For the Orlando Magic, next season doesn't start in October.
It started in March.
The next season — the next chapter, really — for the Magic began when the trade-deadline frenzy of March 25 happened, the day when Orlando traded away Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier in a series of moves that clearly ushered in a total reboot of the team and its core.
Injuries held the team back, and when the offers arrived to bring in young players, draft picks or both, the Magic couldn't say no. So, they said farewell to Vucevic — one of the best players in Orlando history — and started anew.
"Listen, it's the toughest season I've ever been through," Magic coach Steve Clifford said. "I go back and think about the excitement around our team, that we could be the surprise team because of continuity. We had played well at the end of the year before, we had a lot of guys coming back, other teams did not, and as it played out the East isn't as good as it was. ... But we were never able to sustain anything."
And injuries were one of the main reasons why.
Jonathan Isaac didn't play at all this season because of the knee injury he suffered last August in the NBA's restart bubble. Markelle Fultz was lost for this season early on with a knee issue. The problems kept piling up and Orlando sputtered to a 21-51 finish.
But the silver lining was that the Magic got to experiment over the season's final six weeks, and they saw much to like. Cole Anthony averaged 15 points per game after the trade deadline and showed a flair for the dramatic, Mo Bamba played some of his best games as a pro in that stretch and rookie R.J. Hampton began to flourish when he got consistent opportunities.
"It's going to be a different path," Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. "It's exciting. I've never felt more excited about the team since I've been here than I do right now."
The Magic will likely have two lottery picks in this year's draft, plus a second-rounder, so they have some options. As things stand now, they have five first-rounders in the next three drafts. That gives Orlando the chance to add talent on draft night, package those picks for established talent, or some combination thereof.
FULTZ AND ISAAC
The Magic aren't sure when Fultz and Isaac will be back on the floor. All the team is hoping for, Weltman said, is no setbacks in their rehab — "and there haven't been any setbacks," he said. Based on the typical recovery time for a torn ACL, it stands to reason that Fultz may not be ready for the start of training camp or possibly next season. Isaac's injury was even more complex, which is likely the reason why no firm timetable has ever been released.
Clifford is a coach who values practice time, individual workouts and extra effort — all of which seems needed based on how Orlando's 43% shooting rate from the field this season was the worst in the NBA. The Magic were 27th out of the 30 teams in 3-point percentage, and that won't get it done in this 3-point-happy era in the league.
Orlando was outscored by 9.3 points per game, second-worst in the NBA and the worst in the Eastern Conference. The Magic had nine home games this season in which they lost by 22 or more points. No other team in Magic history lost more home games by that many points.
Orlando went 10-40 against the 20 teams that made either the playoffs or the play-in round to end the regular season. Against the other non-postseason clubs, the Magic went 11-11. They're not starting from the bottom; they just need players back to add to the young core that was developing at the end of this season.