Wishing Upon a Star in the Shadow of the Magic Kingdom
Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. This edition focuses on the Magic as the team goes through yet another rebuild.
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true
• When You Wish Upon a Star, Pinocchio, 1940
The Orlando Magic have hitched their wagon to quite a few stars during their time as an NBA franchise. Shaquille O’Neal! Penny Hardaway! Tracy McGrady! Grant Hill (sigh)! Dwight Howard! Bismack Biyo … well, hey, no one can have it all.
Playing in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, it helps to have a marquee attraction, but, right now, there’s perhaps no team in the league that has a more anonymous roster. Gone are Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, the trio that somehow led the 33-40 Magic to a playoff berth in the 2020 bubble. Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac are recovering from torn ACLs. Ask anyone who the best player who will be suiting up for Orlando on opening night of the 2021-22 season is and their nose would probably grow. No one knows for certain.
But the cupboard isn’t totally bare for Jamahl Mosley, the former Mavericks assistant whom the Magic tabbed as their next head coach on Sunday. Cole Anthony was one of three rookies in NBA history to average 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in less than 30 minutes per game. Wendell Carter Jr. is a potential two-way difference maker who’s still only 22. R.J. Hampton was once thought to be a top-5 pick in the 2020 draft and played well over the last month of the season after being part of the trade that sent Gordon to Denver. Fultz and Isaac showed flashes of possible stardom prior to their injuries. And there are two top-10 picks, or perhaps the ammunition to trade up, in a solidly deep draft.
Is it time to revolutionize the rebuild in Orlando or continue to acquire as many young assets as possible and let things evolve? Let’s take a deeper look.
Keep the Picks or Package Them?
The Magic finished with the third-worst record in the league and had a better than 50% chance of staying in the top four of the draft, but fell to fifth with their own pick. On the plus side, they’ll also have Chicago’s pick at No. 8 due to the Vucevic deal (with another top-4 protected pick coming from the Bulls in 2023).
That sounds enticing but, on a roster that’s currently more spare parts than a team with budding stars and a quick path to contention, it’s a tricky spot considering the conventional wisdom is that there are four potential stars in the draft. Might Orlando consider packaging 5 and 8 to move up to No. 2 (Houston) or No. 3 (Cleveland) to go after Jalen Green or Evan Mobley?
Obviously, those scenarios would hinge on the Rockets or Cavaliers showing interest in accumulating assets rather than taking a swing at a more likely star, which isn’t how most front offices operate once a particular draft becomes more than just a hypothetical.
Even if the Magic can’t get a team to budge, they should be in pretty decent shape. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs could potentially slip to five, where you likely take him and ask questions about the potential fit with Hampton, Anthony and Fultz on the roster later. If he doesn’t, Jonathan Kuminga and Scottie Barnes will be there, leaving you the choice between one of the draft’s most impressive physical specimens and a player who can seemingly guard one through five on certain days. At 8, maybe Orlando takes a chance on Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, who isn’t quite the Superman that Howard was in his days in Central Florida but can still leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Whether he chooses to be aggressive in shopping the pick(s) or stands pat, general manager John Hammond is in good shape to deliver a much-needed injection of potential star talent to this roster.
What About the Old(er) Guys?
Let’s be clear: Old is a very relative term here. The Magic don’t currently have anyone on their roster who was born in the 1980s, which is an exciting way of saying that one of the league’s youngest franchises has been alive longer than all of its current players.
Orlando has two veterans who could be attractive assets in the trade market. Terrance Ross hasn’t been a great shooter the last few seasons, but he’s a capable scorer who can also defend and is under contract for two more years at a total of just $24 million. With the need among contenders for anyone resembling a decent 3-and-D player, Ross could fetch a decent return.
Gary Harris might not bring back as much, but with the reputation of being a good perimeter defender, a contender could talk itself into trading for him and his expiring deal. He’ll make $20.5 million in 2021-22, which would make Harris a potential piece in a trade if the Magic would be willing to take a swing at an available star. Harris, Ross and the No. 8 pick for Ben Simmons probably isn’t a trade that either Orlando or Philadelphia would say yes to, but the 76ers could do worse in a Simmons deal, while the Magic would be buying low on a former No. 1 overall pick who’s entering his age 25 season and is still capable of being a top-20 player in the league.
