Heading into the 2019-20 season, there was a lot of optimism among Orlando Magic fans. The team, under first year head coach Steve Clifford, was one of the hottest teams in the NBA at end of last season – winning 21 of their last 30 games to finish about .500 for the first time in six seasons and securing a playoff berth.
That optimism carried over to the off-season. With a core of Nicola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Founier, Terrence Ross and Jonathan Isaac returning and with former first round pick Markelle Fultz—acquired in a trade with Philadelphia – finally healthy, things were definitely looking up for the franchise.
And while no one was thinking championship, Magic faithful believed Orlando had the talent to challenge for a third or even possibly a second seed in the Eastern Conference.
That excitement was magnified when Orlando won its first three pre-season games by an average of 23 points.
But expectations quickly came down to Earth, when Orlando lost its last three preseason games and then dropped six of their first eight regular season games. A November injury to Vucevic forced the all-star center to miss nearly three weeks of action as Orlando struggled with consistency.
Although Orlando played better upon his return, the fact remains the Magic were pretty much the same team they were a year ago – losing to most teams with more talent, beating teams they are better than and tossing in an occasional upset win or inexplicable loss along the way.
One thing is readily apparent, at 17-20 after beating an injury depleted Brooklyn team on Monday night, Orlando’s 2019-20 season is at a crossroads. If they are to better last season’s record or even qualify for the post-season, they will need to stay healthy and will need to play every game with the defensive effort that Clifford demands each game.
That effort will be difficult to achieve without the services of Isaac, who suffered a hyper-extended knee in the first quarter of a Jan. 1 win over Washington. Isaac, a former Florida State standout, is the unquestioned leader of the Magic defense.
Prior to the injury, he was averaging 12 points, 6.9 rebounds; as well as a team-leading 2.44 blocks per game and 1.56 steals per game. At the time of his injury, Isaac’s combined 128 steals and blocks were the fourth highest total in the NBA.
While there was no damage to his ACL, MCL or PCL ligaments, and Isaac is expected to make a full recovery, a two month or longer loss could certainly derail Orlando’s playoff hopes this season.
“All signs point to a complete recovery and should not impact Jonathan’s future growth,” Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said.
But the fact remains that this injury could very well sidetrack Orlando’s season.
When Vucevic was injured, the Magic were able to hold its own in many games. It remains to be seen if they can do so with Isaac, their best defensive player, missing significant time.