals, leaving them capped out for years to come.