File this under the “So you’re saying there is a chance” file. It is September, so excuse a little whimsy.
The hard reality is that the Magic are expected to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference again. Any improvements the Magic have made will have to come internally from players already on the roster beginning to realize their potential. Some of the new players on the roster will have to fill in roles, but any win-loss success will come from those familiar names — Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris — getting better.
It is easy to say one will make a pretty big leap. It gets harder and harder to say that two or three or four or all of them will continue that upward trend. That just is not how things go. Injuries happen (see Tobias Harris). Skills take time to develop (see Maurice Harkless).
A lot can go wrong.
But a lot can go right. Someone every year proves the “experts” wrong and sneaks into the Playoffs. Whether it was the Phoenix Suns or the Raptors or, even, the Heart and Hustle Magic, some team is going to sneak into the Playoffs or be better than everyone expected.
Why can’t it be the Magic?
If you look at us last year we competed with pretty much all the best teams in the league, we even beat a few of them. I feel like this year, with that much more experience and guys being that much better after another summer of work, we’ll have a chance to make the playoffs.
You expect the players to believe. Everyone is 0-0 and they have been working diligently all summer. They have to believe everything will come together. No one expects not to make the Playoffs (except Sam Hinkie, maybe).
What made those teams successful?
Being elite or nearly elite in offensive or defensive rating sure helps. Last year’s Suns finished eighth in the league in offensive rating. The 1999-2000 Magic finished ninth in defensive rating. Both of these teams appeared to be playing above their talent level to get into the top-10 of those respective categories. Whether it was Goran Dragic running circles around defenses or Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw hounding opposing offenses, teams had to be on their games going up against these teams.
The Magic are not exactly poised to make that kind of a jump though.
Last year, Orlando was 17th in the league in defensive rating. That is pretty impressive for a team that finished with just 23 wins and had a lot of youth. The Magic are clearly trying to build a defensive identity with the additions of Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton to their long-term core as well.
It would be a safe bet to say the Magic want to be good at defense.
The problem is young teams tend to struggle as they learn the NBA speed and defense. The Magic “Heart and Hustle” team was not a typical surprise team. They were not that young. Darrell Armstrong was 31, Bo Outlaw was 28, for instance. That was a team of veterans, many in contract years, who needed to show teams they could play in the league and contribute to a winning team.
The character of this year’s Magic team is a bit different. They are a young bunch. Younger than last year though. And if defensive rating is a partially a function of average age, the Magic could see the defense take a step back this year despite the increase in defensive talent.
Those are just growing pains.
What else characterizes those teams? Aside from unquantifiable intangibles like effort.
It helps having a leader that comes to represent the team.
Goran Dragic had his breakout year last season as he led the Suns to that surprising postseason push. Armstrong came to define the Magic’s Heart and Hustle team. Both were veterans in the league by the time these years came around and took on the new responsibility in stride.
If the Magic are relying on one guy to become that dominant player, it is likely Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo is not like Dragic or Armstrong in that he is not a true point guard. He is also entering his second year and so has a lot to learn as well. The Magic have put a lot more leadership onus on Oladipo and he seems capable of taking on that role. But, again, there will be growing pains and fits and starts. No one is expecting Oladipo to become a star overnight.
Although, it is possible.
The theme that should become apparent throughout this post so far is that there are growing pains ahead. The Magic have a lot of youth who are being put into more prominent roles. It is going to be a bit of a bumpy road as they learn to take the lead on this team. Roles will be defined, but they will also be learned.
Things could click. The talent for a Playoff team is already on the roster (note: Playoff team does not necessarily mean championship team). A lot of things have to click though for the Magic to take that next step.
That is the feeling, at least, looking at the roster and how they finished the year last year and even modest projections for this year.
The reason the Magic might be overlooked this year is that there is so much left to the unknown and intangible of development. We cannot quite measure today how good the Magic will be tomorrow. There is no set formula for determining how much these guys will improve.
Sitting here today, their Playoff chances are the same as anybody else’s. The odds tell us, the team will be better, but have growing pains that could harm their record in the end.