Nothing is the same as last year’s run for Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic had an inspired playoff run. But it is not something they can flip a switch and reach for. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic had an inspired playoff run. But it is not something they can flip a switch and reach for. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The conditions and timing are similar to last year’s playoff run. But the Orlando Magic cannot count on flipping the switch. This year is very different.

The questions have probably become tiresome for Orlando Magic players.

Everyone seems to want to ask whether they have a run in them like last year. Or whether the conditions for such a run exist. They want to know if the team has some untapped thing to lock into.

More than anything, these questions are hinting at a disappointment for this season. The Magic were not supposed to be scraping by again. They were supposed to compete for something greater and to look like a team that has taken a step forward.

The one thing the Magic were not supposed to be asking at this point of the season was how they ended up in the exact same spot.

Indeed, the Magic are a mere one game ahead of last year’s pace. The only thing keeping panic or even more frustration from setting in is the fact the Eastern Conference is much worse this year and instead of being 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot, the Magic hold a three-game lead for that same spot.

Injuries play a part in the Magic’s stagnation this year. The team has missed Nikola Vucevic for significant time just as the team was developing. Aaron Gordon has dealt with nagging injuries. D.J. Augustin is preparing to return from a 15-game absence with bone irritation in his left knee.

That does not even get into the season-ending injuries to Jonathan Isaac (posterior lateral corner injury to his right knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus in his right knee). As general manager John Hammond has put it, the Magic have essentially played a position down.

With an already small margin for error, these injuries have kept the Magic from taking a step forward. Coach Steve Clifford has struggled to piece together rotations and consistent playing groups. Unlike last year when he pulled the right levers to spark that run (sometimes a bit late), Clifford has not hit on the right groups yet.

Still, no one will use injuries as an excuse. “Next man up” is a common refrain throughout the league. Someone had to step up and the team had to figure out a way.

The Magic have not quite been right.

The team’s offense has been abysmal thanks to an odd shooting performance — 40.5 percent on shots where the closest defender is more than four feet away with 41.8 such attempts per game, compared to 43.2 percent on 46.4 such attempts per game last year (the games played in Mexico City last year were not tracked).

The defense though, despite ranking seventh overall in the league, has not quite been the same.

Clifford has lamented the team’s lack of physicality for much of the season. That is not quite seen in statistics — he points to rebounding a lot, but the Magic are sixth in the league in defensive rebound rate. But defensively the team has seemed a bit off. The effort is not consistently at a high level.

And that trickles down everywhere else because the margin for error is so small. It is impossible not to feel the team’s extreme offensive struggles have bled into the defense some. It is hard to keep a defensive focus when a team is so frustrated offensively.

The team has underperformed. By how much is the unanswerable question. Nobody can really say what this team’s ultimate ceiling could have been or how good this team actually is. And for the long-term, it certainly feels like the team is bumping up against its ceiling as it struggles with many of the same issues as last year.

Issues that were papered over some through that inspiring 22-9 run.

But everyone can agree, even within the confines of this roster and all its flaws and limits, that it can play better. Last year was proof of that.

And so at this point of the year, everyone wants to know if this team can reach back and get that again. They may not have to be that good — and certainly, without Jonathan Isaac, it will be tougher — but the team needs to show some hint of forward momentum.

Making the playoffs remains the goal. It is the baseline expectation this group was supposed to meet. But it was always a moving target. It was not the definition of success this season.

Success was supposed to see the team compete for homecourt advantage or be in a playoff series they can actually compete and potentially steal a win. Those goals are unlikely at this point.

Still, there is something to accomplish.

The team wants to make the playoffs. And they want to make the playoffs doing the right things. Clifford’s mantra for his teams has always been to improve throughout the course of the season — both individually and as a group. He wants the team to play its way in.

Orlando will get the benefit of an easier schedule. According to Tankathon, the Magic play the third-easiest scheduled by opponent win percentage. The team has played the third-toughest schedule in the league to this point.

That all suggests the path is open for the Magic to make another run. That only increases the anticipation and the questions for this team to copy what it did last year.

That is not how the team is thinking.

The Magic insist the focus needs to be less on what they could or should be and more on getting into the details to make that happen. They cannot simply flip a switch. They have to take care of themselves and play at a higher level. That is what actually happened last year and confidence simply built on itself.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But so too did the desperation.

As Clifford noted after Wednesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons, the Orlando Magic played last year with a chip on their shoulder. They were trying to prove to the league they were not the same Magic.

That playoff appearance gave the team poise but may have decreased the team’s urgency.

The Magic are trying to say that playing with the lead will not change their focus and that it would take the same approach to make up ground as it would to hold their ground. In any case, the team is no cinch to make the playoffs. They know that better than most. They have to win and continue playing well.

But the one thing that is clear is that this year will not be like last year. Players have acknowledged a different dynamic with this group. They have pushed aside any attempts to compare this year to last year.

The bottom line is that it is different.

All the conditions — the expectations, the dynamic, how defenses treat them, the urgency and even the personnel — are completely different. The way the team got to this point feels very different even though the team’s record is virtually the same.

The Magic will need its best players like Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross to get out of season-long swoons. They will need their defense to lead the way, getting stops and suffocating opponents to spark their offense.

Next. Orlando Magic eager to get D.J. Augustin back. dark

Last year was special, everyone recognizes that. But it is not something that will happen again. This team will have to find its own path forward.