Benny Sieu/USA TODAY
Monday night was rough for the Magic.
There is no way around it. Orlando is trying to build a winning culture and winning habits and, at times, you expect winning to occur along the way in tough seasons like this. For every great moment — like the wins over the Thunder and Pacers and the win at Chicago over the Bulls so long ago — there are disheartening ones — like the Monday loss to the Bucks where the Magic lost an 18-point lead and let the team with the worst record in the league dictate play and take it to them.
Call it a growing experience, I guess. There have been plenty of those this year.
Others have trotted out the "T" word in response to last night's game. And the sinking suspicion had some legs with the rotations used and some of the players Jacque Vaughn rode. Maybe it was player development, maybe it was not. We will never know. Vaughn is trying to assess the players he has.
As the Bucks made their nearly decisive 23-10 run to through the first half of the fourth quarter, frustration seemed to mount. In the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, the Bucks held the Magic to 5-for-13 shooting while shooting 8 for 15 themselves and four for six from beyond the arc. The Bucks simply dominated.
The writing seemed on the wall at that point.
In the second half, Kyle O'Quinn played just 9:59 as Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson split much of the time at center. This from a player who was playing very well, had earned a starter's spot and had 10 points and seven rebounds in the game. O'Quinn did not check in during the fourth quarter until an inbounds pass with less than a minute to play.
Something did not add up there.
Maybe Vaughn was playing a matchup he liked and misjudged what he was seeing. Tobias Harris certainly seemed a smarter matchup with Ersan Ilyasova than O'Quinn. Especially with Ilyasova sneaking in for offensive rebounds. Andrew Nicholson at center for long stretches against John Henson. It was not a good matchup especially considering Nicholson's struggles recently.
The bad was easier to see Monday night than the good and that is the frustrating part. It sticks out more.
That gets to the very essence of this issue around "tanking." When a team is bad, it is a lot easier to focus on the negative. Particularly when expectations get raised — something I will be writing about in the very near future.
That gets us to the main question: Are the Magic "tanking?"
I do not believe so. I do not believe any individual team is tanking. Players play hard. They have jobs to keep — except O.J. Mayo — and contracts to play for. The end of the season for many of these "bad teams" are extended auditions for extending or beginning NBA careers.
Sixers coach Brett Brown framed the question smartly while the Sixers were last in Orlando in describing his team's approach to the season:
"Our road map this year was not going to be judged in the win-loss column," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "It's one of those rare years where I can confidently say that. That is a strange line coming from a coach.
"We have pounded it into our guys that it's about development, it's about standards, it's about habits, it's about not cutting corners to help build a program. Those are our measurements. They are different than others. I think the whole group has followed through in what could be an otherwise difficult year. I think our message is our strongest compass. I don't think we waver from that."
That sure sounds familiar to the things Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn have said throughout the season.
Still that did not stop the Sixers from trading away many of their current best players for fringe NBA players — a veritable pennies-on-the-dollar deal. That drew criticism from Stan Van Gundy and a stern defense from Adam Silver (my jokes are also tanking).
Rebuilding is certainly not pretty. There are a lot of bumps along the road. And a lot of frustrating moments like Monday night's game.
Rob Hennigan said patience and process are still the words of the day for the Magic. On Magic DriveTime on Tuesday, Hennigan re-iterated this point following the Magic's defeat to the Bucks.
It can be difficult to fight emotion and frustration in the moment. The Magic have an eye on the long-term goals.
You get the sense that several players on the roster are not happy with losing. Certainly no one likes losing. There is gallow's humor in trying to find the positive in everything for sure. It is also necessary to keep cofnidence up to have some of these players be a part of the final piece of the puzzle.
Now is not the time for criticism or panic — that is how the Magic fell deeper into the hole Monday night.
Monday was not a case of tanking. The Magic are not tanking. Not in an obvious way. Sure, players are probably being held out with injuries longer than they probably would if they were in the Playoff hunt. Yes, Jacque Vaughn might be tinkering with lineups to play younger players more in pressure situations to challenge them — a publicly stated goal of the organization.
Is that tanking? That remains in the eye of the beholder.