Basketball’s most enjoyable sequences spring from spontaneous split-second decisions that are informed by skill and instinct. But the game isn’t entirely improv theater. With so many interdependent pieces constantly relying upon one another for collective success, familiarity is another key element that most teams enjoy whenever they can afford to have it.
The more comfortable a player is within their role, system and surroundings, the less likely they are to hesitate or make a mistake. Continuity—the act of keeping a previous year’s roster intact—helps, in theory, by breeding marginal edges when deployed against an opponent that is still in the process of self-discovery.
But continuity can also have the opposite effect: Instead of stimulating growth, it halts the type of progress that can’t occur without change. And sometimes front offices keep what they have together simply because there is no alternative worth pursuing. In an NBA where impatience is wonted and mass reconstruction is seemingly an annual event, teams that don’t regularly and aggressively alter who they are have become somewhat of an anomaly.
According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, two organizations have had more roster continuity over the past three offseasons than everybody else. The Nuggets, a homegrown beau idéal steered by two of the NBA’s brightest young stars that just played in the Western Conference finals, are one. The other is the Magic, a franchise coming off two straight first-round exits and zero playoff series wins since 2011.
Even if some of Orlando’s recent inertia is the byproduct of incidental events as opposed to the result of a deliberate strategy, continuity has simultaneously helped and hurt its ability to advance. The Magic were generally pleased with their roster before several injuries suffered over the past 12 months made it difficult to grasp how good they can be. Now, as they scramble to stay afloat in an Eastern Conference that’s suddenly filled with plucky upstarts (hello, Knicks!), the matter of what their current roster can someday become is a maddening source of curiosity.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Jeff Weltman, Orlando’s president of basketball operations. “I look at the way Markelle [Fultz] was playing and the way Jonathan [Isaac] played even in his brief glimpse in the bubble. I look at guys like [Nikola Vučević] and [Terrence Ross], who have taken big steps. It’s not just young players who can improve, it’s veteran guys who can improve, too. I think a lot of our players have grown.”
In last year’s playoff series against the Bucks, Orlando was down several members of its rotation, including Isaac and Aaron Gordon. This isn’t to suggest the team would’ve upset the No. 1 seed, but reacting with change for the sake of change didn’t, in the front office’s estimation, make sense. Heading into the bubble and coming out of that series, the Magic were middle-class royalty.
They made the playoffs two years in a row and were young enough at several key positions to claim positive momentum. Fultz (who tore his ACL earlier this month) and Isaac (who tore his ACL in August) both signed long-term contract extensions in December, signs Orlando was pleased enough with everything it saw to stay the course.
“Obviously it’s our job to always look to improve our team, and so we discuss all options with other teams and see what’s out there,” Weltman says. “But at the same time we believe in our players and had no problem moving forward with them. ...We haven’t won at a level we’re satisfied at yet, but I think it is important to play meaningful games in the spring, and I think it’s how guys turn corners and improve and understand what their lane means to the rest of the team.”
There’s always the possibility that Orlando will make a hard pivot in one direction or another before March’s trade deadline, or during this upcoming offseason—almost every rotation player on its roster is also under contract next year—but the fact that it hasn’t done so already makes it a fascinating and unique contrast between stability and stagnation.
To some, the Magic might already look like untouched fruit slowly rotting on a kitchen counter. But it’s hard to judge their past three offseasons without accounting for the painful half-decade that preceded them. From 2013-2018, Orlando had the worst winning percentage in the entire league. They churned through four head coaches and never made the playoffs.
Everybody wants to start over and rebuild or deal out dependable present-day contributors for tantalizing draft assets, but nobody does so prepared to walk into the wilderness without a guaranteed exit plan. After Orlando traded Dwight Howard, it quickly found itself in the same lottery-bound purgatory as the Kings or Timberwolves. The Suns are another comp that are finally walking on solid ground. The Magic certainly weren’t blameless for their own struggle through this period, but shouldn’t be judged too harshly for wanting to experience some type of consistency as soon as they possibly could.
“This league is about wining and it’s about understanding what goes into winning and the preparation and the sacrifice that it takes to win,” Weltman says. “And so there really is nothing to replace winning, and that’s why we’re all here. That’s why we’re in this league: to win.”
