The Orlando Magic had a way to play last year to succeed. This year, the team must reduce that margin for error to return to the playoffs.
It was also a warning. That any little slip or loss of focus could lead the team to ruin.
For the Magic to succeed they had to play a certain way. They had to stay true to their tenets and their personality. And there was not much room for them to falter or slip. They could be very good, but it would only come through their own hard work and attention to detail.
It was evident throughout the season — even during the team’s 22-9 run to end the year — how close the team was between victory and defeat. In the same run of games where the Magic were one of the best teams in the league, they lost to the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The team pushed through all of that. It found its groove and discovered it could make the playoffs. The Magic’s 42-40 season and playoff appearance was proof this team could be good and could win. It was proof the Magic were better more often than not.
Now comes the hard part. They have to do it again.
It is one thing to chase the playoffs and catch the league by surprise. It is another to be a team expected to make the playoffs and play with that pressure throughout the entire season.
The Magic have certainly proven they can win and make the playoffs. They have risen their expectations to the point that missing the playoffs in 2020 would in almost any circumstance be considered a failed season.
To do that they will have to reduce their margin for error. They will have to find a way to win along different paths. And all that growth will have to take place internally.
Orlando opted to bring back almost its entire team from last year. The team only lost little-used guard Jerian Grant and forward Jarell Martin. The only new addition to the team expected to contribute next year is Al-Farouq Aminu.
And so that central question for the Magic hoping to make the next step and be a solid playoff team, not one merely sneaking in on a late-season run, is whether the team has decreased the margin for error.
Can the Magic survive a poor game from Nikola Vucevic? Or an off-shooting night from Terrence Ross? Can they win in different ways — ramping up their offense if their defense is not all the way there or mucking the game up when they cannot hit a shot?
Orlando showed hints of doing all this at various points last year.
The team’s offense hit overdrive during the 22-9 run, 112.7 points per 100 possessions after Feb. 1 (eighth in the league). But it would still go cold and the team’s defense would sometimes struggle to keep the Magic in the game.
Terrence Ross certainly stepped up his game in several key moments, changing the momentum of games and seemingly waking up the team. But he also would have games where he struggled to shoot and take the Magic out of games. Orlando’s bench performance certainly correlated to Ross.
It took Steve Clifford some time, but he found a rotation that helped balance the team a lot more — opting to take Aaron Gordon out early in the first quarter to have him and Evan Fournier start the second quarter alongside Terrence Ross. Expect that to continue.
Orlando boosted its depth in signing Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu started 81 games last year for the Portland Trail Blazers. He has been a starter for most of his career. Coming to the Magic, he clearly had to have the expectation that he will not unseat Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon in the starting lineup.
He provides some added depth should the team suffer injuries, giving Orlando a starter-level player to bring in if a disaster strikes. The depth at center should also help after Vucevic played a career-high 80 games last year.
That depth will help the team, but lowering the margin for error will take a lot more.
The team will need to see all these players serve their roles and grow within them — or beyond them — to take that next step.
The team will need to see Gordon take another step up in his game, matching his stellar defense last year while he takes a bigger role in the offense. All while keeping the decisionmaking and efficiency he built up toward the end of last season.
Evan Fournier called Jonathan Isaac the team’s X-factor last year. That proved to be the case as part of the Magic’s turnaround was a noticeable uptick in Isaac’s production — 11.8 points per game and 36.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc after Feb. 1. His continued growth would give the Magic another dynamic offensive player for their attack.
Fournier bouncing back from his worst shooting season in a Magic uniform would help the team.
What this is all to say then is Orlando needs more offensive options to go with the defensive intensity the team brought to last season. They need to be able to rely on a lot more people and have multiple formulas and paths to victory.
Last year, the Magic really only had a few avenues. They had to play solid defense with Nikola Vucevic anchoring the team offensively and Terrence Ross providing the jolt off the bench. Deviating from this formula led the team to ruin.
The Toronto Raptors proved that in the playoffs as they were able to shut out Vucevic and find holes in the Magic’s defense — especially in transition with the shots the Magic were missing.
Orlando certainly still has a lot of holes to fill on this team. The Magic did not address their need to find a creator off the perimeter — that will again fall on internal development as the team hopes Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon or Jonathan Isaac can help alleviate that responsibility from D.J. Augustin. Not to mention what the addition of Markelle Fultz could provide the team.
They also did not appear to improve the threat of their 3-point shooting. Orlando was still an effective 3-point shooting team last year, but their perception of not having a lot of shooters affects how defenses play them. The Magic’s young players especially will have to continue developing on that front.
And this is all to reduce the margin for error for the Magic. To give them different avenues and paths to win.
If Orlando wants to prove that the 2019 season was not a fluke they will have to show this kind of growth everywhere. While the team they bring back is virtually the same, the path to victory has to be adaptive and change to accomplish this team’s goals.