The Orlando Magic are in the midst of the early Playoff race. Their history suggests the road will have its twists and turns to manage along the way.
The Orlando Magic are not used to talking or thinking about the Playoffs in December. They have for most of the last six years already been licking their wounds and trying to muddle through the season at this point. Or if they were not there, they were well on their way to it.
At this point last season, the Magic were just a game worse than their current 12-15 record with 11 wins. But they were just about to begin their second nine-game losing streak of the early season. By the time that ended a few weeks later, the Magic’s season was for all intents and purposes over.
As much as this Magic team feels different, it is in the same place it was last year. Perhaps in a slightly different position — their 11-16 record last year left them in 12th in the East where today they sit in the final Playoff spot — but still on the same precipice.
Two discouraging efforts against the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks — the first back-to-back blowout defeats of the season and a painful call back to the team’s disappointing recent past — have Orlando Magic fans a bit nervous. They have seen this script before and it does not turn out well.
The hope remains this Magic team will rediscover its resilience and limit this losing streak. Since the Magic lost four games in a row in late October, they have done a good job halting losing streaks and responding to defeat. Even heartbreaking and frustrating defeats.
The fact the Magic have not snapped out of things is the most concerning part of the current losing streak. Especially with the Magic currently on a road trip to Mexico City. Maybe the struggling Chicago Bulls are the perfect remedy. But Orlando has to worry about itself first.
As much as there is a reason to believe and the team has the look of something different, the reality says something a bit different.
Orlando is still a team searching for an identity. For the entire season, the Magic are 27th in the league in offensive rating at 105.1 points per 100 possessions and 15th in defensive rating, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Their -3.4 net rating leaves them 24th in the league.
Coach Steve Clifford said he believes the Magic need to be a top-10 defensive team and at least in the top half offensively to make the Playoffs. The team is far away from those goals. And that statistical profile suggests both a team that is overperforming and one that might be due for a fall.
Certainly, the number of close games Orlando has won and the lack of blowout victories has skewed some of these numbers. But more than a quarter of the way through the season, numbers are starting to normalize.
Then again, maybe the Magic are already in their fall. Orlando has won just three times in the last 10 games. The Magic are not in a free fall by any means, but the team has hit a bit of a rough patch with this extended road trip — starting with the West Coast trip and ending this weekend in Mexico City.
Orlando would welcome some home games. That stretch of seven home games in eight games starting next week will be vital to any Playoff hopes. Although it is not like Orlando has defended the Amway Center well, going 6-8 at home.
It feels like the season is at an important inflection point. This group has notoriously had a hard time coming back from the brink.
Whether they can or not will determine the course of this season.
This story is not new for the Magic. In Orlando’s 30-year history, the team has been a top seed in seven of the team’s 14 Playoff appearances. The Magic have been the seventh or eighth seed in the Playoffs four times. Orlando has done its share of sneaking into the Playoffs.
Those seasons were full of the ups and downs this Magic team is sure to experience this year and is likely beginning to experience now.
In 1997, the Magic were similarly 11-16 at this point in the season and had lost 12 of 15 games. They were four games out of the final Playoff spot. That team had two five-game losing streaks and two four-game losing streaks. But they answered one of those five-game losing streaks with a six-game win streak.
Of course, that came after the infamous player vote against Brian Hill. The team played energized under Richie Adubato and fought their way back into the Playoff picture, earning the seventh seed.
It was clear here how one big push was enough to send a .500 team into the Playoff picture. This pattern plays itself out over the course of Magic history.
In 2001, the Magic were also 12-15 and a game out of the Playoffs at this point in the year. They would have a four- and five-game losing streak during the course of the season. But it was a nine-game winning streak (the franchise’s longest in team history) in late January and February that turned the season around.
This was a purely .500 team, but that strong stretch put the team over the top. They were the seventh seed in the Playoffs yet again.
Two years later in the 2003 season, the Magic were off to a stronger 15-13 start. After their run to the fifth-seed the year before, Orlando seemed to be gaining some traction for a more consistent year. There were no real long losing streaks or winning streaks in this season. The Magic just stayed above water and never really lost track of the Playoffs.
The team’s decision to trade Mike Miller for Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek provided a brief spark. But Orlando fell to the eighth seed that year (losing a 3-1 lead to the Detroit Pistons in the first round).
And finally, in 2007, the Magic returned to the Playoffs after a three-year absence. That team shot out of the gate to start 17-10. But they also followed a five-game win streak with a five-game losing streak. This was a young team still figuring out how to win. But a finishing kick where they won six of their final seven games helped maintain their final Playoff spot.
Each of these seasons followed a different winding road of inconsistency. The team would put together strong stretches and then suffer long losing streaks.
But what was important for each group was that they responded quickly and continued to keep their head above water, taking wins whenever they could and limiting their losing streaks or answering them in kind to restore their record.
Each of these teams also had one distinct advantage over this year’s Magic group: a superstar player.
Anfernee Hardaway famously willed that seventh-seeded Orlando Magic team to a decisive Game 5 against the Miami Heat in the 1997 Playoffs. Tracy McGrady was a scoring juggernaut in a league where scores were depressed, keeping the Magic in more than a few games. And Dwight Howard was beginning to come into his own in his first Playoff appearance.
It does not feel likely this Magic team will have that luxury — even if Nikola Vucevic eventually becomes an All-Star this year. So, yes, the Magic’s path to the Playoffs this year is a bit more difficult than years past when the team snuck in.
And Orlando still hopes it will not have to “sneak in.” They are just two games back of the sixth seed at this point.
But there is no getting ahead of yourself here. This race is a long and winding one.
The Magic will have moments where they look good and begin to climb the standings. And they will have moments where they will struggle and worry about falling out of the picture.
The important thing for this team — and the focus for today — should be on limiting those bad times as much as possible. It should be on ending losing streaks quickly and getting back to treading water (at least) until they can burst through for that win streak that puts them over the top.
That seems to be the strategy previous teams have taken to secure that coveted Playoff spot. And that is the road the Magic are traveling today.