Weltman installed Steve Clifford as head coach a year after he took the job in 2017. On top of trading for Fultz and drafting Isaac, Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony, his most notable contract agreements have been with players who were already on the team: Vučević, Gordon and Terrence Ross.
One rival GM has been surprised by Orlando’s approach to the point guard position, where Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio and Terry Rozier were all cited as good fits in Clifford’s system before Orlando acquired Fultz. Instead, Weltman’s most significant outside free-agent signing has been Al-Farouq Aminu (who hasn’t suited up in over a year), while Evan Fournier is in the last year of a five-year contract signed in 2016. But for those players, and several more who were brought in near the start of Clifford’s tenure, the benefits of continuity overshadow their inability, so far, to get over the proverbial hump.
“I’ve been with the Magic for seven years, and, before we got Cliff, each and every year we had to start over and rebuild something, with new players, new management,” Fournier says. “It’s never easy to go through that. So the fact that we finally have some consistency, I think it’s huge. When you look at all the great teams in NBA history, they all had that in common, you know? When you think about the Spurs, especially.”
Gordon has endured constant turnover since he first came to Orlando as a 19-year-old. Now 25, he’s conscious of how different the past couple of years have been, along with the positive effect structural evenness can have on working conditions.
“It’s been really great just growing with the same group of guys,” Gordon says. “I think it’s really valuable and rare in today’s NBA just with all the teams shuffling and retooling and revamping. It’s a testament to this front office and the faith that they have in us. And, you know, I think the IQ of our team just grows. We get wiser with each year.”
For some, there’s a noticeable correlation between off-court camaraderie and on-court functionality. Michael Carter-Williams—in his third season with Orlando after never spending more than two with any of the five teams he’d previously played for—recognizes the time it takes to build relationships and develop trust.
“You get to be more comfortable with people, more than on a work level. I have real friends on this team,” he says. “When you have a whole bunch of new guys, it’s hard to talk to people and criticize them because you just don’t know them. You don’t want this guy to take it personal. But with our team we’re all able to communicate at a level where guys can tell me ‘Mike, you’re slacking,’ and I’ll know that they mean it for the greater good, not that they’re saying something to me just because.”
The countless possessions many of them have shared together on the court obviously matter, too. “Without giving up too much of our offense, with T-Ross if they top-lock I can throw the lob. With Vooch trailing I can drop it between my legs to him for the trail three,” Gordon says. “Ev, I just know where to find him on the court when I’m in transition, going downhill. I know when he’s wide open he’s gonna knock it down. I think the trust we have in each other, the trust that we’ve developed in each other, has been instrumental.”
Stylistically, Clifford’s conservative basketball philosophy suits an organization that isn’t highly active on the transaction front. “I would say 80 to 85% of what we’re doing on both ends of the floor is consistent with what we did last year,” he said on opening day. “When we’re right our execution is very good.”
In the six years before Clifford, the Magic were below league average on both sides of the ball each season. Since, they’ve tethered themselves to defense-first principles and a methodical, measured offense that’s helped organize an identity most players find comfort in.
“I know exactly what he wants from me,” Vučević says. “I know exactly what to do, and it makes it easier to just go out there and play and not have to think about ‘Am I doing this, am I doing that, how does he want me to defend a pick and roll, how does he want me to do this with a read?’ There’s so much that goes into it. When you have that familiarity over and over, especially with teammates, you build chemistry playing with them year after year.”
Under Clifford, the Magic have had the sixth-worst offense and ninth-best defense in the NBA. They’re slow and consistently risk averse, owners of the league’s third-lowest turnover rate over that span. You won’t see them kick the ball ahead like the Lakers frequently do. Their brand is steeped in self-preservation. “Defense first and then offense later,” Khem Birch says. “In order for us to win we have to be a strong defensive team.”
The numbers back up that mentality. Orlando dominates the defensive glass; ices pick-and-rolls as much, if not more, than every other team (the phrase “no middle means no middle” was repeated by several Magic players when asked about Clifford’s core basketball beliefs); and prioritizes transition defense.
