The Orlando Magic entered the season with playoff knowledge and expectation. So far, the team is struggling to re-learn the lessons that got them there.
Orlando Magic were not supposed to be having this struggle this year. Their playoff appearance and their continuity from last year were meant to change this team and put them in a new position.
They were not supposed to be sitting in a locker room in back-to-back nights trying to explain how their defense broke down against the pick and roll late or how they lost big leads in the second half of a road game.
Nor should they have to answer questions about their playoff bona fides or why they have struggled to defeat good teams — just one win so far against a team with a winning record.
The Orlando Magic had a 19-point lead in the second half of a back-to-back against the Denver Nuggets only to watch the Nuggets burn off 24 straight points and hold on for a 113-109 win.
Coach Steve Clifford reiterated after the game same line he has trotted throughout the season. The Magic’s problem is not effort. The problem is still making shots and general execution.
Players are still without answers as to why they cannot make shots. Perhaps Wednesday it was the altitude and fatigue. The Magic looked heavy-legged and winded throughout the third quarter as they missed bunnies and jumpers all the while the Nuggets ran past them.
But nobody wants to make excuses. This team is beyond excuses. This team has bigger goals.
The playoffs last year have changed everything about this team. And the team is falling short.
The expectations are greater — the team even in modest visions should have made the playoffs with more ease. Their poise and composure attacking the season are different — even after games like Wednesday’s, the Magic seem more at ease and confident they can recover from the downs of the season.
The Magic are still eighth in the East. If the goal is simply to make the playoffs, then the Magic are still right where they want to be. The Eastern Conference remains extremely forgiving as teams figure themselves out.
But something is still missing about this team. Something feels off.
Instead of being the confident playoff team on the court, it feels like the team is going through the same difficulties it had last year. It feels like the team is struggling the same way they did last year.
Only now, everyone is cursed with the burden of knowing what is possible. Expectations have a way of making the same thing look worse.
The Magic are seemingly chasing that high they had last year when they went 22-9 to finish the season to make the playoffs. They are undoubtedly better for it. But they are seemingly relying on that to kick in again.
This is not who the Magic are supposed to be. Since Nikola Vucevic went out with his injury on Nov. 20, the team is 17th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 109.8 points per 100 possessions. The Magic’s offense has not improved enough to make up for that kind of slipping.
That is not who the team is supposed to be, though.
Clifford often says the team’s goal is to be in the top-10 in defense and the top-half of the league in offense. Since Nov. 20, the Magic are essentially playing like a bottom-10 team in both categories. Hardly the team many expected would take a bit of a step forward and securely make the playoffs.
No matter how anyone wants to cut it, this team is underperforming. They are left trying to find the formula and intensity that worked so well last year and have been unable to reach that lofty standard.
There were plenty of lessons to take from last year. These hard times are inevitable in the course of an 82-game season.
This team, despite similar personnel, is very different from last year. They are not playing with the same urgency and the same intensity and precision that marked last year’s run.
Something is off about this team. It was never supposed to be the same as last year’s team, but it was not supposed to be struggling with so many of the same issues it struggled with last year. The Magic were supposed to come readymade with the knowledge of being a playoff team.
Instead, the team is facing many of the same struggles from early last season — the Magic are, in fact, one game behind last year’s record at this time of the season.
Orlando was here before of course. They have learned these lessons before and gotten through them.
They went on a road trip in January last year and went 1-5. They had leads of 10 points or more in three of those games but ended up losing all three by more than 10 points. It was one of the lowest points of the season.
But the team returned home and defeated the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets in back to back games. To many, this was a turning point in the season and proof the team could make that playoff run. The Magic lost seven of the next eight games after that to reach their lowest point at 20-31. The rest was history.
The team has the experience to get out of this hole. The Magic are not anywhere near catastrophe even if they are not living up to their own and external expectations.
Orlando still sits in eighth in the Eastern Conference. The teams chasing them — the Charlotte Hornets (0.5 game back) and Detroit Pistons (one game back) are not inspiring much confidence. It will take one good run to solidify a playoff spot. And the Magic still have the chance to achieve that baseline goal.
It is too early in the season to give in to panic or give up on the season. Orlando can still get it all back.
Teams are supposed to evolve and change even with the same personnel. And there are growing pains associated with those changes. Running it back is never just running back.
But young teams like the Magic are supposed to get better. Even if the Magic’s record was not demonstrably better, they were supposed to show signs their foundation was strong and there were seed growing from the soil.
Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz‘s strong play through the first quarter of the season has given some hope. Jonathan Isaac has thrown his name into the ring for Defensive Player of the Year. Markelle Fultz has flashed the potential of why he was the top overall pick three years ago in his first real season in the league.
The Magic are not without their bright spots despite underperforming as a team.
But ultimately, the Magic will get judged on the final result of the season and just how far the team advances as a group. And right now the team is clearly not living up to its lofty goals.