With the season now over, we know the Magic have matched and surpassed last season’s win total. That should be some sign that things are heading in the right direction. The Magic have made modest improvements in the win-loss column — if that is what you tend to focus on.
Yet, there are still the moments when questions have to be asked.
What happened to Andrew Nicholson’s post-up game? Can Maurice Harkless finish at the rim more consistently? Can Tobias Harris become a better all-around player? Has Nikola Vucevic become a better defender? Can Kyle O’Quinn continue his improvement beyond this three-month stretch?
If team improvement was not the end goal of the 2014 season, then individual improvement had to be. The success or failure of this season seems based on whether the young players make improvements from last year. Individually, the Magic appear to have made many of those leaps. The fact we have asked many of the above questions and more is a sign that there is still some intrigue and potential on this Magic roster.
Yet, there is still that sense that the Magic have not lived up to their potential.
This is not the outsized potential that a veteran like Glen Davis had at one point — he constantly said there is no way this team should not be competing for a Playoff spot in THIS Eastern Conference — or the wildest dreams of the most optimistic fans. This should be a sense that the Magic are moving forward with their play on the court. As a team.
“That’s always the challenge with the team,” Jacque Vaughn said. “At the end of the day, it’s a sacrifice game. Can you get the bulk of the guys to sacrifice their game for the benefit of the team. That’s the great thing about team chemistry and atmosphere. We’re still trying to get there.”
That is always the challenge. Orlando’s young players still have to learn how to get their young players to improve while also still improving the team. That did not quite come across in obvious ways this year.
Yes, the Magic saw their defensive rating fall from 109.1 in 2013 to 107.4 in 2014. That is certainly a sign of team improvement. But the offense hardly got better — 101.6 to 101.7 — and the team was continually plagued with the issue that its roster lacked any consistent shot creators.
Despite those roster constraints, the Magic seemed to make plenty of improvements individually. The problem throughout the 2014 season was getting all those individual improvements to turn into something that fit into the team concept. Those pieces did not seem quite to turn up at the right times when the team needed to win.
“Winning is hard to do unless that is the purpose from everyone every night,” Arron Afflalo said. “We’ll get there. We’ll contingue to grow for the rest of the season. When winning matters collectively, I think that is when you hang on to leads. You take pride in having that advantage and stepping on their throat in a sense because that win is precious versus what you are trying to do individually when you let leads slip away.”
That is certainly something the young Magic have to learn how to do. Throughout the season, the players talked more about effort and playing hard each and every night for their team more than anything else. There was never quite that coming together of these individual talents and improvements.
A lot of that was expected, the team is just not at that stage in its rebuild. The organization is still collecting assets and figuring out which way to grow.
More than that too, the players are learning how to respond to the rigors of a 48-minute game and an 82-game season. As Maurice Harkless said at one point this season, it is a work in progress for this team learning these things.
In brief moments this season, however, it all came together. That win over the Thunder and the Pacers showed just what this team can be.
“[The Thunder win showed] that you have what it takes,” Victor Oladipo said after that win. “It just takes time. If you continue to keep grinding out and keep fighting and the basketball gods are on your side and you get a play here and there, they miss a shot here and there, you got a chance to win. Every time. If you play hard and you play together, you got a chance to win. We just got to continue to keep building on it. You keep playing hard. A lto fo games we might not win. But it’s all about the future. If we can stay consistent and we can continue to keep getting better, we can get this thing to greatness.”
That building will have to continue now in the offseason as individuals work on improving their games. It will be up to Jacque Vaughn in the fall to put those pieces back together to find team success. The struggles to get more team success fall on the coach in the end, trying to pull the right levers and plug in the right guys at the right times. That is something Vaughn has had to learn too.
From there, it is about keeping attention to detail, knowing their roles and their strengths and playing to those strengths and roles. Then it comes down to effort and trust in their abilities and their improvements. That is something else a young team has to do.
It would appear the Magic are going about things the right way in making this kind of growth. It never quite came to fruition in 2014. But the team will get the chance to get there in 2015 as they continue to grow and mature as players.
“I always say that this is a process,” Jameer Nelson said. “You’re not going to just become a good or great team overnight. We have to work at it in practice, games and in film sessions. We have to continue to learn to get better.”