Saturday’s blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks signaled that the Orlando Magic need to start rebuilding (again) for the future.
If the Orlando Magic still were not sure about whether to push for the playoffs this season or start tearing down for a rebuild, the 112-80 demolition on Saturday to the Dallas Mavericks should have sealed the decision for them.
Two days after a dispiriting last-second home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers (who were without star center Joel Embiid), the Magic looked lifeless on Zombie Night at the American Airlines Center, getting thoroughly outplayed by the Mavericks in almost every phase of the game.
Thursday’s loss to the 76ers signaled the playoffs would be out of reach in a nearly mathematical sense. Saturday’s loss to the Mavericks signaled (finally) the playoffs would be out of reach in a skill sense.
Saturday’s game was a microcosm of many things that have gone wrong this season. Orlando was completely inept from the 3-point line (3 for 23, 13 percent) while Dallas made almost half of its attempts (17 for 35, 48.6 percent).
The “zigging while everyone is zagging” strategy of employing big frontlines in a small-ball NBA somehow still saw the Magic get outrebounded 51-40. The Magic recorded an assist on only half of the Magic’s 32 field goals, while 32 of the Mavericks’ 45 field goals were.
But hey, at least Mario Hezonja got to shoot 11 times, the fourth time this season he has attempted double-digit field goals.
The loss puts Orlando at 20-36, six games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot (with 26 games to go). It gives the Magic the fourth-worst record in the NBA. By point differential, perhaps a better measure of team strength, the Magic (-6.5 points per game) are now better than only the Brooklyn Nets. By net rating, the Magic (-6.7 points per 100 possessions), the Magic are also the second-worst team in the league, ahead of only the Nets.
So where do the Magic go from here?
A rebuild often means shipping out veterans in favor of young players and draft picks. There were a few veterans Saturday that played like they knew they could be dealt soon.
Serge Ibaka, who has been linked to many suitors (e.g., contenders such as the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors), scored just eight points and grabbed a measly four rebounds. Nikola Vucevic and D.J. Augustin each attempted just five shots apiece in 27 and 26 minutes of playing time, respectively.
The path going forward will likely include dealing Serge Ibaka to a contender who is willing to rent him for a playoff run, D.J. Augustin and/or C.J. Watson to a team looking to shore up its bench playmaking (heard LeBron James has been talking about that), and other peripheral players as throw-ins to a deal. The team might also seek to facilitate deals between other teams by helping salaries match up, a service that will presumably net some compensation in the form of picks and other assets.
So far, nothing is official and it is just a lot of rumors flying around. But rebuilding action can be expected soon (the trade deadline is Feb. 23, less than two weeks away).
This type of listless effort is often the kind of thing that slaps any delusions of on-court competency out of a team. With the way Orlando defended, Dallas was often so open they looked like they were shooting around in practice.
It was embarrassing.
"“The performance we put out there tonight was embarrassing,” Nikola Vucevic told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel after the game. “We should all be ashamed of ourselves to play the way we did tonight effort-wise. The type of basketball, the way we play — it’s just very bad.”"
This is not the first time a statement like that was needed, necessary or apt. And it sets the Magic down a path to rebuild yet again this summer and beginning at the trade deadline.
Expect the Magic to clear the decks for young players to get more playing time in the remaining games. In particular, the Magic need to see whether Mario Hezonja is a real NBA player. He showed flashes of defensive competency against the Mavericks, which was encouraging given his particular struggles on that end so far this season.
Also, given that the Magic will not be swinging for the fences to nab a star, expect them to hold onto Aaron Gordon as a piece to build with (although not necessarily around). Elfrid Payton might be the next-safest player on the roster. But that does not say much given that the Magic will be looking at any deals that come their way.
The trade deadline will be interesting this year for the Magic. But for a different reason from what the team was expecting coming into this season.
Now the franchise has to set the table for the next era instead of continuing a steady climb back to relevance. If there is a silver lining, this draft class is probably going to be *really* good.
Five years after Dwight Howard left town, the Magic still have not been able to find their footing. Whether it is because of bad decisions (roster fits, ownership directives) and/or bad luck (draft lotteries), that is the reality.
Deep down, the Magic probably knew as much at various points earlier in the season. Many fans already jumped ship on any hope. But if there was any doubt, Saturday’s dismal effort in Dallas sealed it.
We do not know exactly how the next couple of weeks are going to unfold. But we do know the direction is now set. It is time to rebuild again in Orlando.