Checking in on the Magic’s Length Experiment

Featured Image By Kim Klement / Getty Images

By Andrew Lawlor

I love when a team zigs when the rest of the league zags. Stylistic differences are good for the league; it is better when not every game looks the same. With that in mind, what Jeff Weltman has been building with the Orlando Magic is fascinating.

Since Weltman was hired in 2017, the Magic have focused on building the tallest, longest, most athletic team possible, jumpshots be damned. He has spent first-round picks on Jonathan Isaac (7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan), Mo Bamba (7-feet, 7-foot-10!!!! wingspan), and Chuma Okeke (6-foot-8, 7-foot wingspan), while adding Wes Iwundu (6-foot-6, 7-foot wingspan) and Melvin Frazier (6-foot-5, 7-foot-1 wingspan) in the second round.

Weltman has not stopped with the draft, adding Michael Carter-Williams (6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 wingspan) and Al-Farouq Aminu (6-foot-9, 7-foot-3 wingspan) in free agency and trading for Markelle Fultz (6-foot-4, 6-foot-8.5 wingspan) in an effort to rebuild his career. It is clear that Weltman has a type. He wants to envelop opponents with length and athleticism, building a strong defense while betting that raw offensive games can develop with some seasoning. In Steve Clifford, they have a strong defensive coach who can teach players and develop good schemes. With the amount of length they have, they could play like the Raptors this past season, absolutely strangling opponents and scoring just enough to scrape by.

The results have been mixed so far. Isaac is the greatest success story; he has developed into one of the best defenders in the NBA while showing signs of growth on offense. Unfortunately, Isaac suffered two brutal knee injuries last season, and will miss the entire 2020–21 season as a result. As for the other players, it is still early, but none of them has shown enough to be considered a reliable starter in the NBA; Fultz still cannot shoot, Okeke missed his entire rookie season due to injury, and Bamba, while maybe not quite as raw as when he came into the league, is at least very rare.

The end result is a roster that is strong on defense (10th in defensive rating last season), but anemic on offense (23rd). Almost nobody on the team can shoot; the Magic finished 26th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage, and Evan Fournier (39.9 percent) was the only rotation player who shot above average from three.

The Magic have spent each of the last two seasons winning a little, reaching the playoffs, winning the first game of their first-round series, and then promptly losing the next four games in a row. But their modest success is more because of Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and Aaron Gordon, holdovers from before Weltman was there.

This is a problem, because there is a clear ceiling to the team with those three as the best players, and it is around the seventh or eighth seed in the East. Fournier and Vucevic are both skilled offensive players, but neither is particularly athletic or good at defense. Both are also getting up there in age (Fournier is 28, Vucevic 30). Gordon is long and athletic at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan and a couple impressive dunk contest performances to his name. But he has never developed much of a three-point shot (31.9% for his career) and does not protect the rim, making his fit in most lineups janky.

To fully optimize their roster, the Magic should trade at least one of Gordon, Vucevic, or Fournier (who has a player option he will likely accept) and take a step back this season while waiting for Isaac to come back.

Since the East will be stronger next year, it would be tough for the Magic to simply run everything back and get into the playoffs again. If there is no drop off from any of Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami, Indiana, Philadelphia, or Brooklyn, the Magic could be hard-pressed to improve on last season’s eighth-place finish. And with Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington looking stronger, even that spot will be tough for Orlando to reach.

Gordon, Vucevic, and Fourner do not get the Magic to where they want to go; they cannot form a truly elite defense with Vucevic and Fournier playing key roles. Gordon is the one with the most trade value; at 25, he is the youngest of the three, and he is still on a cost-controlled contract for the next couple of seasons. As a result, his name comes up often in trade rumors, and they may be able to get a good player who better fits their core for him.

It is unlikely they get as much for Vucevic or Fournier, but they could trade them for picks if they want to really embrace the tank for next season. This may be a tough sell, since Orlando only recently (somewhat) regained relevance for the first time since Dwight Howard left. But the 2021 draft projects to be extremely strong, and they do not have another way to add a star to this roster. With Isaac out, they have an opportunity to be very, very bad while they wait for him to come back. Plus, they could give Bamba and Okeke more playing time and responsibility without veterans playing ahead of them.

Even if they do not make major moves, Orlando needs to add shooting. It will be impossible for them to get much better on offense without doing so. They do have their own first-rounder this year (15th overall), putting them in position to potentially add a young piece who can space the floor

Orlando does have good pieces to build around, even if Weltman’s plans have not exactly come to fruition. Their defense is already good, and could get even better if they double down on long, athletic players. The offense is more of a question mark, but it could get there. The NBA is better when teams experiment like this; let’s see if it works.

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