Magic Have Plenty to be Proud Of As They Begin to Reflect on Unique 2019-20 Season

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - The Orlando Magic’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons were similar in some ways. Both years the Magic made the playoffs and lost in five games in the first round after winning Game 1 in each series. Also in both campaigns, the team made significant progress as the season evolved. In 2018-19, Orlando won 22 of its final 31 regular season games. This year, it won eight of its last 12 before the hiatus, and then won its first two games during the season restart at Walt Disney World.

But, there definitely were some major differences as well. The most glaring of them all were the injuries in 2019-20, which didn’t hinder the Magic the prior year. Almost everyone at one point or another missed action with at least one injury. Some of the injuries and consequences turned out relatively minor – like when Nikola Vucevic sprained his right ankle during a late November game in Toronto that caused him to miss the next 11 contests. Others were much more crushing. Al-Farouq Aminu, who signed with Orlando last summer as a free agent, had to have surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee in early December, which prevented him from returning the rest of the year. Jonathan Isaac injured his left knee twice – first on New Year’s Day at Washington, D.C. when he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and medial bone contusion and then again during the second game of the restart at Disney when he tore his ACL.

Not having those two, Aaron Gordon, who missed the Magic’s final nine games including Orlando’s entire first round playoff series with a hamstring strain, and two other key reserves, Michael Carter-Williams (foot) and Mo Bamba (comprehensive post-coronavirus evaluation), made it awfully difficult for the Magic to have a realistic chance at upsetting the Milwaukee Bucks in the postseason. Winning one game, considering all the absences, was a fairly big accomplishment, especially since the players they needed to try and contain Giannis Antetokounmpo were all out.

“I’m proud of the guys,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “I’m proud of the way they handled themselves in the bubble. Obviously, we were dealt with more than our share of injury issues. They worked hard. They’ve had good attitudes…We fought hard. We need to take some time and obviously everybody exhale and then look for when next season will start and everything like that so we can get organized.”

Plenty went right for the Magic, though, throughout the year, which helped them reach the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since doing so in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, when Clifford was an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy.

For one, Nikola Vucevic had another terrific season. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week in mid-November, just before he injured his ankle. Unlike last year when he struggled in the playoffs against Toronto, Vucevic was spectacular against Milwaukee in this year’s postseason. In fact, he became the fourth player in franchise history to score 30-plus points in three games of a playoff series.

Gordon elevated his play after the All-Star break, or in his case after his dazzling dunk contest performance. During that stretch, the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder recorded his first NBA triple-double.

Evan Fournier, who clearly wasn’t 100 percent in the playoffs after battling with a non-COVID illness at Disney, averaged a career high in scoring in the regular season and shot just a shade under 40 percent from 3-point distance.

Terrence Ross will likely get some votes for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award after having another excellent season. The 6-foot-6, 206-pounder led the NBA in off-screen points and was tied for third with Damian Lillard for most times getting fouled while in the act of attempting a 3-pointer.

Before his first of two knee injuries, Isaac was certainly in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Only he and Anthony Davis averaged at least two blocks and one steal among players who appeared in at least 10 games.

Acquiring James Ennis III from Philadelphia at the trade deadline was a big win for the Magic, who made significant progress with him added into the lineup. His range shooting, excellence in transition and defensive versatility gave Orlando a huge lift during the second half of the year.

One of the NBA’s most uplifting stories was the play of Markelle Fultz, who played in 72 of the Magic’s 73 regular season games. What’s incredible about that is that he appeared in just 33 games in his first two seasons combined with the 76ers. The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder averaged 12.1 points and 5.1 assists and was one of the league’s best mid-range shooters.

“Kelle is just ahead of his time,” said fellow Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, who himself had a solid year. “He’s very mature for his age and he just knows the game. Guys who play this game and the game comes to them mentally, it shows. He definitely showed that this season. He felt great the entire season and he definitely showed all the doubters what he could do. I’m just happy for him. I’m proud of him. And one thing about him, he’s going to continue to keep getting better this summer. He’s never satisfied and I’m just happy for him.”

Although there were a lot of ups and downs throughout the year, the Magic had stretches in which they were amongst the best teams in particular areas. There were some strange twists and turns, too. Orlando limited opponents to 105.3 points per game from the start of the season until Feb. 10, which ranked No. 1 in the league. However, after Feb. 10, opponents averaged 117.3 points, which ranked 27th.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, the Magic went from the bottom to the top. Over its first 19 games, Orlando averaged a league-low 101.0 points. Then from Feb. 10 until the league’s stoppage due to the pandemic, the Magic averaged a league-best 120.8 points.

For the second straight year, the Magic ranked in the top 10 in all four of the following defensive categories: opponent second chance points (No. 1), opponent points off turnovers (tied for No. 1), opponent fast break points (No. 4) and opponent points in the paint (No. 9). They were the only team this season in the NBA to accomplish this feat. Last year, the Bucks and Magic both achieved this.

As was the case for every team at Disney, it wasn’t easy for the Magic to get back into a rhythm after being off the court and out of the gym for an extended period of time while waiting to find out what the league was going to do during those first few months after the pandemic started. Kudos to all the Magic’s coaches and players for staying prepared during that time, as they were able to quickly focus in on their main objective which was to secure a playoff spot.

Where the Magic go from here remains to be seen. This offseason will obviously be unique for every team with so much uncertainty moving forward. When next season will start, where games will be played, when free agency will begin are all unanswerable questions at the moment.

Orlando will have the 15th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Just as a reminder, two of the league’s best players, Kawhi Leonard and Antetokounmpo, were each chosen 15th overall.

But as the Magic now reflect on their 2019-20 campaign, they have reasons to be encouraged and plenty to be optimistic about going forward.

“I think we have some good young pieces that moving forward are going to get better,” Vucevic said. “We have some experienced guys that have gone through playoff series. That always helps -- two seasons where we fought through ups and downs and we were able to finish up strong. There’s some good stuff for us going forward that we can build on, but again, we will have to wait and see if any changes happen (about) how we are going to look going into next year.”

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