The 2019-2020 Orlando Magic season begins with a new rallying cry – #MagicAboveAll. They’ll begin the quest to finish #AboveAll Wednesday night at Amway Center against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fresh off a season in which they defied expectations, this year’s team will look to return to the playoffs, this time as an even higher seed.
Running it back
The foundation of that quest will look very familiar. Executives Jeff Weltman and John Hammond focused on the return of free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross. Those signings assured the Magic will likely begin the season with the same starting five as last year. With Ross, the Magic return their top six rotational players. The team also retained backup power forward Khem Birch and small forward Wesley Iwundu.
At the Draft in June, the Magic, who were selecting outside of the lottery for the first time in many years, selected Auburn guard Chuma Okeke 16th overall. Okeke suffered a torn ACL in the NCAA tournament just four months prior. After successful surgery, Okeke is expected to miss the entire season. With a well-established front court, redshirting Okeke looks to be in the best interest of both parties.
Markelle Fultz, whom the Magic traded for at the deadline last season, is expected to be fully healthy. Fultz struggled with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) and has not played in a regular season game in nearly a full calendar year. He appeared in all six preseason games for the Magic, averaging 8.2 points and 3.1 rebounds.
“Any time you get a chance to play again, its amazing, and I’ve been sitting out a long, long time… I’m just really excited for it.” Fultz told the media during Tuesday’s practice.
With a three-year, $29 million deal, veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu brings valuable postseason experience to the Magic. Aminu, best known for his defensive prowess, adds depth and is expected to see consistent minutes off the bench. The 10-year veteran descends from a line of Nigerian kings. The name Farouq in Nigeria translates to “Chief”, his preferred nickname.
Familiarity will also be present on the sidelines. With second year head coach Steve Clifford’s system well established, his expectations are for the team to be ready right away.
“Larry Brown used to say game one and two count just as much as game eighty-one and eighty-two.” Clifford said following Tuesday’s practice. “Players like to say the NBA is a marathon and not a sprint. Well if you want to win the big marathon, you sprint for twenty-six miles and that’s what I’m hoping that we’ll do.”
With nine of their first thirteen games at home, the Magic can earn that fast start. As one of the league’s top defensive teams a season ago, re-establishing the dominance at that end of the floor will be imperative. Offensively, the team will need to outgrow long stretches of inefficiency. The Magic ranked 22nd (of 30) in points per 100 possessions last season. That is an area of required improvement as the Magic look to earn more respect league-wide.
After turning the proverbial corner late last season, its reasonable to expect a rise in the win column. However, considering how healthy the team remained and the breaks they received with many teams using the Magic for “load management”, it’s not entirely unreasonable to see a step back. The powers that be in Las Vegas have set the bar at 41.5 wins. I’ll take the under, and a regular season record of 38-44, good enough for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.