The Orlando Magic’s season came to a close with a tough loss in Game 5. Now uncertainty takes over as the team’s future is as cloudy as ever.
The end of the season brings finality.
You try to fight it off and keep the year alive by almost any means. Even in a season that everyone wants to end or sees the inevitability of ending, the year is something to hang onto. On teams that find any success, the group becomes something of a family (sometimes dysfunctional, but mostly fighting together).
The end of the season means it all ends. It means the potential for change and everything getting shaken up the next time they reconvene.
The end of the season takes on something of a funeral. There is some mourning. There is a sense of the end. There is a sense of uncertainty.
The Orlando Magic bowed out of the 2020 Playoffs with a 118-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. The team fought back from a 20-point deficit to get within three with seven and a half minutes to play.
“We just kept fighting,” D.J. Augustin said after Saturday’s game. “That’s been this team this whole season. Whenever we went through injuries or down by 20 in a game, we always fight back to the end. That’s the same thing we did this whole series.”
The Magic simply ran out of gas, unable to hit the big shots to keep up with the Bucks. They were gutted with injuries and had to play nearly perfectly to compete with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
No one would fault their fight. They stretched themselves as thin as they could — coach Steve Clifford wringing all he could out of a team that understood its identity and all it needed to do to compete.
They were without starters Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, two key players who provide energy and size on the wings. They were without key reserves in Michael Carter-Williams and Mohamed Bamba. The Magic did not have three key young players in Gordon, Isaac and Bamba who figure to be a big part of the team’s future plans. Even their prized free agent in Al-Farouq Aminu was not there.
This was not the team the Magic imagined back in September. This is not who the Magic would be.
And that has only led to more uncertainty as this offseason begins. Everything feels up in the air for this team.
The uncertain future
First, nobody knows when the next season will begin. February seems to be the safest bet for the 2021 season.
But the uncertainty of the pandemic and the daunting task of putting the campus together makes it unlikely the league tries to copy its Disney experiment. They want to be able to travel again and, if they can, have fans in their building.
As teams depart the campus, they have no clue what the 2021 season will look like.
Further for the Orlando Magic, Jonathan Isaac’s ACL injury further clouds what this team will do. The Magic have invested a lot in Isaac and it is easy to see him as the one player who could elevate this team in some way. That is probably too much pressure to put on one player, but the reality of the league.
Isaac likely will not play next season because of his torn ACL. With little cap room — in an offseason with few free agents anyway — the Magic have little room to get significantly better.
The team’s future is uncertain. After an offseason with little change yielding the same results and a general lack of progress, it feels like change is in the air.
As hopeful as the team can be after a stronger showing in the playoffs. It still feels like they are in the same place.
“It’s hard to say because we don’t know what our team is going to look like next year,” Nikola Vucevic said after Saturday’s game. “We have some good young pieces moving forward that are going to get better. We have some experienced guys that have been through two playoff season and gone through ups and downs. There are some good things for us to build on.”
There is no standing still in the NBA. Only moving forward or moving backward.
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And so the question the Magic have to ask is whether what they have is enough to keep moving forward? Did they progress enough this season?
The end of the road?
In a way, this feels like the end of the road for this group.
The team returned to the playoffs for the second straight season, an accomplishment for a franchise that has been lost in the desert for most of the last eight years since trading away its last superstar in Dwight Howard.
The Orlando Magic had a season where they met their baseline goals.
But this team resembled the team that Rob Hennigan left for Jeff Weltman. The key players on the floor came from the previous management regime. If the Magic are a rebuilding team, it felt like their future was sitting on the bench or back home injured and their past was playing things out.
Nikola Vucevic had a strong playoff run, averaging 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Evan Fournier struggled through the postseason but was a key player the entire season, turning in a career year.
The other players were more secondary players. The big players in Jeff Weltman’s rebuild — specifically Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba — were back home injured.
This felt like a team that had reached its ceiling all year. They never quite broke through to climb out of the lower dregs of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Some of that had to do with injury.
The Magic know they needed more.
“I think the lesson that I got from this year was we really have to put ourselves in a better position leading into the playoffs,” Evan Fournier said after Saturday’s loss. “Two years in a row now, we were playing against the elite teams. We competed. We gave ourselves a chance to win every game. But they are really good. Our margin for error compared to those teams is really small. To win four times is definitely a challenge.
“How we approach these games with the focus and intensity we had, we need to have that in the regular season to give us a better chance to go deeper and have a better seed going into the playoffs.”
Revealing the weaknesses
The playoffs exposed so much of this team. Much of it already known.
The team did not have a strong offensive presence. Nikola Vucevic got much of his offense because of the Milwaukee Bucks’ attention to the paint. He still took his opportunity and his chance. But the Milwaukee Bucks were not nearly as physical with him as the Toronto Raptors the year before.
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Orlando still lacked a strong perimeter scorer. Not to mention a complete lack of respect as 3-point shooters.
The Magic shot 37.7-percent from beyond the arc in the series this year, but against the Bucks that shot was more important with their focus on controlling the paint. Orlando’s shooting came in bunches and disappeared just as quickly.
The team needs better top-end talent at least to compete. Everyone should know this. And that necessitates a change of some sort.
Orlando even at its best this season was playing with an incredibly small margin for error. Things came together in brief moments, but it was hardly sustainable. And the team struggled to make it last through injuries.
Things are not hopeless for the Orlando Magic. Change might be necessary and how that change is created is uncertain at this point. But the Magic made some progress.
At the end of the 2019 season, coach Steve Clifford expressed his disappointment at how his team finished the Orlando Magic’s five-game series with the Toronto Raptors. A team that had surprisingly rallied to make the playoffs, left the playoffs with a whimper. They seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
The end of the 2020 season was different. Clifford said he was proud despite the team’s similar five-game series loss. There was no tinge of disappointment in how his team played under the circumstances.
He was proud of how his team fought and handled adversity throughout the season — from the injuries to the pandemic.
That is a moral victory of a sort. But then again, there are no moral victories in this league.
“I’m proud of the way they handled themselves in the bubble,” coach Steve Clifford said after Saturday’s game. “Obviously we were dealt with our fair share of injury issues. They worked hard. They had a good attitude. We fought hard. We need to take some time and obviously everybody exhale and look for when next season will start so we can get organized.”
The Magic’s progress this year was slight if any at all. And the team’s future sat out of the final test. If the veterans needed to prove they are worth building around, only Vucevic likely secured his spot in the team’s future (and that still might have more to do with Bamba’s uncertainty).
The end of the season brings finality. And there is the reality that things cannot stay the same if Orlando is going to be more than first-round fodder.
When the season plays and who this team will be in 2021 is now more uncertain than ever.