Phil Sears/USA TODAY
There has been one consistent theme throughout this season. Funny that I would use that word because consistency is very much that theme.
Any young team is looking for consistency. That is really the difference between the good, veteran teams and the young teams like the Magic. Coaches know what they will get every time they step on the floor. There is less variability. There is more trust.
When wins are on the line, this is what coaches rely on. They do not want to depend on the whims of a young player learning the ropes or trying to get into a groove within his role. One moment they could be the fulfillment of all their potential, the next they are a college player trying to make it against men.
"Without a doubt, that's the challenge," Jacque Vaughn said early in the season. "Can you be just very consistent in your approach? Can you be detailed? And can you do it over and over again?
"You've heard me say that before and I say it to our guys all the time. That's the difference to be disciplined enough to do the right thing over and over again. It's a challenge when you're dealing with different games, whether or not you get tired, injuries, all of the above. Having that mental approach to overcome and have that mental discipline every single night."
For the young group of Magic players, inconsistency is the unfortunate reality. They are learning the NBA and going through the growing pains that come from playing an 82-game schedule against the best players in the world for the first or second or third time. Almost every player on the Magic has yet to reach his potential and are still figuring themselves out as a player.
That could mean figuring out roles and where they fit into the current roster. This would be Victor Oladipo learning how to play point guard or Tobias Harris shifting from power forward to small forward or Andrew NIcholson adding the 3-pointer to his game while still playing in the post.
It is a lot of adjustment and a lot of learning that a young player has to do — all on the fly of an 82-game schedule.
It's one of the hardest things, and everybody knows this, is consistency," Glen Davis said. "No matter what you do, you got to learn how to play with a level of consistency every game. The team that makes the less mistakes wins the ball game. That's the difference between the teams at the top of the totem pole and the bottom. If we want to be at the top, we got to learn how to play with consistency every day and understand our niche as a team. If we understand our niche as a team and everybody understands it, we can identify when we are playing great and when we are playing not the way we're supposed to."
Considering the Magic have only 16 wins at the All-Star Break, it is safe to say they are still learning this. The important thing, veterans like Davis and Jameer Nelson said and coach Jacque Vaughn said, is building good habits and establishing an identity that will carry over when the players gain that level of consistency.
That is what this entire season is very much about — continuing to grow. That was painfully obvious from the roster's makeup and the stated direction this team was going to take in building through the draft and continuing to grow.
As Vaughn said, laying down the foundation is integral this year. The Magic have to get teh team buying in defensively and playing hard. That is something that should be easy with the group the team has.
Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O'Quinn all spent the entire summer working out together. The work was noticeable early and is still a work in progress as the year exits the All-Star Break. The familiarity these players have with each other has helped them grow.
That second unit — the young guns? That is the culmination of all the hard work these young players have had and the growing consistency they are showing. Inconsistency still creeps in, considering the struggles the unit had against Memphis in the last game before the All-Star Break.
"That's important [playing within yourself]," Arron Afflalo said. "The extra passes that are being made, the unselfishness, guys understanding their role and taking pride in what they can contribute to the team, those things are very very important. The more we can stay in that lane, I think the better we'll be this year."
It has taken some time, as expected, for this team to get there. They are still very much getting there. The flashes can be seen as the team took down back-to-back wins over the Thunder and Pacers at home. At the same time, the team's road struggles — a league low three wins at the All-Star Break — show just how far the team has to go in making their play consistent.
That is the hard work that is yet to come for this young group.
This group is still learning that it has to play the same way every night, no matter the opponent and no matter the score. They have shown progress in this respect — see the 17-point comebacks against the Thunder and the Pacers before the All-Star Break.
"I think overall thing is first of all, the game isn't over just because you play a good half or a good three quarters," Jacque Vaughn said. "You can be down 15 or up 15 and in an NBA game you still have a chance to win the game. So having a steadfast mentality of trying to push on whether you are up or down. The game isn't over until there are zeros on the clock."
This mentality is what Vaughn is trying to build brick-by-brick in this young group. It starts on the defensive end and grows from there. Defense is what Vaughn has stated will be the backbone of the team and is where consistent effort is required most of all.
That is a lesson the team has put into good use. Even early in the season, players said they could tell there was some growth. When teams made runs at them, they rarely wilted. The Magic found a way to punch back and make a run of their own, even if it would come up ultimately short.
The win over the Clippers in November was a strong example of this.
"We just believe in ourselves more," Nikola Vucevic said after that big win over the Clippers. "[The Clippers] made that run last year, there's a pretty good chance we probably just get down on ourselves and they separate. This year, I think, we're really close as a team. We believe in ourselves more. We have a better team chemistry, obviously being a year together. This year we just know no matter what the other team does, we just got to keep doing what we do and just believe that it is going to help us win the game."
The familiarity has also helped this group grow together and show some results on the floor. As noted with the second unit, the fact the players played with each other so much has helped them become a cohesive unit and repeat that success game in and game out. Vaughn said that familiarity is an important part of the Magic's process.
The veterans could tell early on in the season how much better the young players had gotten. Getting them to apply those skills consistently has been the trick throughout the season.
Victor Oladipo said he is a believer that effort and consistency in effort is a way to get an established consistency in the league. Oladipo has seen improvement gradually in his rookie year as he has gotten used to the pace of play and found ways to control his play while continuing to play with his much-talked-about energy and effort.
Consistency is becoming more attainable for him each day, especially the kind that gains a coach's trust as a veteran on the team.
But really, another year has enabled everyone to learn a little bit more about themselves and their games. That experience brings consistency in itself as these players develop into the players they will become for this organization.
As the losses have piled up, what has been important is the approach the team takes to work every day. Glen Davis especially has warned of losing habits creeping in. No one wants to accept losing and even young players like Tobias Harris take the losses hard, even if they are just part of the growing process.
"Without a doubt, we are a consistent bunch and a consistent group," Vaughn said. "Our effort stays the same, our approach stays the same. My demeanor when I walk into practice and I want our demeanor as a team that is consistently the same after a win or after a loss. The knowledge that we gain from both ends of those wins and losses, we use it. But the approach and the demeanor and the character that lies within us remains the same consistently."
Consistency is really about growth both in approach and on the court. For the rest of the season, this is what the Magic will be looking to continue to improve as they move forward.