Magic charge into offseason with optimism after playoff run

The Orlando Magic are heading into the offseason feeling disappointed.

But this time around, the disappointment stems from a first-round playoff loss.

Instead of limping into the offseason, the Magic are charging into it. They’re eager to build off a 2018-19 campaign that saw them post a winning record, have a player selected to the all-star team, reach the postseason, win a playoff game — all for the first time since 2012 — and capture their first Southeast Division title since 2010.

“You want to build on that [success],” center Nikola Vucevic said. “It gives you even more motivation to work harder and to improve and to come back even better and take the next step.”

No, it wasn’t the same old Magic, who had gone through six straight losing seasons before this one. The Magic want to put those days behind them, and they understand it’s a process that doesn’t stop after one winning season.

“It’s just an expectation [now],” forward Aaron Gordon said. “It’s one step, though. That’s one step in our growth and we still have a ways to go but things changed quickly for the better.”

And that is a good thing. The seemingly never-ending rebuilding process started in the wake of the Dwight Howard trade appears to have reached its end.

“I think as long as you aspire to do more, you’re pretty much on the right track. I think everybody here, from upper management to all the players, that’s what they want,” swingman Terrence Ross said. “That’s definitely great motivation for everybody else.”

So how do the Magic maintain the momentum they put in place this season?

An important component of that process is already in place: continuity.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said the importance of continuity cannot be overstated with any NBA team. But it takes on a different meaning for the Magic, who recently have had their share offseason upheaval.

This offseason, however, will not produce a front-office shakeup or the hiring of a new coaching staff. It will present the team with a chance to simply build on the successes of 2018-19.

“Since I’ve been here, this will be the first summer where everything is in place organizationally, so it’s up to us to define what an Orlando Magic summer looks like,” Weltman said. “I think that the important thing right now is that we carry this momentum into next season.”

The Magic may have to balance that pursuit with a number of changes that could come during the offseason.

Vucevic and Ross, two of their most important players from this season, could be wearing different uniforms next year, their young players need to continue to develop and injuries remain a concern for Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz.

Building on success

The Magic had a 17-game improvement from last season and earned the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2012.

During roughly the final 10 weeks of the regular season, the Magic were among the winningest teams in the NBA as they went 22-9 in their final 31 games.

“I’m definitely looking forward to next year to build on what we did, and kind of start the season the way we finished it,” swingman Evan Fournier said.

The Magic found a formula for success under Clifford that emphasized defense but also sought a balance between being an effective defensive team and an effective offensive team.

After the all-star break, the Magic ranked third in fewest opponent points per game (105.5), fifth in defensive rating (105.4) and tied for seventh in offensive rating (111.0). They averaged 110.7 points per game in that stretch, almost five more than they had prior to the all-star break and nearly 3.5 points above their overall season average.

“You have to be [balanced],” Clifford said.

After charging to a postseason berth — clinched in Game 81 with a victory in Boston — the Magic won the first game in their opening-round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors.

The euphoria quickly faded as the Raptors won the next four to close the series and end the Magic’s season.

Still, the first step to winning in the playoffs is getting to the playoffs.

“I think making the playoffs was a good step for our team and for our franchise and hopefully for our fan base,” Clifford said. “Yet, ultimately, this league is all about winning in the playoffs, so those are things that going forward here these next two, three weeks we’ll be reflecting on, watching film and evaluating.”

Looking at the roster

At this point, the Magic have four of their five starters coming back next season: Fournier, Gordon, D.J. Augustin and Jonathan Isaac. That’s certainly a healthy dose of stability.

But as the Magic learned against the Raptors, shot-making is crucial in the playoffs.

Clifford said finding more offense, particularly the ability to create shots, doesn’t necessarily rest in free agency or trades. It could come from the internal development of players.

“Some of it could be continuity, higher execution, and that’s what is needed in the playoffs; some of it could be one or two young guys making a big jump. It’s not always just changing your roster,” he said.

The Magic could get that with Gordon and Isaac. While they will continue to anchor the defensive end, their further development on offense will factor into how the Magic fare next season.

While his scoring average (16.0 ppg) was down slightly from the previous season, Gordon averaged a career-best 3.7 assists per game — an increase of 1.4 assists a year ago. He also improved his 3-point shooting to a career-best 34.9 percent.

“I thought I just played the game better, just overall,” Gordon said, “I think just understanding what we needed and what was important in order to win. I feel like I learned how to win in the NBA and that’s the biggest part, more than any one individual skill. It just kind of the overall game play I felt was better.”

Isaac showed why the Magic are so high on his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent from 3-point range as he averaged nearly 10 points a game. His perimeter improvement forced defenses to play him more tightly on the perimeter and created more opportunities for him to drive to the basket and utilize his length.

