21–22 NBA Previews: The Orlando Magic (#30)

If I understand theoretical physics correctly—and I believe I do—it involves the use of abstractions in an attempt to understand natural phenomena. You could say the same of the team-building strategies of the recent vintage of the Orlando Magic.

Jonathan Isaac? Markelle Fultz? Mo Bamba? These players, too, are abstractions, intimations, ideas, prototypes. They are wisps of basketball players. Through the cloudy occlusions of the future, you can squint and see outlines of the tangible world, but they always remain a little out of focus, and they come in fits and starts. 

This week, Isaac, asked if he will be ready to start the season, said, “I’m on the court. I’m weaning out of the brace. I’m jumping. I’m finishing around the basket and such. I’m easing my way. ... I’m getting there.” I love the way basketball in this quote is a mystery at the center of a strange universe of smaller activities: Jumping, finishing around the basket, the mere act of momentarily existing on the court. He’s right, but it feels telling that he’s answering the question by giving you an image of everything around the task rather than the task itself.

Fultz, who tore his ACL back in January of last season, only played in eight games last season. He’s one of the most mysterious basketball players of all time, existing almost entirely in theory, in old videos of a confident, dynamic player seemingly lost to time and circumstance. 

Isaac and Fultz, by the way, are to my mind two of the three most important players on this roster (Jalen Suggs is the other one). This stuff seems to gravitate towards Orlando’s basketball team, doesn’t it? Even what’s promising seems unreal. Chuma Okeke, one of their most promising players now, was drafted with the knowledge that he’d be missing his entire rookie season due to injury. He played in 45 games last season. Remember Fran Vazquez, the 2005 lottery pick who never played a minute in the NBA? This stuff just happens with these guys. 

Building a team requires a certain amount of well-considered faith. You have to take your theories about the natural world—that is, basketball as it is actually played in the NBA—and use them to imagine what you can about their possible manifestations. The Orlando Magic as a franchise take this process out further into the realm of purely theoretical knowledge than perhaps any other team. Magic: it’s a good name for them. They are a collection of barely perceived particles coming together in myriad ways. Unfortunately, usually the result is a lot of ugly offense and terrible spacing. 

Still, one can’t help but feel that this might be a more inspiring way to do things than the grim grasping after competence that embodies the team-building strategy of so many of the teams stuck in the sad NBA middle of 37-win seasons and an alarming lack of anybody getting anybody’s hopes up. 

The Orlando Magic will probably win the fewest games in the NBA this coming season, but that’s okay. The point is to just be playing basketball. Not in theory, but in the real world. It is extremely cool that Jalen Suggs, an exciting rookie point guard, slipped to them in the draft. My scouting report on him is that he seems like a person who tends to play basketball. 

It’s exciting to think about the potential for growth in players like RJ Hampton, Chuma Okeke, and Cole Anthony. Wendell Carter, Jr. gets a chance for a fresh start after stagnating in Chicago. There is an interesting collection of veterans like Gary Harris, Robin Lopez, and Terrence Ross: flawed players with the ability, nevertheless, to enrich the soil in ways that might provide the context in which sweet little seedlings can grow.

All of this is a lot more exciting than eking out a chance at the play-in tournament.  Maybe soon we will start to be able to observe natural phenomena at work in Orlando. The ball moving around the perimeter, the endless pivoting of Robin Lopez, glimpses of theory come to life.