“A lot of times when a coach says, ‘O.K., we have to get back in transition,’ it’s not specific,” Fournier says. “You don’t necessarily know what to do. With Cliff, when the ball is in the air, if you’re in the corner you have to get out of there and locate a player so there’s no open gaps. You know what you have to do, and if you mess up you know the next day it’s going to be on the tape. That’s the best part [laughter]. There’s no arguing.”
Adds Carter-Williams: “He makes roles for everybody on the team where you kind of rely on the next man and it fully circulates to a team game, offensively and defensively.”
When they look around the NBA, Magic players see other teams constantly shuffling pieces in and out. It makes them appreciate the situation they’ve been in. But, while knowing decisions made by the front office are out of their control and that a foundation-changing trade could happen any minute, they also haven’t been completely stunned by Orlando’s decision to stick with what it has.
“I was surprised that nothing happened [last offseason] just because I know how the league is and I know guys get replaced in and out,” Carter-Williams says. “[But] the people upstairs have a lot of faith in us and they know that we’ve had some bad luck due to injuries and unfortunately those kind of continued. I think they see what we can build on.”
Vučević agrees: “We feel like we never had a chance to see our team at full strength [last year]. We came into this season with the way the offseason was, the front office decided this was the best way to continue. We really feel like we had something we can build on.”
Fournier, who picked up his player option for this season instead of testing free agency in part because of how much he enjoys the certainty Orlando can offer, has been pleasantly surprised by the team’s relative inactivity. “I actually do remember one offseason, the year it got crazy and I think half of the league got traded, all we did was get a second-round pick or something,” Fournier laughs. “I was like ‘Wow, O.K.’ But you enjoy the continuity.”
Orlando is currently the eighth seed, but if they’re floundering near the bottom of the East six weeks from now, there’s a decent chance it’ll become a seller. The timing could be right, considering the Magic have several players who hold decent value during a season when several teams can either talk themselves into championship contention or at least hold a strong desire to fortify themselves for a playoff push.
The Celtics have a $28.5 million trade exception that Gordon, Fournier and Ross can fit into; Boston should have varying interest in all three. Same goes for any competitive team that still has draft picks they’re able to part with. Gordon, Ross and Vučević are all on deals that decrease annually, too, making them a bit more attractive during a time when team budgets are under scrutiny.
As of now, though, with FiveThirtyEight giving them favorable odds to make the playoffs, the Magic can also ride this year out and look forward to a healthy 2022, with Bamba, Aminu, Isaac, Fultz and Okeke presumably all back. Anthony will have a full season under his belt and Vučević (who gets better every year and is currently leading the NBA in total baskets) will still be in his prime.
“We’ve played with the best teams in this league and with guys getting better going into next year, with guys getting healthy, I really think we can compete with anybody in the East,” Carter-Williams says.
They better. Nobody involved with the NBA, be it a player, coach, front office executive, marketing strategist or owner, wakes up each day looking forward to a first-round exit. Eventually staleness sets in, tension mounts and substantial change becomes a necessity.
For a Magic team that appears stuck and solid at the exact same time, maybe their patience will be rewarded with a leap from Fultz, Gordon, Bamba, Okeke, Anthony and (especially) Isaac. Or maybe they’ll push as many chips as they can in for the next available star (unlikely, considering who’s injured and how it’d gut their roster) or take a step back in favor of future assets. Sometimes the best moves are the ones that aren’t made. And sometimes missing a transactional window of opportunity can saddle you for years.
“Ultimately, you know your players better than anyone and you know how you value them better than anyone,” Weltman says. “There is value in continuity, but obviously if we feel there are other ways to improve our team we will execute those deals as they present themselves.”
These aren’t easy decisions, especially with so many key players injured, knowing a breakup would eliminate the immeasurable benefits tied to long-held connections between players and coaches, system and identity. But sooner or later, something will have to give for the Magic to wriggle out of this holding pattern.
“There is pressure,” Fournier says. “We went to the playoffs two years in a row. And if we lose in the first round [again], then there’s no growth. And if there’s no growth then why would they want to keep us? You know what I mean? So they’re gonna want to see [that], and obviously we, as players, want to see growth. And we want to get better and accomplish more and more. That’s always the goal. You never want to stay in the same place.”