Fournier, meanwhile, enters next season with two years left on his contract looking to rebound from a sub-par performance by his standards. He averaged nearly three points fewer per game than last year and fell below his career shooting percentage marks.

“Obviously I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I wanted to,” he said.

Fournier’s return to form certainly adds more scoring punch.

The Magic will need more of it if Vucevic and Ross leave through free agency.

Vucevic, who earned his first all-star selection this season, is currently the team’s longest-tenured player at seven seasons. Should he leave, that distinction would go to Fournier and Gordon, who each has played five seasons in Orlando.

Not surprisingly, Fournier wants to see his close friend remain with the Magic.

“What’s going to happen? I have no idea,” he said. “Obviously I want him to stay. Not just because he’s my friend, but because he’s a good player.”

Vucevic especially excelled under Clifford, and the 7-foot center talked a lot this season about how much the first-year coach has helped him.

For his part, Clifford would like both Vucevic and Ross back next season.

“Obviously that’s what we all hope happens,” Clifford said. “It speaks to everything. Talent, guys that have performed well, which is what the NBA is all about, they bring a lot on the court and off the court.”

Vucevic and Ross produced career-best seasons in many regards, and those performances will likely lead to lucrative contract offers on the free-agent market. Vucevic led the team in scoring (21.8) and rebounding (12.0) per game during the regular season, and also averaged 3.8 assists per game.

“For me, I really do believe that right now this is the start of my prime,” Vucevic said. “I have a lot of years in front of me where I can play at a very high level.”

Ross, meanwhile, was the team’s fourth-leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and led the Magic with 217 3-point field goals.

If Vucevic and Ross leave, where will the Magic get the production lost from their departures?

“Internal improvement has to be a big part of what we’re doing. We have too many quality young players to ever say that doesn’t need to be a big part of the way we get better,” Weltman said. “Whether Vooch and T-Ross come back or not, that’s a very important component of our future growth.”

Weltman said re-signing Vucevic “is a priority,” but he also points out the Vucevic will attract plenty of interest from other teams.

“Obviously he’s a very good player, a very good person, [and] someone we’d like to bring back,” Weltman said. “But as I said, he’ll have many options and we’ll have the discussions with his representatives at the appropriate time.”

If the Magic want to take the next step and not only return to the playoffs but also make a deeper run, Bamba will need to play a bigger role next season.

Bamba missed the final two months of his rookie season with a stress fracture in his left tibia. The Magic brought him along slowly and he continues to go through rehabilitation with an eye toward a better sophomore season.

“I strongly believe that Mo will be an elite-level player in this league,” Weltman said. “Mo has all the ingredients, the skills, the size, the intelligence, the desire to put it all together. And as I said, you can’t just say on draft night that we’re going to be patient. You have to actually be patient. That doesn’t mean that there’s not an urgency for Mo to work hard and improve and get better, and he understands that. But that will happen as it happens.”

The biggest wild card remains Fultz, who has played just 33 games in two seasons because of injuries. His skill set — a play-making point guard with size — would serve the Magic well, but the question remains: When will he be back on the court?

Weltman continues to say the Magic won’t rush Fultz’s return as he works back from a shoulder injury as the result of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

“I don’t think it’s like crossing a finish line. I think it’s like a day-by-day progression and he is making progress,” Weltman said. “This is something that he’s working [at] every day. He’s working with coaches, he’s working with the performance staff, and I think you start to see him rounding up and I think we’re already seeing signs. There’s not like one day where you just wake up and say ‘I’m ready.’ We’ll kind of gauge as the summer goes and see where his ramping up takes him. And we just considerably set the next target every time he clears a hurdle. That’s all. We just progress toward him getting back on the floor and being an effective player.”

When asked if Fultz is shooting yet, Weltman said he wouldn’t “discuss Markelle’s private workouts.”

“I’m not going to get into all that. I will just say that he’s making progress on his injury and he’s in a good place right now,” he said.

Sizing up the draft

The Magic will pick 16th in the first round and 46th in the second round at this year’s draft, set for June 20 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In Weltman’s two years with the Magic, they have picked sixth — taking Isaac and Bamba with those selections.

Weltman did not offer insight into what kind of player or who specifically the Magic are looking at in the draft, but he said the talent level is high for the players they expect to be available when they pick.

“We’re just focused in on our slice of the draft right now and then trying to expand from there,” Weltman said. “We want to know the whole draft so that we can understand if there are opportunities to move up or down. But the first thing is just to really intimately get to know our draft turf, and I do think that there are good players that we’re looking at.”

rparry@orlanodsentinel.com

On Twitter @osroyparry

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