Losses: Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant, Jarell Martin. They are…um…running it back, so to speak.
Additions: Al-Farouq Aminu. That’s kinda it. They’ve got a few guys on Exhibit-10 minimums and two-ways, but really, they just lost a bunch of guys who didn’t matter and added Aminu, who they probably don’t need. For the record, this sounds bad, but I’m actually optimistic about these guys.
Likely Starters Guard: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier (maybe Markelle Fultz sneaks in?) Wing: Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon (but both should probably be bigs?) Big: Nikola Vucevic
Predicted Record: 39–43 | 20th in NBA | 8th in East
What we’ve got here is an exquisite corpse of a basketball team. The monster in total has no responsibility to its constituent parts. Formal chaos. Its attributes are devastating and impressive—profound size and athleticism on the one hand, off-kilter joints and seized limbs on the other. On top of its huge body sits a tiny head. What do you make of this beast? You try to address it, but it stares back at you in silence, and when it walks away, you feel a lingering sadness. To be sure, the creature was hideous, disturbing, troubling; and yet, was the creature not, come to think of it, somehow also beautiful?
Basketball teams need players with all kinds of different skills, but part of what makes the sport so interesting is that these skills mesh together in strange ways. A team needs one-on-one scoring, shooting, ball-handling, passing, rebounding, perimeter and interior defense, leaders and followers, levity and focus; unfortunately, these skills don’t come as one-offs. It doesn’t work to have one guy who can shoot, one guy who can pass, etc. A player needs to be able to do a little bit of everything, or to be so good at one thing that a team can survive that player’s shortcomings.
When I was a kid, there were a couple of summers during which I spent a week at the Wayne Embry Basketball School in Nashua, New Hampshire. I remember there was this guy, Dave Hopla, who came to do a shooting clinic each year. Hopla would lecture us while wandering around the court, always shooting. The whole time he was talking to us, he was getting up shots. He took shots from close in, shots from the midrange, shots from way out beyond the 3-point arc. At one point, he would put on a baseball hat with a cut-out of a hand hanging down from the brim; he wanted to show us that you had to learn to shoot with a hand in your face. These shots—all of them—kept going in. Over the course of an hour, he’d take hundred of shots. He’d miss, like, 10–20 of them, maybe. It was shocking when he missed. His form, his balance—everything was perfect. He was, without question, the best shooter I have seen or will ever see.
Even Dave Hopla, who is better at shooting the ball than any player who has ever been in the NBA, was never good enough at basketball to be in the NBA. Basketball, in the end, is not about individual skills; rather, it is about a kind of harmony of form. In order to leverage an elite skill, a player needs to have other skills too. Being a great shooter doesn’t mean much if you can’t guard your position, if you can’t attack a close-out, if you can’t swing the ball to an open teammate when you’re covered.
The Orlando Magic have a ton of elite skills. Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers of the past decade or so. D.J. Augustin is an incredible shooter. Aaron Gordon is among the best athletes currently in the league. Mo Bamba has impossible height and reach. Al-Farouq Aminu can effectively guard pretty much every position on the floor. I could go on.
The problem is that the Magic don’t have any players who bring a complete game without any major holes. I’m a lifelong Celtics fan, and one of the great things about having Al Horford on the team was that he was good at literally everything. He shoots, but he also scores around the hoop. He passes out of the post, but he also brings the ball up the floor. He protects the rim, but he also switches out and guards on the perimeter. He’s willing to look to score, but he is also deeply unselfish. Name a thing you want a basketball player to do, and Al Horford is willing and able to do that thing. He’s not necessarily elite at any of those things, but if you can pull an A- or a B+ in all your classes, that’s a pretty good report card. The Magic, as a team, get A’s in a lot of their classes, but they get a lot of D’s and F’s too.
When it all comes together, as it did in game one of their first round playoff series against the Raptors last spring, it looks pretty sweet. When it doesn’t (games two through five), you find yourself turning away, disgusted.
What this means is that the Magic need to find a player or two who puts it all together. They need someone to tie everything together so that it makes coherent sense. They need a player who can cover for the skills his teammates lack. They need, desperately, for that player to be Jonathan Isaac.
Isaac is a wonderful prospect. At 6’10” and with great athleticism, he’s got the speed and strength to guard all over the floor, including in the paint. Offensively, much of his skillset is still theoretical, but he showed a willingness last season to bring his range out to the 3-point arc and to take shots from out there; as the season progressed, more of those shots went in. He showed enough improvement over the course of last season that further improvement seems likely. If Isaac is just a raw athlete who shows flashes of better play, the Magic should hover around .500, make the playoffs, and lose in the first round. If Isaac is more than that—if he can make the kind of leap we saw a player like Pascal Siakam make last season, for example—the Magic might be much more.
There are more holes for this team to consider, of course. D.J. Augustin should probably top out as a backup point guard, not a key cog on a playoff team; upgrading to a better point guard would totally change this team’s potential. Could they trade for Chris Paul? Could we see the version of Markelle Fultz that was an obvious first overall pick just a couple years ago? Aaron Gordon still seems to be playing out of position. Will he become a more reliable shooter? Can the team find minutes for him at center? Is he willing to alter his game to the particulars of his unique skill set? There are endless opportunities for improvement on this team because the players, while talented, have so many obvious flaws.
On the whole, none of the other stuff is as important as Isaac, who has the most potential of any prospect the Magic managed to draft over their many recent years in the lottery. Over the course of this iteration of this roster, the team will only be as special as Isaac. He’s the one person who could turn this creature into the best version of itself. It’s up to him to bring the exquisite corpse to life.