It’s not news that the Orlando Magic are struggling, that they are likely the worst team in the league, a crew of vaguely promising young talent without direction to guide them or gravity to organize them. These are facts you can assume, at this point, because they have been roughly true since Dwight Howard forced his way out of central Florida nearly a decade ago. Like the Kings and Hawks and Cavs, the Magic are one of those franchises that recedes fully into the background of the league’s greater consciousness when they are not so good that you’re compelled to pay attention to them. Those Steve Clifford-coached squads, particularly the 2018-19 edition that broke .500 and took a game off the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, were junky fun but underseen and ultimately irrelevant. A curiosity, maybe, is the word. Your 2021-22 Orlando Magic are considerably less than that: a complete mystery nobody’s trying to solve.
And so this thought arrives out of nowhere, and for no reason: where the hell are Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz? Isaac has been busy since tearing his left ACL and meniscus in the summer of 2020, but only in terms of standing up for the unvaccinated and courting the cynical admiration of right wing creeps like Ben Shapiro and Will Cain. He hasn’t played at all since establishing himself as a future All-Defense candidate and then collapsing in a heap. The latest update, from a couple weeks ago, was that he has been limited to non-contact activity and there’s no timetable for his return. Here’s a video from January 21st of him practicing quarter-speed floaters. You make your own determination, which is as good as anybody else’s, as to when the guy in that clip is going to return to the floor.
Fultz’s absence is more understandable, given that he’s only a year removed from his ACL tear, but it’s not a little troubling that he doesn’t have a comeback date scheduled either. He was on the Magic’s practice court on December 10th, running in 3-on-3 drills with teammates, and at the time there was talk of him featuring for Orlando before Christmas. Since then, he’s done some work with the G-League affiliate and traveled with the team. He still hasn’t played a single game.
On the one hand, NBA teams have learned not to publicly estimate how long it’s going to take for a player to return to full strength after a catastrophic injury. That’s mostly a good thing. The way that, for instance, the Bulls aired Derrick Rose out to dry while he was rehabbing from his knee problems, was grossly unfair. On the other hand, the Magic remaining mum on Isaac and Fultz suggests that there’s a real possibility they might miss the entire rest of the season. That’s a problem for two guys who need on-court development time.
Injuries—well, injuries and losing—have been the story for the Magic over the past couple of seasons. Nobody except Dwayne Bacon played more than 48 games for Orlando last year and in this campaign Jamahl Mosley has already been forced to use 19 players. Jalen Suggs has fractured his thumb and Wendell Carter has tweaked his knee. Cole Anthony’s right ankle has given him trouble. Though you shouldn’t be relying on Michael Carter-Williams in the first place, he’s been banged up too.
The Magic stink, that’s for sure, but worse than that, it’s nearly impossible for them to begin to figure out how to become competent when they can’t field a consistent rotation. There’s no opportunity to learn what, say, a three-guard attack of Suggs, Anthony, and Fultz looks like. Isaac and Franz Wagner seem like they would make a pretty awesome three-four pairing defensively, but they’re not getting any time together. You know what isn’t helping Suggs’s shaky shot? The fact that he’s only played 27 games and can’t settle into a rhythm. As if the Magic were overreacting to the Too Many Lanky Guys Who Can’t Shoot meme from couple years ago, the roster now has too many guards: Suggs, Anthony, Fultz, R.J. Hampton, and Gary Harris. It would be nice to know who from that group should stay and who belongs on the trading block.
Pandemic raging as it is and the NBA being inflexible in the face of dwindling profits, this hasn’t been a season in which any outfit has enjoyed much consistency, but plenty of organizations have a solid idea of what they are. (Whether that pleases them or not is a different matter.) The Magic lack information, beyond what’s obvious, as they currently reside in the darkest corner the league basement. It’s funny, even if the whole NBA-watching world was tuned in to what Orlando’s been up to three nights per week, they wouldn’t be to draw many conclusions. As Fultz and Isaac remain on the shelf and the rest of the squad can’t quite get right, this is turning into a brutal wash of a season. Perhaps in the next month or so, as one or both those guys returns, as Suggs stays fit and Carter gets his feet under him, we’ll learn a few things about the Magic. In the meantime, they remain confounding and strangely unreal.