A Basketball Showcase in NBA Purgatory

The top players and teams in the world might be on display in Orlando, but it only goes to show how far the city is from being basketball's magic kingdom.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2020

In May 2017, after missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season, the Orlando Magic overhauled their front office. Jeff Weltman, a longtime and respected NBA executive, was hired as president of basketball operations. To serve as his general manager, he tabbed John Hammond, a former Milwaukee Bucks colleague of his and another veteran NBA mind.     

Weltman and Hammond were inheriting a roster plagued with holes. Some of them were of the previous regime's doing—the Magic had spent two years fruitlessly chasing a low playoff seed—and others were, more than anything else, the consequence of poor luck.

Victor Oladipo, who the Magic drafted second overall in 2013, waited five seasons and two trades to blossom into an All-Star in Indiana. In 2015, the Magic had hoped to grab a Latvian teenager named Kristaps Porzingis with the draft's fifth pick, only to see the Knicks snag him at No. 4.

"Think of it like this," says a former Magic executive. "When you're building through the draft, there are two things where you need luck more than anything else: in winning the lottery, and in winning the lottery in a year when there's a transformational talent."

This is the irony at play in Orlando, Florida, as it hosts the NBA's bubble in the coming weeks and months: The city has become the NBA's epicenter, a proud display of how a "transformational talent" like Ja Morant or Zion Williamson, or a precisely executed team-building strategy like Miami's or Indiana's, can put a franchise right in the mix with established powers anchored by superstars like LeBron James and James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But as an NBA city, Orlando has long been known for the exact opposite.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

If you were looking for an example of why winning in the NBA is so hard, and dependent on so many variables, the Magic are as good of one as you could find.

With this as the backdrop, you would have expected Weltman and Hammond to come in and institute sweeping change. At least that's what typically happens in the NBA upon the hiring of a new regime.

Under their guidance, however, the Magic have taken a different approach. Steve Clifford replaced Frank Vogel as head coach, but much of the roster has remained in place.

Not only that, but much of the core has received extensions. Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 pick in 2014, was signed to a four-year, $80 million one in the summer of 2018. A year later, starting center Nikola Vucevic and wing Terrence Ross each inked lucrative four-year deals.

Gordon, D.J. Augustin, Vucevic and Ross
Gordon, D.J. Augustin, Vucevic and RossJoe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

"They've basically taken the default position on their roster," a Western Conference executive says. "They have not been aggressive in searching for chips. From a rebuilding standpoint, they've really done the bare minimum."

The lack of turnover, combined with some internal growth and Clifford's smarts, did allow the Magic to end their playoff drought last season. And, unless things go awry during the seeding games once the NBA restarts July 30, Weltman and Co. will soon have a second playoff berth added to their Orlando resume. But at 30-35, the Magic are in the worst place you can be in the NBA: the middle. They're far from a contender but also not bad enough to chase stars in the lottery.

Over the past decade or so, they've become irrelevant to the larger NBA story, more defined by embarrassing stories like last week's layoffs than by anything that's happened on the court. We're at the point where it takes the combination of a worldwide pandemic and a Disney World bubble for Orlando to rate on a national NBA scale.

Vucevic is a nice player but not a franchise cornerstone. Weltman and Hammond have made two lottery picks since coming in; one of them, Mo Bamba, has looked shaky through two seasons. Meanwhile, marquee free agents haven't seriously considered the Magic for at least a decade.

So are they destined for more of the same, indefinitely? The good news for Magic fans is that some around the league say better days are on the horizon.

"They're definitely trending in the right direction," one prominent agent says.

It starts with the market the team plays in. Orlando might not be a destination on par with the likes of Miami or Los Angeles, but it does offer warm weather and no state income tax, two incentives that rank it above the majority of NBA landing spots. That, league executives and agents say, makes the Magic believe they could one day get in the room with free agents—if they can offer a partnership with a strong young core.

On that front, the cupboard might not be as bare as it seems. In Jonathan Isaac, who Weltman selected with the sixth pick in the 2017 draft, the Magic appear to have a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Isaac is tall (6'11") and long (7'0" wingspan) and quick on his feet. He's not much of a creator, and his shot is shaky (33 percent from deep), but he's athletic enough that if he can improve his stroke, he should be able to grow into a third option on a good team.

Some around the league have their questions—"He's hurt all the time. It's impossible to know what he is," one Eastern Conference executive says—but Isaac's someone most teams would bet on.

The same cannot be said about the player the entire plan might hinge on.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

By now, Markelle Fultz's journey is well-documented: dominant as a freshman at the University of Washington. Chosen first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. Derailed by a series of mysterious injuries that caused his jump shot to desert him. The Magic, in one of the few examples of Weltman and Hammond being proactive on the market, took Fultz off the Sixers' hands before the 2019 trade deadline in exchange for Jonathon Simmons and a few low draft picks. It was a savvy, proactive move, and it's already paid off. Fultz has seemed revitalized by the second chance. He’s averaging 12.1 points and 5.2 assists per game this season and has flashed many of the skills that propelled him up draft boards. His performance has thrilled the Magic.

"The way that we view him is he just completed his rookie season," Weltman says. "He's played more basketball this year than he's played combined for his other seasons in the NBA, and you know, we feel he's just beginning to scratch the surface."

"They think he's the answer," a rival executive says.

The problem remains Fultz's jumper. He's hitting just 25.4 percent of his three-point attempts this season (he shot 41.3 percent from deep during his freshman year in college). His form is disjointed. He did shoot well from the free-throw line this season—72.3 percent—which the Magic view as promising. Others around the league are less sure.

"I can only tell you that he has everything it takes to improve, and I have the utmost confidence that he is going to continue to get better and better," Weltman says.

If he's right, that will give the Magic an electric young duo to dangle in front of free agents. The Magic can bolster that young core or fortify their war chest if they trade Gordon this offseason, a move many around the league expect them to make. And multiple agents say their clients have no issues with Orlando as a city or the Magic as a franchise.

Says one, "I think Jeff and John have a plan, and we're about to see it pay off."

If it does, perhaps Orlando can once again rejoin the greater NBA conversation for reasons other than its ability to host nearly two dozen other teams.


Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter: @YaronWeitzman.

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