Orlando Magic’s big conundrum

AP Photo/John Raoux
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DETROIT – Magic second-year player Jonathan Isaac said he’s not sure whether he’ll develop into more of a small forward or power forward long-term. At times, he prefers small forward. At other times, he prefers power forward. But some think Isaac – who’s listed at 6-foot-10 and probably already taller than that and still growing – will eventually slide to center as he fills out.

“Become a center? I’m not sure,” Isaac said. “I don’t think I’d want to be a center.

“I’m too used to being out on the perimeter and shooting 3s and coming off the dribble.”

That’s when Orlando rookie center Mohamed Bamba piped in from a few lockers over.

“You can shoot 3s,” Bamba offered.

The Magic are in the early stages of identifying how good their most-valuable players actually are, which of them can play together and in which roles. Orlando certainly hasn’t made it easy on itself.

The Magic’s best player is a center (Nikola Vucevic). Their highly drafted rookie is a center (Bamba). Their highly drafted 2017 first-rounder is a big forward/maybe eventual center (Isaac). Their highest-paid player is a big forward (Aaron Gordon).

A big-man crowd like that is unsustainable in the modern NBA. But how Orlando moves on is tricky.

Vucevic looked like a prime trade candidate entering the season. He’s earning $12.75 million on an expiring contract, and at 28, he might be too old to fit the Magic’s rebuild. They had also just drafted Bamba No. 6.

But Vucevic is in the midst of a career year and was just named Orlando’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard. The Magic (22-31) are also just three games and three teams out of playoff position in the lousy Eastern Conference.

With Vucevic earning name recognition and Orlando at least plausibly in contention to end a six-season postseason drought, the optics of moving him could be tough for the Magic to stomach.

If they keep Vucevic, what then, though? Re-sign him to a hefty salary that keeps the logjam intact? Let him leave in free agency for no return?

Vucevic said Orlando drafting Bamba didn’t faze him, that he wants to mentor the young center. Likewise, Bamba said he appreciates Vucevic’s lessons on the finer points of the NBA.

Yet, Bamba also craves a bigger role. He said he feels as if he’s competing with Vucevic for playing time and wants to prove Magic can depend on him with Vucevic’s contract ending in a few months.

“The way everything was kind of put in place was kind of perfect for me down here,” Bamba said. “Just have got to earn it.”

In the meantime, Vucevic appears essential for making the Gordon-Isaac combo work.

Gordon is a good NBA player and just 23. Isaac is solid, only 21 and also trending in the right direction.

But there’s probably too much overlap between the forwards. They collectively don’t provide enough outside shooting, ball-handling and passing. Gordon is more polished in those areas, but he shines far more at power forward than the small forward he has played most of this season. Even defensively, as mobile and athletic as Gordon and Isaac are for their size, forcing one of them to defend a more wing-y small forward can be an exploitable mismatch.

Yet, the pairing works fine with Vucevic at center. Vucevic is so skilled offensively, he draws defensive attention inside and outside. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot from multiple spots including beyond the arc and distribute. Vucevic is talented enough to mask deficiencies of playing Gordon and Isaac together.

Here are, per NBA Wowy, Orlando’s offensive/defensive/net ratings with Gordon and Isaac on and…

  • Vucevic on: 113.0/107.9/+5.1
  • Vucevic off: 92.7/138.2/-45.5

Gordon and Isaac have played just 29 minutes together without Vucevic, most of those coming with Bamba on the floor. So, the sample size is too small to be completely reliable. But that’s also likely no accident. Magic coach Steve Clifford can see how important Vucevic is to making Gordon and Isaac work together.

Eventually, Orlando should determine how Gordon, Isaac and Bamba fare as a frontcourt. That trio possesses so much size, length, athleticism and defensive potential.

Offense remains worrisome, though. Bamba has theoretical 3-point ability, but he (understandably) lags way behind Vucevic in ball skills. At 20, Bamba is so raw.

So, there’d be value in retaining Vucevic. He’d help provide a structure more conducive to Gordon and Isaac producing.

That’s particularly important with Gordon, who’s on the first year of a four-year, $76 million contract that contains deescalating annual salaries. His trade value should only increase as his salary falls.

It could hinder Isaac, though. He’s often the overlooked player in the Magic’s starting frontcourt. His usage percentage (15.6) lags well behind Vucevic’s (28.0) and Gordon’s (21.5).

“He’s developing at a really good pace,” Clifford said of Isaac. “It’s just hard for me to find ways to give him opportunities to iso, to play one-on-one, with the makeup of our team. So, people will see it here eventually, but that’s the part that I have to figure out better, too.”

Isaac’s and Bamba’s development could be especially important to Orlando important because they’re the only two of the four primary bigs acquired by Magic president Jeff Weltman. Weltman inherited Vucevic and Gordon. Re-signing Gordon was widely seen as a prelude to trading him. I’m not even convinced Weltman particularly coveted Bamba, either. Bamba might have just been the best prospect available when Orlando drafted.

But the Magic have all four bigs now. They must figure out where to go from here.