Orlando Magic try to pinpoint when things went wrong

Jan 16, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) reacts in pain after being injured on a hard foul during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 125-112. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 16, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) reacts in pain after being injured on a hard foul during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 125-112. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic believed they had a good plan to make the Playoffs and found some early success. Then things went terribly wrong. And everyone wonders why.

The Orlando Magic were riding relatively high heading into December.

Things were shaky on offense, but the team was hurtling toward an identity. With so many new players getting comfortable with each other and a new coach for everyone, there were bound to be a few early hiccups. But the Magic were on the right track. Or at least a positive one.

Defensively, things were clicking. Entering the Dec. 6 game against the Washington Wizards, the Magic had the third best defensive rating in the league. The team was doing everything it said it would do.

There were a few rough edges. But there was plenty of hope.

Through 21 games, the team was 9-12. Orlando remained on the periphery of the Playoff race with plenty of room to grow. The Magic were still hopeful of what they could become. There was time to get things right.

But the problems were bubbling underneath the surface, it would appear. The Magic’s offense was as bad as their defense was good — 29th in the league at 96.8 points per 100 possessions through the first 21 games and a -4.0 net rating.

When the defense collapsed — the team gave up more than 100 points in the next 10 games after giving up that mark in just seven of the first 21 games — the team fell apart with it. The team’s season quickly went off the rails and the Playoff dreams were all but mathematically dashed in January.

There were problems the Magic thought they could work through, but players knew even early in the season something was wrong.

"“Pretty early actually. You always have hope and you still believe you can get better and things can get better,” Evan Fournier told Orlando Magic Daily of when he began sensing things going wrong. “It’s a long season, there are a lot of games. Early in the season, I thought we weren’t clicking. Even though it was early, you need to find some rhythm early and in training camp. When I was comparing to last year, I thought the trip to Rio really helped us building chemistry on and off the court. Early in the season, but again you still hope things are going to get better.”"

The Magic never had that moment of coming together. Not even the 4-1 road trip that ended with that fateful win in Washington did enough to form bonds within the team. It fractured pretty quickly.

Certainly, the team’s early offensive problems foretold some issues long term. No one expected the Magic to be strong offensively with the roster they had, but the team often struggled to score 95 points.

In a league that was preparing to see an offensive explosion — the league’s highest average offensive rating since the 3-point line was created in 1980 — this was perhaps a bigger red flag than anyone anticipated.

Evan Fournier said in hindsight playing with two bigs definitely slowed the team’s development early on. The Magic never found a rhythm really on either end with the Serge IbakaBismack Biyombo pairing. Nikola Vucevic was game defensively with Serge Ibaka next to him for much of the season, but the offense suffered. Once teams started cracking the defense, the Magic were in big trouble.

What seemed like something that would work on paper, ended up not working in reality.

Still, coach Frank Vogel dutifully tried to see the team’s original plans through to the end. He said he had to try the team’s original plan. Changing direction too much might show a sense of panic and only deepen the team’s problems.

The fact those problems were apparent early were a poor sign of the team’s overall direction. And several Magic players agreed the problems were evident early on.

"“I don’t know if it was a specific point,” Vogel told Orlando Magic Daily. “I know there was a point where we were bringing Vuc off the bench and we had a quick burst of moving into the top five in defense. Over the next 6-8 weeks, we played at a league-worst rate. That was one of the biggest things that was sticking out to me. You may be able to survive that if you were killing it offensively, but we weren’t rating well offensively either.”"

Bismack Biyombo said he started to sense the team’s downward turn in January.

Eventually, Vogel did have to abandon the original plan. The trade of Ibaka came too little too late to change things. But the team experience a brief offensive surge with Terrence Ross added to the fold and Aaron Gordon returning to power forward.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Orlando had long since abandoned the idea of playing Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo together — a curious rotation decision Vogel seemed to make in the belief he needed to play his best players.

Vogel said he could not pinpoint a specific point when the season seemed to turn south. Gradually, he said, the team was failing. He applauded his team for continuing to fight and compete as the team tried to build a winning culture. But that was all in vain.

The Magic were searching for answers and often looking in the wrong places. Things just turned south and the team could not recover.

"“You kind of see the morale of the team start to turn for the worse,” “>Aaron Gordon told Orlando Magic Daily at exit interviews. “Negativity starts to creep in, doubt starts to creep in, you start losing the confidence within themselves and each other. You start seeing a little too much finger pointing. That’s when you can kind of tell it was sinking.”"

The fit certainly was not good. There were evident problems the team simply could not smooth over.

The turning point for the season’s hopes certainly did seem to be that Dec. 6 game against the Wizards. Even though the Magic won the game 124-116, the defense was never the same.

As Vogel noted, the defense took a turn for the worse and never recovered. From Dec. 6 until the Ibaka trade on Feb. 14, the Magic ranked 27th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 110.8 points per 100 possessions. Things never really got better from that point forward.

The team failed to meet its expectations, of course. And that inevitably led to things going wrong too.

"“It was definitely not what I expected,” Gordon told Orlando Magic Daily after the final game of the season. “Expectations are a trap. You expect something throughout the whole offseason and coming into the next game and it’s not what you expect, that expectation leads to disappointment. Coming into next season, it’s going to be no expectations. The only thing we can expect to do is continue to progress and continue to grow with the coaching staff and continue to stay present and focused on each game.”"

Orlando never met the team’s expectations this year. Perhaps those were set too high. Perhaps the team expected too much too soon considering all the changes the team made.

It would be tough to integrate a new coach in a must-win season for a team with little Playoff experience on its own.

There was a lot that seemed to conspire the Magic’s season to failure — the roster itself being a part of that too.

As Orlando picks up the pieces, they may never know exactly where things went wrong this season. It may have been doomed from the start. But things did go wrong.

Next: 2016-17 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Nikola Vucevic

The team’s well-laid plans did not work out in the end.