The Orlando Magic are hoping to build off their playoff season last year and should figure to get off to a fast start. Continuity will be the key.
Coach Steve Clifford typically does not like to look too far ahead. Any perception of a difficult stretch of the schedule or needing to bank up wins or count on wins in “easy” stretches go against his coach speak. Every opponent deserves his and his team’s full attention. And they cannot think too far ahead.
That was and remains a necessary approach for the Orlando Magic. Their margin for error remains small without a clear-cut All-Star or a potent offense, on paper at least. This is still a team that will have to fight and claw for everything.
This team though has playoff expectations, having proven they can make the postseason last year. That is squarely the goal.
The fact Orlando brought back the entire roster shows their belief they can return to the playoffs and continue growing.
This difficult 82-game journey now has its map. If the schedule causes Clifford to do one thing, it is probably to double-check with his staff to make sure the team has its travel arrangements set and to map out his early practice schedule for the team.
He may not map out what the team needs to do and when they need to do it, but it is abundantly clear looking at the schedule the Magic have a major opportunity in front of them.
At least on paper, the Magic’s start is extremely favorable. It is home heavy and features plenty of teams that are either on the Magic’s level or should be outside the playoff picture.
And Orlando has another advantage that should help them start fast.
The first stage of the season is a time when a lot of teams are still coming together. The Magic will not have that concern. With the same roster and continuity, the Magic should be able to hit the ground running.
It is not necessary for the Magic to win early in the season to make the playoffs. They proved that last year in going on a 22-9 rally to make the postseason. But if Orlando wants to take its next step, the team will have to take advantage of things right out of the gates.
There they will play nine of their first 13 games at the Amway Center.
They will play teams expected to be at the bottom of the NBA standings in the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder. They will get middling teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.
These are all games they feel they should win.
But if Orlando wants to consider itself a playoff team, it should feel that it can win almost any game that it enters into. And in this stretch, the Orlando Magic will play only three championship-contending teams — a home back-to-back with the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 1 and 2 and a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 13.
It all feels very manageable. And winning in this stretch would be a good omen for the rest of the season.
One of Orlando’s main goals last year was to establish a dominant home-court advantage. The team ended up going 25-16 at home, the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. That included going 13-1 during the team’s 22-9 stretch to end the season.
Home games at the Amway Center are pretty important. And if the buzz in the building carries over from the end of the season, the Magic should have an energized and excited fan base eager for the season to start.
The opportunity in the schedule itself suggests the Magic could get off to a hot start.
So does the roster construction. The Magic could very well enter the season with a leg up on much of the competition because of their continuity.
Orlando essentially returned the same roster. Not essentially, every key rotation player is back on the roster. That should help the team get things moving quickly in training camp. There should be a much lighter learning curve for the team.
The hope is certainly that the Magic can pick up right where they left off.
There are obviously a few changes. The team is likely to try to integrate Mohamed Bamba back into the rotation after his injury to end last season. Markelle Fultz also could figure into the rotation depending on his health. And the Magic made a significant signing in Al-Farouq Aminu.
But ultimately this is a team that is the same as last year. And so while other teams might be trying to organize themselves, Orlando could have a leg up by going quickly through that phase.
Their continuity could prove a benefit early in the season. And the schedule sets up for them to hit the ground running.
That is important for a young team trying to make it back to the playoffs. It could be important for the Magic to gain more confidence and take a step up in the conference pecking order.
A strong start could very well position the Magic at the front of the pack and give them the confidence to keep pushing through some of the more difficult parts of the schedule in December and January.
If Orlando can get out to a fast start — 9-4 or 8-5, perhaps — that should position the team near the top of the Eastern Conference at the start of the season. There is obviously a long way to go and plenty of pitfalls and traps they could fall into.
But last season proved it only takes a couple of months of strong basketball to make a playoff push. A strong start could be the difference between sneaking into the postseason or fighting for something more.
The Magic have to hope they can be in the latter group. They should be able to compete with these teams and compete for a higher seed. And the schedule sets them up to do so.
A tougher run out of the gate would put the team behind the 8-ball some. This schedule appears to give the team the advantage and the opportunity to bank up some wins.
Not to mention to establish the Amway Center as a tough place to play. That goal still remains for the Magic to find success and take that next step.
Orlando will know fairly early into the season just what kind of team it has. Especially since Clifford likes to see his team improve as the year goes on. If they follow that path as they did last year, a strong start could be the launching pad for something special.
Maybe that is expecting too much. This team is still probably fighting for a middle or low seed in the playoffs without top-end talent (that we know of) on the roster. But if the Magic want to exceed expectations they have to get off to a strong start and set their pace for it.
Orlando should feel ready to do this from the start. Bringing back the same roster should mean there is little adjustment time to each other or to the system. They should be able to play at a higher level quickly.
And with the schedule they start with, that gives a formula for a quick beginning.