September 23, 2021

How will Magic cope without injured Isaac?

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How will the Orlando Magic cope after losing young defensive star Jonathan Isaac to a torn ACL? Mark Deeks examines the team’s options and which players will now need to step up.

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The NBA’s Eastern Conference standings are divided into distinct tiers. At the top, there is the Milwaukee Bucks and defending champions the Toronto Raptors. There is then a group of four reasonably-evenly ranked teams – the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers and the Philadelphia 76ers, all of whom are indisputably good.

Down the bottom and outside of the playoff picture, there are six teams so far adrift that they were not invited to the bubble; their seasons deemed not worth resuming. And that, then, only leaves three.

Evan Fournier throws a pass beyond the reach of Jarrett Allen 1:20
Highlights of the seeding game between the Orlando Magic and the Brooklyn Nets

While they currently reside in seventh, eighth and ninth in the east, essentially operating on a tier of their own, the trio of the Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards are themselves very disparate. The Magic are the head of the pack in the provisional seventh seed with a 32-35 record that ranks them nearer to the 76ers than the ninth-place Wizards, who can only be said to still be in playoff consideration despite being 19 games below .500 due to the absurdity of this season and the new-fangled play-in tournament.

The Wizards are without several key players and have not looked remotely threatening in the bubble. The Nets meanwhile have a patchwork quilt of a roster, with more players on substitute contracts than the rest of the conference combined. It is more to do with the poor quality of everyone from Washington on down than their own play this season that sees the Nets almost certainly making this season’s playoffs.

Markelle Fultz #20 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball against the Sacramento Kings August 2, 2020 at HP Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. 1:23
Highlights of the Sacramento Kings’ game against the Orlando Magic at HP Field House in Orlando

That, then, leaves the Magic, winners of five in a row, the second-longest streak in the league currently. But it was in the fifth of those games over the weekend that, in a blowout victory over the Sacramento Kings, that their season may have essentially wrapped up as well.

Star young forward Jonathan Isaac fell in the fourth quarter on a non-contact play and immediately looked in serious pain, leaving the court in the wheelchair, and the evitable news soon followed – he had suffered a torn ACL and would be out indefinitely.

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Jonathan Isaac is wheeled to the locker room after suffering a knee injury against the Kings
Image: Jonathan Isaac is wheeled to the locker room after suffering a knee injury against the Kings

It does not take much sleuthing to see quite how important Isaac had become. A breakout defensive star in his third season, Isaac’s basic per-game averages of 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.3 blocks a night are impressive and versatile already, yet it is the harder-to-capture deterring defensive presence that he provides – so long, so versatile, so committed to that end – that was giving the Magic a top-10 defense despite their continued offensive mediocrity.

The Magic do not have much in the way of offensive diversity or dribble-drive creation at all. Aaron Gordon certainly tries to be Blake Griffin, and Evan Fournier certainly tries to be Klay Thompson, yet the poor overall spacing (25th in the NBA in three-point shooting) combined with the inability of any guard other than Markelle Fultz to get beyond the first line of defense regularly means that on the season as a whole, the Magic are only 22nd in offensive rating and frequently getting stuck.

Jonathan Isaac suffers a serious knee injury during the Orlando Magic's victory over the Sacramento Kings 2:11
The GameTime crew discuss the ramifications that Jonathan Isaac’s knee injury may have on the Orlando Magic.

The recent scoring uptick at the core of the winning streak came from increasing the pace, which in turn came from turning up the defense and winning more possessions. Indeed, in recent years, the team’s love of length and defensive potential has become somewhat memetic, yet it is also largely working, and there has been no better embodiment of that than Isaac, who had become a legitimate All-NBA Defensive Team potential candidate this season. They cannot replace him from outside at this time, so any papering over the cracks must come from within.

That, though, will be hard to do. In a modern NBA more concerned with productive depth than ever before, the Magic come up a little short. Shot-happy sixth man Terrence Ross has not been able to continue his sweet shooting stroke of last season, and now that he has moved into a reserve role to accommodate Fultz, long-time former starter DJ Augustin has not been able to keep up his scoring efficiency either.

Meanwhile, although everyone else is around primarily for their defense, they all have rigid and limited roles. Khem Birch is a presence inside the paint, but does not much leave it, and barely looks to score. Michael Carter-Williams is having a useful career resurgence as a havoc-wreaking defensive combo guard, but he should not look to score much either, Wesley Iwundu do is just sort of ‘there’ in the young Jared Dudley role, making few errors but also not making many plays. And Mo Bamba has not developed much at all.

In a sense, the Magic will be prepared for life without Isaac given that they had already missed him for half the season. Having also missed the bulk of his rookie campaign as well, life in an Isaac-less world is nothing new – the third-year player has only 136 games played in his career thus far, and may not now play all of next season either.

It is also not to be forgotten that Isaac’s return for these bubble games was far from a sure thing. As recently as last week, he and Magic personnel were undecided on the issue, and Isaac openly admitted that his left leg (which he always seems to land on rather than trying to cushion the impact by using both, which might explain why he keeps hurting it) was still not ready. In the darkest possible way, it turns out he was right about that.

Nevertheless, they must go on. The most immediate and obvious onus to pick up the slack falls onto Gordon, the defensively capable, long, rangy and versatile defensive player, or at least, a player who can be all of those things when he puts his mind to it. In his career-long bid to become an offensive All-Star, he has drifted away from the defensive discipline and motor of his youth, sometimes for seasons at a time. Time to plug fully back in.

Aaron Gordon throws a pass in the Orlando Magic's win over the Brooklyn Nets
Image: Aaron Gordon throws a pass in the Orlando Magic’s win over the Brooklyn Nets

As alluded to earlier, the Magic need the defense to fuel their sticky offense, which starts from winning possessions. And while nobody on the team can protect the rim like Isaac, it greatly benefits the team if they can clear the glass, deflect the ball away, use Fultz and Gordon’s handling in the open court to get out in transition and push the pace.

Having another frontcourt defender would sorely help with that. Unfortunately, Al-Farouq Aminu – who was signed last summer to be that very reserve to the pairing of Gordon and Isaac, as a veteran with good defensive chops and who understands his role – is not with the team in the bubble either and has himself missed the majority of this season through injury. Now, there are really not that many options left.

Markelle Fultz #20 of the Orlando Magic makes a three-point basket to end the first quarter of a NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings at HP Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 2, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. 0:16
Orlando’s Markelle Fultz produced this moment of magic in their game against the Sacramento Kings

In the wider purview of the Magic franchise, Isaac provided more than just defense, youth, athleticism, finishing and rim protection for the team. He also provided hope.

At this stage in his career, Gordon looks to have peaked and Bamba looks to have made little progress either. It was hoped that Isaac along with Fultz could be the springboard Orlando needed to move up the East and give them a foundation to be excited about in a way that they have not had for years.

Isaac’s return to good health and good play, either to finish up this season or for the start of the next one, was supposed to be the salvation. Given the Magic are so many tiers behind the top two teams in the East, who will likely easily overwhelm them in the first-round series anyway, it still is – but not for another year.

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