What to Do at Center: Mo Bamba? Less Bamba? No Bamba?
With Carter coming aboard, the Magic now have two of the top 10 picks from a 2018 draft that is about to get paid this summer. Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. could all sign max rookie extensions, something that five players have never done in a single offseason. Add in Mikal Bridges, Collin Sexton, Kevin Huerter and a few others, and you’ll have well over $1 billion in extension money tied up to one wildly successful draft class – none of whom call Orlando home.
The Magic will try to get Carter to the point of being the consistent two-way threat many felt he’d be coming out of Duke, but the bigger enigma is the player who was taken one pick before him, at No. 6, in 2018. Mo Bamba’s mostly unimpressive rookie season was cut short by 30 games due to a stress fracture in his tibia. He contracted COVID-19 in June 2020 and left the bubble early, and those lingering effects kept him out of full contact work during the 2020-21 preseason.
Bamba missed half of Orlando’s first 44 games and averaged just 4.6 points in around 10 minutes per game when he did play. But he had his moments down the stretch as his playing time increased, putting up 11.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while playing about 20 minutes per night over the Magic’s last 28 contests. He added 28 pounds of muscle between leaving the bubble and the start of last season and has shown the ability to knock down 3s, though he still shot just 32.2% from beyond the arc last season. If Bamba ultimately succeeds, it’ll be because he turns into a plus defender who can contribute offensively, but he still needs to work on defending without fouling and his positioning in pick-and-roll coverage. A free agent after 2021-22, Bamba has to prove to the Magic – or someone else – that he’s worthy of a second contract.
How Good is Fultz?
Right shoulder, right wrist and right knee injuries derailed Fultz’s career in Philadelphia after the 76ers made him the No. 1 pick in 2017, and then he tore the ACL in his left knee just eight games into last season.
In between, he was a feel-good story in 2019-20 with the Magic, averaging 12.1 points and 5.1 assists while starting 60 games. There’s one big problem: Fultz can’t make 3s.
It’s tough for any ball handler to thrive in today’s NBA if they can’t at least serve as a threat beyond the arc – just ask Simmons – and it’s somewhat surprising that Fultz has been so bad. He hit 41% of his five 3-point attempts per game in his lone college season but hasn’t been able to hit anything in the NBA.
Fultz signed a three-year, $50 million extension before last season that’s about to kick in, and, if he’s healthy as training camp approaches, he’ll be starting in Mosley’s first game as head coach. But Orlando will want plenty of minutes for Anthony and Hampton, so it’ll be interesting to see if Fultz can get in a rhythm coming off his latest injury and with guys who are suddenly younger than him waiting to take his spot. Fultz is a good passer with impressive court vision, so even if he’s never a great 3-point shooter, he’ll have a spot somewhere. But his time to prove he still has a chance to be something resembling a star in this league is running short.
There may be a big fish available this offseason, but the Magic should likely wait until after the coming season before pursuing any truly major stars via trade or free agency. Fultz, Isaac and Ross are the only non-rookie deals Orlando has on the roster beyond 2021-22, so there could be plenty of cap room available to make a serious splash in the summer of 2022 depending on how things shake out.
For now, it’s about making minor moves around the edges. Mosley is seen as a player development coach, so give him time to work with Fultz, Isaac, Hampton, Anthony, Bamba, Carter and Chuma Okeke. See who’s worth keeping around or potentially extending and who doesn’t look like a rotation player that lines up with the Magic’s timeline to contend.
The top-8 picks give Hammond and the rest of the front office ammo to move up or go after a young player they like, but adding two more high-pedigree picks to a foundation that looks like it may be more role players than stars isn’t a bad idea. Everything changes in this league when you draft a franchise player, and Orlando doesn’t have one right now.
Maybe they’ll be happy to have two bites at that apple or perhaps they’ll package the picks and someone else to grab more of a sure thing, but the Magic have a little time to build organically and let the stars continue to align.
Design by Briggs Clinard.