On the morning of Feb. 7, 2019, the Orlando Magic had a 22-32 record, despite center Nikola Vucevic, named an All-Star a week earlier, thriving like never before under new coach Steve Clifford. Vucevic and wing Terrence Ross, also in the middle of a career year, were a few months away from unrestricted free agency. Both were the subject of trade speculation, as was Aaron Gordon, an unconventional fit next to promising second-year forward Jonathan Isaac.
When the trade deadline passed in the afternoon, all of those players remained on the roster. Joining them was Markelle Fultz, the former No. 1 pick whose formerly smooth jumper had abandoned him, acquired in exchange for wing James Ennis and a pair of picks.
If the front office went this way because it believed the Magic were on the verge of turning the season around, it was proven correct. Orlando started a five-game winning streak that night and won 10 of its final 12 games. When guard D.J. Augustin hit a game-winning jumper to upset the second-seeded Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their first-round series, it seemed like the Magic were peaking at the right time.
Then they lost four games in a row to the eventual champions, looking thoroughly overmatched offensively. This did not deter them, however, from re-signing Vucevic (for four years and $100 million) and Ross (for four years and $54 million). In 2019-20, Ross regressed significantly, Vucevic regressed slightly and Orlando was a bit worse on both ends, predictably. It finished eighth in the East, with a career year from Evan Fournier somewhat offsetting serious injuries to Isaac and forward Al-Farouq Aminu. Once again, it won the first game of the first round, this time against the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, then lost four straight.
This season figures to be more of the same. Rather than blowing it up in the offseason, the Magic extended Fultz (for three years and $50 million) and Isaac (for four years and $80 million, even though he's out for the year with a knee injury); re-signed Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Gary Clark; and replaced Augustin with rookie Cole Anthony. They also added wing Dwayne Bacon and forward Chuma Okeke, their first-round pick in 2019.
To varying degrees, Fultz, Anthony, Okeke and center Mo Bamba all have upside. Isaac does, too, and he played like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate when he was healthy last season. Orlando could move Fournier, who is in the last year of his contract, before this season's trade deadline, and maybe there will be compelling offers for the other vets, too. I can't help, though, but wonder what this roster might look like had it gone another way two deadlines ago. How much were those two playoff wins worth?
Taking the temperature
Magic believer: It's funny how much it annoys people that the Magic refuse to bottom out. How dare they re-sign their good players instead of trading them! I'm not expecting this team to have home-court advantage in the playoffs, but the Clifford era has been infinitely better than the six years of misery that preceded it. They're going to have a top-10 defense, and they're going to be prepared and organized every night, even if that isn't reflected in their offensive rating.
One day, one of their players is going to pop and everybody's going to wonder how this team got so good out of nowhere. I'm glad they didn't make a pointless trade for Russell Westbrook.
Magic skeptic: Who exactly is going to pop? Are you counting on Isaac getting healthy and turning into an elite scorer all of a sudden? Is Fultz going to start making pull-up 3s again? Do you see stardom in Anthony? This feels more like wishful thinking than a team-building strategy.
Magic believer: I don't know who it will be, and that's the point. There's nothing wrong with building a pretty good team as long as you have young, developing talent on it. Gordon is only 25 and every analyst has been trying to get him traded for three years. Fultz is 22 and made enormous progress last season. Mamba is 22 and quietly made progress when he was healthy, too. Nobody should have strong takes on Anthony or Okeke yet, but I like that they get to start their careers on a functional team instead of being gifted minutes in a terrible environment.
Magic skeptic: If the Magic want to keep aiming for the middle, that's their prerogative, but I wish they'd find some shooters. I can't praise them for the environment they've created when their awful spacing puts them at a disadvantage on every offensive possession. As someone who has watched a lot of Sixers basketball, it has been profoundly weird to see Fultz and Carter-Williams on the same team.
Magic believer: Spacing isn't everything. The Magic have a professional environment in every sense under Clifford. They take care of the ball, they turn their defense into offense and they make good use of their personnel.
By the way, it's not as if they don't care about shooting. Vucevic averaged a career high 4.7 3-point attempts last season, which isn't bad for someone who went 7 for 26 from distance in the first five years of his career. Bamba shot 3s almost as frequently on a per-minute basis. Okeke will likely help this season as a stretch 4. They just happen to employ a couple of guards who stand out because of their shooting issues.
Magic skeptic: I mean, the wings and forwards aren't good shooters, either. Even before the horrible injury luck, I didn't understand why the Magic were eager to sign Aminu. I don't get the fascination with Bacon at all. And it's not like Vucevic is shooting like Karl-Anthony Towns or anything. He shot 34 percent last season.
To be clear, the Magic will probably be fine. I think the Hawks are clearly better than them, but it's possible they'll finish eighth again, depending on how much the Wizards, Bulls and Hornets improve. I'm just sick of them!
Magic believer: Maybe I'm crazy because I appreciate Vucevic's game. Maybe I am a fool for finding it interesting that Fultz has turned himself into a legit rotation player. Maybe I'm stupid for not constantly dreaming up Gordon trades, since that seems to be what everybody else on the internet does. It feels to me, though, like the people who get bent out of shape about the Magic aren't actually watching them. If you're sick of them, let them be.
But when they break through, don't pretend you were always along for the ride.
Eye on: Chuma Okeke
It's notable that Orlando liked Okeke enough to take him in the middle of the first round knowing he'd spend the 2019-20 season rehabilitating a torn ACL. It's also not all that surprising -- he's an extremely Magic draft pick, a versatile, defensive-minded forward with little playmaking ability to speak of.
Okeke doesn't have to be a creator to be make his mark in the NBA. He made 39 percent of his 3s in college, and there isn't a team in the league that can't use a high-IQ, 3-and-D forward. The shooting is particularly important on this team, and if he still has his lateral quickness, he should have a role right away.