Orlando Magic facing identity crisis at season’s crossroad

The Orlando Magic survived a tough January but will have to regroup and take advantage of an easier schedule to make another playoff push. (Photo by Oscar Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic survived a tough January but will have to regroup and take advantage of an easier schedule to make another playoff push. (Photo by Oscar Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are not adhering to their identity as the team hits a crossroad to the season. The trade deadline looms and the playoff race tightens.

110. Final. 92. 38. 113

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was fuming after his team fell to the Miami Heat 113-92 and fell to six games under .500 for the first time this season.

He was angry with the effort his team put in, giving in to the frustration of another poor shooting night but also playing without the discipline that is characteristic of his teams. The discipline that is necessary for this team to find success. The discipline that this team has ridden to success before.

Clifford was most livid with the four instances where his team fouled jump shooters. He said the level of focus it takes to avoid fouling jump shooters like that is at a minimum. He would expect a junior high team to perform better in these situations.

This is not Orlando Magic basketball.

As Clifford likes to say there are certain things the Magic have to do to win. At the very least, there is a certain way the team has to play no matter what if it wants any chance to play. And whether the team is missing shots or playing through fatigue or anything else, there are certain basic things the Magic must do.

It seems and feels like Orlando is not doing any of those things. The loss to the rival Heat felt like the worst of it all.

Things could not be any worse for the Magic right now. Like the end of last January, Orlando hopes things could not be worse and the team is ready to turn the corner. The hope is the team will reset itself and make its run.

The way the schedule set up, this run through the end of January was going to be difficult. it was about survival to get to this point to make another run through February and March.

But the team is in something of an identity crisis right now.

Orlando’s defense is in shambles. The Magic have fallen down the rankings and seems only to be getting worse right now. The offense remains anemic and difficult to figure out. There seem to be no answers to this sudden downturn.

Is this a short-term problem or something more serious?

Orlando has now lost six of its past seven games. That has brought the playoffs back into some question. The Chicago Bulls have pulled within 2.5 games of the final playoff spot. The Magic suddenly have some work to do to maintain their spot.

But all the work has to be on themselves. They still control their own destiny. They can still right the ship. Things set up in their favor.

They can still play Orlando Magic basketball again.

That might be the most frustrating thing. Orlando is not playing to its potential. It is not playing to its identity or its core. The team is struggling to find its way again.

The team’s defense has slipped considerably. Despite a solid defensive rating for the entire month of January (fourth overall), the team is trending the wrong way too.

Orlando has allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions in eight of its past nine games. This is the key to the team’s identity. If the Magic are not defending, they are not winning it is that simple.

All the while, the team’s best players have struggled. Further deepening the team’s struggles and seeming crisis.

Nikola Vucevic scored 19.4 points per game in January, but he shot only 42.2 percent from the floor. These numbers have been in line with his entire season, but the performances have seemingly been getting worse and less efficient lately — including his 5-for-15 shooting against the Heat on Monday.

Evan Fournier has hit a wall too with 17.1 points per game on 42.7-percent shooting in January. He has made only 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers this month. Terrence Ross has hit only 32.0 percent of his 3-pointers in January.

Yes, fatigue has mattered. They have just finished nine games in 15 days and 18 games in 33 days. The team is clearly exhausted considering how shots are falling short and the team has generally been unable to score.

But that is life in the NBA. And results matter too. And that at least has provided a bit of hope.

Orlando went 7-8 in January during this difficult stretch, the team’s best January since Dwight Howard left the team. Orlando still strung together enough wins to stay afloat, although the team lost the opportunity to gain some distance from the playoff pack.

That might be a small solace.

So too might be the fact the Magic have played the second-toughest schedule in the league according to ESPN’s RPI method. They will play the easiest remaining schedule in the league according to Tankathon.

In some respects, even at 21-27, Orlando is well ahead of last year’s pace too.

It was this time last year (by the calendar) the Magic were in the worst position of the season. They were 20-32 and 5.5 games out of the final playoff spot on Jan. 31 last year. They made a wild run to make the postseason as the team took advantage of an easier schedule (on paper) and got the confidence to steal wins from some strong players.

This year, they find themselves relatively comfortably in a playoff spot. The team is playing from ahead for the moment.

The team now has a chance to breathe with four days off — and two practices at home — to get ready for the home stretch. The team has a chance to fix whatever is ailing this team.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

They have a chance to rediscover and cement their identity for a sprint to the All-Star Break.

It is on them to take that step. The way might be clear for the Magic to make a little bit of a run.

The team has to get back to playing its brand of basketball. It has to get back to its suffocating, precise and disciplined defense. It has to get Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross shooting efficiently again. It needs to find a rhythm through its half-court pace and ball movement.

All the things Orlando did not do against Miami on Monday.

There are big questions to ask about this team. They are unavoidable. The Magic have not performed to expectations so far — even if they were always destined to fight for the 7-seed.

Orlando is looking squarely at its ceiling as a team and as a group. The Magic are too far away from the 6-seed to claim they are making progress in the Eastern Conference hierarchy — injuries granted. It feels like they are underperforming even to modest expectations yet they are still in the playoff pole position.

The team’s future is staring it straight in the face. And the trade deadline is almost one week away.

But for the team as constructed now, the Magic need to get back to their defensive identity. They need to play their brand of basketball again. Orlando is still in playoff pole position through all of these uncertainties.

The Magic’s destiny is still in their own hands.

Next. Grades: Miami Heat 113, Orlando Magic 92. dark

That is as much Clifford’s message as anything else. He is disappointed and frustrated with his team that they have forgotten who they are. If they want to achieve their goals still, they will do best to remember.