Orlando Magic’s stagnation is part of the process of learning

The Orlando Magic have not had the season they hoped they would have this year. But growth is still possible if they learn from its failures. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have not had the season they hoped they would have this year. But growth is still possible if they learn from its failures. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Most everyone has had some level of disappointment with the Orlando Magic’s 2020 season. Still anticipating a playoff berth, there are lessons to learn.

When there are no games and the season is suspended and put in limbo, it is easy to let your mind wander to bigger picture issues. It is easier to look at the flaws in the Orlando Magic and worry about how to improve them. It is really easy to forget what you have in the present.

This feeling is not something that cam because the season was suddenly suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic that has halted most of the world. The Magic’s season was already in a sort of limbo.

The team had given itself enough distance from the teams outside of the playoffs that it would take an epic collapse — FiveThirtyEight gives them a greater than 99-percent chance of making the playoffs — for the Magic to miss the playoffs. Those odds get even worse considering the league is not likely to finish its full season.

Yet, Orlando does not have a ton of upward mobility.

The Orlando  Magic can still catch the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. But they have as little chance of catching the Indiana Pacers or Philadelphia 76ers for sixth as they do of falling out of the playoffs (nine games back of sixth, 5.5 games ahead for eighth).

It has been this way for a while — Orlando stuck in limbo. Clearly good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to advance further.

Injuries — particularly the injury to Jonathan Isaac while he was in the midst of a career season — partially explain this. The Magic have struggled to find their footing all year.

It is a testament to their progress that they have maintained the playoff spot they earned last year without having to make a crazy run to end the season.

That is progress in some way. But it is stagnation in others.

The Magic’s record is likely to be worse than it was last year and, of course, the team failed to reach the next level. Nobody considers this team a threat to get out of the first round. That is likely the next step in the franchise’s progression.

Dealing with this disappointment and find the team’s way forward is the challenge for management, for coaching and for each individual player.

Simply making the playoffs is no longer enough for success. The fan base, the players and the team want a whole lot more.

The rest of the season — whenever it resumes — is about getting the most out of the current group. The goal for whatever time they have left together is to secure a playoff spot, earn the 7-seed and try to win a game or two in the playoff series (if not score the upset and advance to the second round — that is admittedly far-fetched).

Beyond that, however, the Magic need to learn the lessons of this season. The lessons that only come with experience and understanding the fleeting and difficult nature of success. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA.

They have to make sure they do not repeat the same mistakes and manage expectation and progression. Nobody is satisfied with this season, but the team is still searching to do more.

While most of us in the media discussed the team’s continuity and the fact that almost every player from last year’s team was returning, coach Steve Clifford would tell everyone that each team is different. It comes with its own challenges. there is no rolling over to the next season. Every group has to start over again.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

If this young Magic team takes any lesson from the frustration of this season, it should be that. Nothing is guaranteed even with the same personnel.

Making the playoffs and fighting to advance further is a constant struggle that requires the same urgency and attention as getting in does.

Yes, the season is a marathon. Nobody could expect the Magic to play with the same urgency they did to make the playoffs a year ago. But the team always seemed to play like they knew they had it in reserve. They were never truly threatened in their playoff position and they played like it. The team just did not have the same urgency.

The Eastern Conference was just worse this year than it was last year. Orlando earned its way into the playoffs, but not necessarily by becoming a better or more consistent team.

Clifford said he had a talk with his team about finishing the season the same way they did last year after the All-Star Break. And that did seem to pick things up for the team. Orlando started to find its footing after the All-Star Break.

The whole season provides more information for the franchise — its management, its coaches and its player — on how to get better.

This is the part that will matter most as the team moves forward.

What will they learn from this season? How will they — as a team and individually — look to improve?

The team’s season is not lost if they learn the lessons necessary from this season. They must learn the difficulty and intensity necessary to win at the highest level. They must learn that they have to be better, playing with intensity at all times.

And, yes, the Magic have to know that this combination of players may not work perfectly. They may have gone as far as they can go and some change is necessary.

It has been a frustrating season for the Magic no doubt. But it has hardly been a lost one.

Orlando has learned valuable lessons about its team and how to play with the expectation and ability to make the playoffs.

Ultimately, the biggest test for the Magic will come in the Playoffs. Even as a lower seed, the whole season has been gearing up for that playoff push and that playoff moment. The Magic ultimately want to test themselves there. And they may ultimately judge their progress by how they play in that series.

They will want to see if Nikola Vucevic can bounce back from a disappointing postseason against Marc Gasol and the Toronto Raptors. They will want to see if Aaron Gordon rises to the stage again as he did last year — and try to convey that he needs that intensity throughout the regular season too. They want to see how Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba respond to their first postseason too.

And a whole lot more.

Progression and growth are rarely linear. And so growth comes in how a team responds to frustration and failure. This season is not a failure by any means, but it is a point of growth for a young team that ultimately wants to be more.

After what looks like a second straight year near the bottom of the playoff ladder, the Magic absolutely should expect growth next year. They should expect themselves to take this experience of playoff and season failure to grow.

Next. Orlando has always loved its Orlando Magic. dark

If they do not, that is when they will be in trouble and truly reach a dead end in their rebuild.