Orlando Magic are still young and need time to grow

Feb 25, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) drives to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) defends during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) drives to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) defends during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic this season faced the pressure of winning for the first time in many of their careers. The reality is this is still a young team growing.

There was a quiet moment late in a season that seemed increasingly lost when reporters began asking players about the future for the team in light of everything that had gone on this season.

There were some, like Nikola Vucevic, who looked back at the season with plenty of regret and frustration. Nikola Vucevic had been with the team for five years, the beginning of the team’s painfully hard rebuild. He saw a team as talented as it ever was in his time and true belief the team could make the Playoffs.

He, like so many players on the Orlando Magic roster this year, struggled to find his footing. The team floundered and eventually finished with 29 wins. Orlando traded away its biggest offseason acquisition in Serge Ibaka for Terrence Ross and began resetting the table for 2018 and an unknown future.

There was another perspective to take, though. One that might be hard for Magic fans to hear having been through so many years of a rebuild.

That perspective is that this is still a young team not ready for the pressure the franchise put on them and still needing the patience and time to grow.

"“They’re still very young,” coach Frank Vogel told Orlando Magic Daily. “And if you look league wide, most of the league that is trying to win with young guys is not winning with young guys.“I think the book is still out. I still have a great deal of belief and confidence in these guys. What they can be, they haven’t reached that level yet. They have all shown flashes of doing it. It’s there. We just have to put it all together on a consistent basis and have the right mix of whatever else we decide we need.”"

Indeed the Magic are still relatively young. Vogel joked at one point late in the season that the veteran leaders on his team are 25, 26 or 27 years old. That is some time in the league, but obviously not a ton.

At the end of the season, the Magic’s average age on the roster was 25.5 years old. The starting lineup featured no players older than 27 — Elfrid Payton (23), Evan Fournier (25), Terrence Ross (26), Aaron Gordon (21) and Nikola Vucevic (26).

This is still a young team with a lot of room to grow.

This is not to excuse their poor performance to inexperience or age. Only Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon were still on their rookie contracts. The other players should have the experience and ability to play better. But it does suggest there is some hope that if players can continue to get better, they can still contribute in the league for a long while.

If there is hope it is that the team will learn from the mistakes this season, playing with real pressure and real consequences for failure for the first time, and improve internally as much as they will improve externally.

"“We just have to keep getting better,” D.J. Augustin, one of the team’s elder statesmen at 29 years old, said. “Guys have to grow up. We have a lot of young guys on this team. But we can’t let people look at us like that. We have to come to play as grown men. We have a lot of work to do this summer as far as getting better individually and trying to bring it together as a team.”"

There is still a lot that has to happen for the Magic to take that next step. It all starts on the court more than it starts on putting an extra candle on the birthday cake.

Bismack Biyombo said at exit interviews he believed the team was at times too selfish in how it played. It was a sentiment echoed by several players, including Vucevic.

It was not a negative selfishness, they all claimed. But rather a selfishness of players trying to do too much and not trusting the offense enough.

Vucevic said the problem for the team this year was they did not play the right way. They did not play the way they needed to on both ends to build winning habits.

When you look at the best teams in the league, he said, they play for each other, move the ball and look for the best shot.

The Magic needed to become a more balanced team, instead of a team that seemed like it was trying to force things and go at it alone.

"“The type of team this year was we needed to play that way,” Vucevic told Orlando Magic Daily at exit interviews. “We understand on any given night it could be the next night that goes off. It’s never going to be the same guy. I feel like we never figured that out. We tried too much individual stuff. I’m not saying it came out of a bad place that we were selfish. We didn’t understand how we needed to play to be a successful team. It showed when we did play that way when we had the most assists. We played in a fun way. We had fun on the court. I think when we play that way your defense is much better as well."

That was indeed the fair criticism for this young team as they tried to figure out how to make their roles fit in the mismatched roster. There were plenty of times when Vucevic and Evan Fournier and Gordon and Ibaka and pretty much everyone tried to do too much.

Vogel noted throughout the season his team was still trying to learn how to trust the pass. This skill did not seem natural to them he said. It was a constant struggle.

But when the Magic did move the ball and picked up a lot of assists, they were stellar (as one might expect). Then again, the Magic were 10-15 in games where they had 25 assists or more and 6-10 with 27 or more assists.

Orlando’s problems go deeper than simply sharing the ball more clearly. It is probably more about finding players the right role and getting them to play that way.

Vogel said at exit interviews he would not call any player on the team selfish. Indeed, most players said a lot of the right things all year about trying to move the ball and to trust each other. It just never came through on the floor.

Vogel said that is probably where this idea of what players described as selfishness came from.

"“What I would say is we have some guys here who were at times poor decisionmakers,” Vogel told Orlando Magic Daily at exit interviews. “We have young guys in our rotation. Young guys who are trying to find themselves. That’s normal with everyone who comes into the league. I would say that is more the reason somebody mentioned the word selfish.”"

It would seem then a lot of what the Magic were working against this year were players trying to find themselves instead of falling into roles. That will be the struggle for the team this year as the organization reshapes the roster and tries to get itself back on track.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

If there is one saving grace in all of that, it is the team’s youth. The Magic, even with some changes, are still likely to be a young, growing team again next year.

Perhaps freed from any immediate pressure to win, the team can refocus on its development. They can get players to play the way they ultimately want them to play, rather than focusing single-mindedly on winning.

Not that winning will not be important.

"“I have a lot of belief in the young guys we have here,” Vogel told Orlando Magic Daily. “This is a group that is really about to enter their prime. That’s how we have to look at this. Those are the teams that go year after year on playoff runs. I’m still excited about that.”"

Next: What Went Right: Aaron Gordon found a position

Under this lens, the Magic still have some strong hope for their future.