Orlando Magic have an opportunity to show growth

Denver guard Jamal Murray, left, and Orlandoi guard Evan Fournier, right, battle for the ball during the Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic NBA game at the Amway Center on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Denver guard Jamal Murray, left, and Orlandoi guard Evan Fournier, right, battle for the ball during the Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic NBA game at the Amway Center on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have stayed competitive one-quarter through the season. But after a three-game skid, can the team right the ship or will they sink like last year?

Last year, the Orlando Magic became one of the most surprising teams in the league when they started 8-4 after the first 12 games. But reality quickly caught up with the team as the team went on a nine-game losing streak to end the month of November at 8-13.

They were never able to recover, and ultimately found themselves with the sixth overall pick in the draft for the second consecutive year.

The 2019 campaign has started similarly for Orlando. Coach Steve Clifford has been able to keep up the intensity, and the Magic have stayed competitive 27 games into the season. Orlando is beginning to gain some attention throughout the league as a potential playoff team in the East (currently the eighth seed at 12-15).

But they should know how fragile this success can be. Orlando was similarly 11-16 at this point last season (about to start a nine-game losing streak that would end all hopes for the season). And now the Magic are on a three-game losing skid as they head to Mexico City for their next two games.

This moment feels like a major turning point in the season. The team will either turn the corner, recover and start building up wins. Or this could be the prelude to more disappointment and frustration. Not to mention another trip to the Lottery with no meaningful games as the calendar year turns.

How the Magic got here only adds to that potential frustration.

The losing streak started with a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets. Orlando played as fiercely as they had all year, with big contributions from Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier. Frustration with the officials and poor execution cost them in the end. There was no getting that one back.

But the last two games have been different. The Magic have not been playing with the same amount of energy or drive, resulting in two consecutive 25-point losses against the Indiana Pacers and the Dallas Mavericks.

In the past two games, the Magic have struggled both offensively and defensively, shooting a dismal 38 percent from the field while allowing opponents to shoot at a nearly 45 percent clip.

For a franchise that has struggled to maintain even limited success, this has raised some alarms.

These recent struggles pose a grand opportunity for this year’s team to show they have grown since last year. Clifford will want to make sure his team is a legitimate playoff contender and not just a flash in the pan.

To do so, the Magic will have to get back to playing effective team basketball. Orlando needs to get back to playing hard-nosed, aggressive defense and efficient offense that emphasizes ball movement and finding the best possible shot.

The last two games saw the Magic struggle from the floor, but also struggle with the pass. Orlando averaged 19.0 assists per game on 34.0 field goal makes per game the last two games. For the season, the Magic average 25.7 assists per game on 40.0 field goal makes per game.

They are one of the best passing teams in the league with a 64.2 percent assist rate. That is the third-best mark in the league. Most of Orlando’s passes turn to assists and most of their points — more than 60 percent — come off assists.

The lack of ball movement is a key factor in the team’s ultimate offensive success. And that poor ball movement the last two games is an easy reason why the Magic are struggling to score.

This will prove to be an important stretch of the schedule too. If Orlando is going to make the Playoffs this is the part of the schedule they have to bank some wins.

The Magic have a favorable schedule over the next nine games to wrap up the 2018 portion of the season, facing opponents with a combined win percentage of just 0.390. Eight of those nine games take place at home.

This is all a prelude before a six-game road trip to start January. These may turn into must-win games for the Magic to help turn around their 6-8 home record.

Despite the poor winning percentage of upcoming opponents, the end of the calendar year will be very telling for Orlando.

Whether or not they can persevere in the face of adversity, or regress to the team they have been in the past, will show the growth, or lack thereof, within the franchise as a whole.

Next. Even in a year of struggle, Orlando Magic need Evan Fournier. dark

As a team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Orlando’s next few games are more important than they may seem. And it starts with the pair of games in Mexico City to halt the losing streak and get back on track.