Playoff aspirations still realistic for 2018 Orlando Magic

After an embarrassing 40-point loss to the Utah Jazz, it is still playoffs or bust for the Orlando Magic. And they have the tools to make it.

Early this season, the Orlando Magic have shown progress.

Aaron Gordon appears to have taken a big step in his development. Evan Fournier has been consistent. Throw in a few big wins against championship contenders and it has been a pretty good start for Orlando.

That start has since slowed. The team’s flaws are apparent. And it feels more like Orlando is the 30-win team everyone expected rather than the potential 40-win Playoff team.

Things have looked bleak in losing six of their past eight games. But their goals should remain the same.

The playoffs should still be on the forefront for Orlando. Even with the four-game skid, the Magic are very much in the playoff picture. There has been more good than bad this season. The Magic have made improvements and young players have taken steps in the right direction.

Of course, the team still needs work. Lapses on defense have come back to bite the Magic. Not having a solidified star will hurt them against the elite teams. Still, Orlando has the tools to beat the majority of teams.

With a youthful roster that can play fast, a plethora of shooters and a handful of elite defensive stoppers, the Magic are in a much better place than they were last season. Considering the rest of the NBA landscape Orlando needs to be focusing on making the playoffs and ending this long drought.

Although most Magic fans would have signed up for an 8-8 start, the last four games have been hard to watch. From the poor defense to the lack of ball movement, Orlando looks like last year’s team rather than the fast-paced, gritty team from the first eight games. The one that went 6-2 and was the talk of the league.

The problem is, Orlando will have stretches like this current one all season. They were never as good as that record seemed to suggest. There was always a fall coming.

Without a go-to scorer, there will be games where the Magic offense disappears. The most consistent scorer has been Evan Fournier at 19.2 points per game. But his inability to create his shot limits him as the number-one option. This has become a problem in crunch time as no other Magic player has this ability either.

This always puts the Magic’s offense seemingly on the edge. It never sustains for too long.

Another theme from the past few seasons persists. When Orlando’s offense disappears, so does its defense. When the Magic do not run their offense correctly, with multiple passes to find the open man, they tend to chuck up awful shots.

When the offense goes cold, the defensive intensity disappears, leading the opposition to start a big run the Magic struggle to stop. This has been the Achilles heel for Orlando during this losing streak.

Another problem for the Magic has been rebounding. Their offensive and defensive rebound rates are among the worst in the league, at 29th and 28th respectively. Much of rebounding is effort. And it has not been there consistently.

Aside from the issues facing Orlando, there has been plenty of positives. The Magic are shooting an impressive 46.8 percent from the field along with 39 percent from the 3-point line.

An impressive start, especially from the outside, has allowed the Magic to put up big scoring totals so far this season. Having a handful of sharpshooters and improved range of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have opened up the offense.

Health also has not been on Orlando’s side this season. Point guards D.J. Augustin and Elfrid Payton have missed multiple games due to injury. D.J. Augustin was having a fantastic start and losing him was a big reason for the recent skid.

Although he may not be the star everyone expected him to become after his scorching start, Gordon may be Orlando’s postseason ticket. His numbers have dropped off in many categories, but he has made strides with his jump shot. Shooting 46.9 percent from beyond the arc teams have started to respect his outside shot.

Plus, his ability to hit mid-range shots gets Orlando’s offense out of trouble a handful of times each game. With Gordon trending upward, it may soon be time to get him more looks on offense.

Sitting at .500, Orlando is in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Still very much in the playoff picture, winning at this rate will surely lock up a playoff spot. There are plenty of other teams just as inconsistent as the Magic.

It may be intangible, but the addition of a handful of veterans have appeared to change the culture in Orlando. Jonathon Simmons has been extremely impressive so far and has helped bring a winning attitude to Central Florida.

Adding veterans was a needed addition. They can teach the younger players how to win. Many of Orlando’s draft picks have never sniffed a winning season, having someone to lead in the locker room during a losing streak can help turn things around quickly.

Now stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference, Orlando is too talented to have a top-five pick. If the Magic cannot land a franchise-changing talent in the draft, the Playoffs would mean a step in the right direction.

As the popular phrase goes, winning never hurts.

The Magic do not have the talent to compete with the Boston Celtics or Cleveland Cavaliers. But making the playoffs could reinvigorate a fan base that has not seen a winning product in more than five years.