Injuries to Several of the Orlando Magic's Core Players Were a Big Factor Throughout 2019-20

Magic's Top 2019-20 Storylines: The Injuries
by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - One of the big questions coming into the 2019-20 season was whether the Orlando Magic would catch a break with injuries for a second straight year. In 2018-19, the Magic made significant progress largely because injuries occurred infrequently, and when they popped up they were mostly minor setbacks.

To believe that would happen again may have been a pipe dream, as what typically transpires in the NBA reared its ugly head in a big way. In fact, the injuries came so fast and frequent that you started to wonder if some of them were “makeup” injuries for what didn’t happen the prior year.

Despite the recurring hindrances, the Magic still found a way to advance to the playoffs for a second straight season. They even won a game against the mighty (and healthy) Milwaukee Bucks in the first round while extremely undermanned. What it showed, probably more than anything else, is that this year’s Magic team was deep enough, versatile enough and tough enough to overcome all the adversity. When a guy went down, others stepped up and filled the void.

“The number one thing I would say about our team, and I’m very proud of this, is the resiliency that they showed to continue to make improvement during the season after we took those injuries and they did the same thing in the bubble,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “Although we’re disappointed that we didn’t win a playoff series and didn’t go further in the playoffs because that’s what our league is all about, I think our guys, again, showed great resiliency. They stuck together. And if you were with them every day, you saw the way they worked and the way they practiced towards making progress, which is a difficult thing to do in pro sports.”

Nearly every player was out of action for some stretch of time with an injury (or two, or even three of them). Amazingly, the only player that pretty much dodged any major setbacks was Markelle Fultz, who appeared in 72 of Orlando’s 73 regular season games and all five of its postseason games. What’s stunning about it is that he played in just 33 games in his first two NBA seasons combined with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The feeling that injuries might become a problem for the Magic started on Nov. 20 in Toronto. Both Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon suffered ankle injuries in the second quarter of Orlando’s game against the Raptors. Vucevic ended up missing 11 games with his right lateral ankle sprain, while Gordon was able to return after just a three-game absence from his right ankle contusion.

Around that same time, Al-Farouq Aminu, Orlando’s top acquisition in free agency last summer, needed surgery after he tore his meniscus in his right knee. That injury cost him the remainder of the season – a huge blow especially because of his ability to guard multiple positions.

Both of the Magic’s backup point guards, D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams, missed their share of time. Augustin had to sit out 16 games in the heart of winter with a left knee injury, while Carter-Williams missed blocks of time. First it was a hip injury that forced him out of action for a chunk of games in November and early December. Then a shoulder sprain cost him another 13 games in late December and a portion of January. Finally, a foot injury held him out of the Magic’s final five seeding games and all five of their postseason games.

Evan Fournier suffered a ligament sprain in his elbow during a March game in Miami, which prevented him from playing in Orlando’s last three games before the hiatus. Then at Disney, he got sick (non-COVID) and was out the last three seeding games. He clearly wasn’t 100 percent during the playoffs, which made it tough for him to dig up enough energy to battle against Milwaukee’s stifling defense.

Gordon’s second setback came at the worst time possible. Against the Raptors at Disney, the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder was hacked on the arm by Kyle Lowry while in the air on a dunk attempt. He landed awkwardly and hurt his left hamstring. That injury ultimately knocked him out for the remainder of the season, as he left the Disney campus during the playoffs. That was a major jolt to the Magic who felt he was someone that could make things a bit more challenging for Giannis Antetokounmpo in their series against the Bucks.

The two most devastating injuries of the year happened to burgeoning star Jonathan Isaac. Both were left knee injuries. The first one occurred on New Year’s Day in the nation’s capital when he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and medial bone contusion. That injury was expected to keep him out for the rest of the season. However, because of the hiatus, enough time passed for the 6-foot-11, versatile forward to recover and play during the season restart. After a few excellent performances upon his return, the 22-year-old went down again. This time he tore his ACL in the same knee.

Other Magic players dealt with setbacks as well. Mo Bamba, who was only able to play in two games at Disney, had to leave the campus for a comprehensive post-coronavirus evaluation. Terrence Ross temporarily left Disney but returned after dealing with an illness that caused inflammation and spasms in his chest. Also at Disney, Wes Iwundu had to enter the NBA’s concussion protocol after a scary fall.

Making the playoffs with all these injuries isn’t easy, and it proved the Magic weren’t going to let anything stop them from reaching that goal.

You can’t help but wonder, though, how much more the Magic could have accomplished if injuries weren’t as much of a factor as they were. If healthy, the Magic had all the pieces to be an elite defensive team, which they generally were when they had Isaac , Gordon and Aminu available at the same time. From the start of the season until Dec. 1, only the Denver Nuggets gave up fewer opponent points than the Magic. Their defensive rating during that period was 103.9, ninth best in the league.

A complete Magic team could have fared extremely well against the Bucks in the playoffs. Gordon, Isaac and Aminu have all had some success in the past defending Antetokounmpo. Orlando’s collective length would have probably caused some problems for Milwaukee. Having Carter-Williams, another great defender, and Bamba, a floor-spacing five man, in that series would have been a boost, too.

Where the Magic go from here is unknown at the moment. Isaac will be unavailable next season as he is in the early stages of his rehabilitation. With how hard he works and how committed he is to his craft, there’s no reason to believe he won’t come back even stronger and be a more complete player.

The others will now have plenty of time to heal from any injuries they are currently nursing. It should be also be noted that Chuma Okeke, the Magic’s first round draft pick a year ago, could be ready to make his NBA debut by the time next season starts, whenever that is. Okeke, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, tore his ACL in his left knee during the 2019 NCAA Tournament while playing for the Auburn Tigers.

The key for him going forward is to participate in live action, which is limited across the league right now for players outside of the Disney campus. He’s able to do on-court work, but because of the current NBA social distancing protocols, he, just like all other players not at Disney, is only allowed to do drill work that doesn’t require physical contact with others.

“Chuma’s done really well. He’s progressed…I would say he’s at the late stages of his rehab and development,” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “He’s an amazing kid. I really believe that our fans are going to love him. He’s of the utmost character. He’s all about team first. It’s the way that he plays. It’s the way that he thinks. He’s done really well with his rehab. It’s just that there’s really no forum right now for him to really kind of take that to the next level. We look very much forward to him being a part of our team next year. I’m just hopeful that as we progress through this offseason, there are ways to ramp up his development through live action. We are limited right now.”

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