The Memphis Grizzlies will look to get back in the win column tonight, after 2 ugly losses to Denver and Portland where they lost by a combined 45 points. Memphis will be without Jaren Jackson Jr. for injury management. But, the big question on the fan base’s mind is who will be the back-up PG – Tyus or Justise?
The Grizzlies are currently tied with the Spurs for the 8 spot in the West, and just a game up on the Warriors who are in 10th.
Enter Orlando, a team that’s looking to next year, but, is OK playing spoiler if it comes down to it. The Grizz and Magic will knock out their season series quickly with a Friday-Saturday back-to-back.
To get a little perspective from the Magic’s side, as well as a glimpse into their future, I chatted a little bit with the fantastic and generous Aaron Goldstone from Orlando Pinstriped Post.
What’s been the biggest surprise and biggest disappointment this season?
For me, the biggest surprise this season with the Magic has been the incredible amount of games players have missed due to injury. A significant knee injury suffered by starting point guard Markelle Fultz completely derailed Orlando’s promising start to the 2020-21 season. Cole Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, James Ennis, Aaron Gordon, Chuma Okeke, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Mo Bamba have all missed time this year due to various injuries (not to mention Jonathan Isaac, who suffered an ACL injury last summer).
The surprising (more like depressing) amount of injuries players have suffered from has led to the most disappointing part of the season, and that is a return trip to the lottery after consecutive playoff berths over the last two years. Yet, I would imagine an overwhelming majority of Magic fans would disagree that a return to the lottery in 2021 is a disappointment. In fact, ping pong balls seem to be the one thing keeping Magic fans going these days.
For the record, the deadline trade that sent All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to Chicago was also quite shocking (Fournier and Gordon, not so much).
The Orlando Magic are currently in rebuilding mode; how long do you expect the rebuild to take?
I know that Magic fans are hopeful Orlando’s second (or third?) rebuild will be a short-lived one, but I’m not sure I share that same level of confidence. The truth of the matter is, Orlando could have anywhere between eight to ten players on next year’s roster under the age of 25. The NBA can often be a cruel place to exist for young teams going through growing pains.
Assuming Isaac and Fultz can return from injury, fully healed, and they continue to grow as players entering the prime of their respective careers, then the Magic have a foundation already in place to build upon. And of course, Orlando’s first round selection(s) in this year’s upcoming draft will factor heavily into the team’s future plans.
A one-year hiatus, followed by a return trip, to the NBA playoffs would certainly be the most ideal situation for the Magic. I just don’t see things happening that quickly, especially with veteran core players such as Vucevic, Fournier, and Gordon elsewhere. And I don’t sense that Orlando’s top executives - President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond - are in any kind of a hurry either.
Which current players are part of the rebuild?
The previously mentioned Fultz and Isaac, who both signed contract extensions with the Magic back in December, are clearly at the center of the rebuild in Orlando. The Magic have three current rookies on their roster - Cole Anthony (15th pick, 2020), RJ Hampton (24th pick, 2020), and Chuma Okeke (16th pick, 2019, missed all of last season due to injury) - all whom figure to also be a part of Orlando’s future plans. With three years remaining on their rookie deals after this season, the Magic have plenty of time to develop (and ultimately see what they have in) Okeke (22), Anthony (21), and Hampton (20).
And that leaves us with third-year centers Mo Bamba (sixth overall selection in ‘18) and Wendell Carter Jr. (seventh overall selection in ‘18). I could envision a scenario where the Magic organization opts to move forward with just one of these two big men, although I do feel that their individual games complement one another in a lot of ways. Bamba has suffered one setback after another through the first three seasons of his career, but his game has somewhat come to life since the Vucevic trade in March (10.9 points, 1.2 blocks, 1.5 three-point field goals per game over the last month). Carter Jr., who was acquired from Chicago in the Vucevic trade, has been impressive during his short-stint in Orlando (13.3 points, 8.9 rebounds). Both young centers have missed time in their careers due to injuries, and both are heading into the final year of their rookie contracts.
What moves do you see Orlando making in the offseason?
Obviously, Orlando’s off-season begins in large part with their first round draft pick. With the moves the Orlando organization made this past trade deadline, they are hedging a significant part of their future on getting this pick right. Luckily, the top of this year’s draft class is considered by most to be very strong. A top-five pick is well within reach for the Magic. They also own Chicago’s first round pick this year (top-3 protected); I could foresee a situation where Magic brass could potentially try and use the Chicago pick in an attempt to move up for a prospect they love (unless they land the top overall selection). I mean, how many under 25 prospects can a team develop at one time? I guess we’re going to find out...
I’m sure the front office will look to bring in a veteran or two in free agency, to round out the roster as well as to provide more leadership and stability in the locker room (Carter-Williams, Ross, and Gary Harris are all under contract next year as well). For example, bringing in a cheap veteran big man to fill a similar role that Khem Birch (now in Toronto) previously held with the Magic could prove to be valuable down the road.
What matchup do you look forward to seeing between Orlando and Memphis?
It’s somewhat difficult to address this question, because it’s hard to know who will be available for the Magic from one game to the next. But I’ll be in Orlando covering the second game of this back-to-back, and I know I’m really looking forward to seeing Ja Morant play. He’s obviously one of the quickest and most athletically gifted lead guards in the league, so his counterpart - Cole Anthony - will certainly have his hands full. I guess that would be the individual matchup between these two teams that moves the needle the most.