Magic vs Hawks

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) is fouled as he attempts to dunk on Hawks center Alex Len (25) during a game on Sunday, March 17. Vucevic finished the game with 27 points and 20 rebounds as Orlando defeated Atlanta 101-91 at Amway Center.

The 2018-19 season was a shockingly good campaign for the Orlando Magic.

After seven years of losing seasons and tanking for draft picks, the team finally managed to make it back to the playoffs, and posted a winning record while doing so.

But the Magic just couldn’t quite replicate that success in the first round of the playoffs, falling to the higher-seeded Toronto Raptors in five games.

Despite three of those losses being blowouts, Magic head coach Steve Clifford never questioned the experience or talent on his team. It was just a matter of how well they played in the spotlight.

“I know everybody wants to talk about they have guys who’ve played in a lot of playoff games, we didn’t,” he said. “We weren’t afraid, we didn’t play well enough. Everybody always wants to talk in sport about all these mental things, which it’s a big part of it, [but] at the end of the day we turned the ball over, we didn’t rebound as hard.”

But with an offseason full of questions, it’s unclear how much of that talent will be returning next season or whether Orlando will once again contend for a playoff spot. Here are the top issues that the Magic will face this offseason.

Nikola Vucevic’s impending free agency

Vucevic had the best year of his career at the perfect time, setting himself up for a big payday this summer. The 28-year-old center averaged 20.8 points per game on 52 percent shooting this season to go along with 12 rebounds per game. Those numbers were good enough to make him the Magic’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard.

There’s simply no way around the fact that Orlando made the playoffs because of him. His ability to control the offense, pull opposing big men away from the basket and score at will helped spark a Magic team that had few offensive weapons.

But it’s unclear if he will be back with the team next year. He will command a very high salary once free agency opens, and the Magic will have to decide if sinking that much money into one player at this point in their rebuild is a good idea.

On one hand, locking up Vucevic makes the Magic instant playoff contenders next year and gives fans a reason to show up to games. But on the other hand, signing him to a hefty extension will greatly limit what the Magic can do in free agency for coming years and will also take playing time away from center Mo Bamba, a prospect that the team is determined to develop.

This is easily the most important decision Orlando will make this offseason and will determine the direction of the team for the next few years.

Terrence Ross’ impending free agency

Ross was another key player for the Magic this season, coming off the bench to have a big impact and swing games thanks to his shooting prowess. Much like the Vucevic decision, the Magic will have to decide whether they want to prioritize cap flexibility or playoff contention.

Ross will likely field lucrative offers from other teams, and letting him walk will damage the Magic’s depth for next season. But re-signing him could have negative effects in the long run when Orlando may be looking to make bigger, splashier free agency moves without having the cap space to do so.

The NBA Draft

For the first time since 2013, the Magic do not have a lottery pick in this year’s draft. While this eliminates the stress of having to diligently sift through the various top prospects to select the best option, it opens up more possibilities for the team.

They won’t be finding a star player with the No. 16 pick. So, the team could potentially look at trading the pick as part of a larger deal to bring in help for the offense, or package it to move up and select a better player if the team chooses to go that route.

Whatever the Magic decide to do this summer, this season’s success unquestionably positioned the team well for the future. The playoff appearance revitalized a shrinking fan base and gave young players the experience needed to contend in the future.

“We take everything as a lesson and we know what to expect,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “And we’ll be back and we’ll be better.”

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