Orlando Magic left it all on table and still feel there is more

The Orlando Magic have rallied and shown fight in Game 2. But Game 3 will separate reality from theory. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have rallied and shown fight in Game 2. But Game 3 will separate reality from theory. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic returned to the playoffs in the 2020 season. That was a small accomplishment. They feel there is still more to achieve and grow toward.

On media day in September, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford laid out what his conception of the team would be.

They would be a strong defensive team, able to throw versatile wings at any player on the perimeter with a sound defensive system behind them. The team would be able to maximize the strong defense that pushed them into the postseason last year.

It might be a slog with the inconsistency of the Magic’s offense, but with no easy way to score and the chance to create turnovers just by their length and presence, the Magic could pick up their pace and score easy baskets.

Everything would flow and stay connected. The team had an idea of how it would have to play and internal development and chemistry would take care of the rest to lift the Magic up the standings.

Very quickly that vision disappeared. And by the time the Playoffs — ending nearly 11 months after the journey of this season started — they were without the very strength they thought they would have.

In the end, the Magic fought extremely hard. They rallied together and gave themselves a chance to accomplish their goals, still making the playoffs. But ultimately they were held back by their own small margin for error and the injuries that ate up their roster.

Their fight was enough to help them achieve their baseline goals. But there still seemed so much more to do.

"“Making the playoffs is never an easy thing, you can’t take it for granted,” Clifford said during a teleconference Monday. “And yet, when you are a coach, I’m not naive, you have to win in the playoffs. Our guys understand that. Ultimately just getting there is not going to be enough. It’s a big step. Pro sports is about how you play in the playoffs and we all understand that.”"

The never-ending injuries

Injuries will inevitably be the story of the Orlando Magic’s 2020 season.

Starting with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon’s ankle injuries suffered in November (they never truly recovered until January and February) and moving on to Al-Farouq Aminu’s meniscus tear in December to Michael Carter-Williams’ nagging injuries throughout the year to Jonathan Isaac’s posterior lateral corner injury in January to D.J. Augustin’s injury in January and on and on and on.

Even when the Magic were given a reprieve because of the pandemic and a chance to recover heading into the season’s restart at the Disney campus, injuries still struck. Isaac made a remarkable recovery and returned to the court, only for him to tear his ACL in the same knee two games into the restart.

Then the avalanche continued. Aaron Gordon strained his hamstring and missed the entire postseason. Mohamed Bamba could barely get off the bench as he struggled to build his conditioning back up after putting on 20-plus pounds of muscle during the hiatus and after contracting COVID-19 in June.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Michael Carter-Williams strained a tendon in his foot and missed the playoffs. Terrence Ross had to leave the campus for testing after dealing with a really bad case of heartburn. And then Evan Fournier got sick and missed an entire week without activity before trying to ramp back up for the Playoffs.

It was a daunting and long journey that frustrated everyone. The team had to find a way to pull through, ultimately losing in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Getting back to the playoffs was an important goal and sign of growth. But ultimately they fell short of their goals.

"“We want our team to fight and we want our team to fit,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in a teleconference Monday. “I do believe that those were our defining characteristics. I think we came together when we had to do. We went through a lot of adversity at key moments. Ultimately, our guys banded together and supported one another. I would say the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That is a credit to them.”"

The Magic came out the other end exhausted, as anyone would.

It has been a trying 11 months that seen the franchise’s future get clouded by a major injury even as the team took stock of second-straight playoff performance. It was 11 months that saw the world plunged into a pandemic and the league forced to play from a sequestered bubble.

There had to be some relief that it was finally over.

What was left on the table

This was not the year the Orlando Magic expected in any sense. It felt like the team was lucky to be back where it was the year before considering everything the team faced. Yet, it still feels like the Magic left so much on the table.

The team showed some signs of growth and maturity through it.

Steve Clifford sat in the press room in Toronto at the end of the 2019 Playoffs and expressed disappointment with how the team competed in the playoff series. He felt like they could have done better.

Even in defeat, Clifford said he was proud of how his team competed during the 2020 Playoffs. They certainly showed the growth and maturity a young team needs to show.

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This is what a winning culture starts to look like. The team rallied.

"“The number one thing I would say about our team, and I’m very proud of this, is the resiliency they showed to continue to make improvements during the season after we took those injuries,” Clifford said in a media teleconference Monday. “They did the same thing in the Bubble. Although we are disappointed we didn’t win a playoff series and didn’t go further in the playoffs. I think our guys again showed great resiliency, they stuck together. If you were with them every day, you saw the way they worked and the way they practiced toward making progress.”"

The Magic continued to cling to the hope that the season was set to take a dramatic turn for the better right when the league went on hiatus. Orlando’s schedule this year was front-loaded with difficult games — a brutal December and January stretch was clear even before the season.

When the pandemic shut down the league, Orlando had won three of its last four games on the road and were looking ahead to a home-heavy March and a friendly schedule.

The team’s win percentage would peg them as a 37-win team. Considering eight of the nine games the team dropped from its regular schedule were against teams with losing records. It is not hard to believe the Magic would have approached 40 wins, if not finish at .500 considering the momentum the team was playing with at that time.

It is even hard to say with complete certainty the Magic took the step back their record seems to suggest. But that is something the team will never know.

“It all starts with the right approach, the right attitude and the right amount of work,” Clifford said Monday. “I thought we had a very committed, serious-minded team and that played out. We were playing with great confidence. We will never know. But the feeling in the locker room and the practice floor was our team was ready to finish the season on a strong note. Those are important characteristics.”

Where to moving forward?

Is that truly enough to carry this team over another year? Is that enough to delay changes? Will the team accept these results and chalk up the year and its struggles to injury?

That part will get determined in the next few months. With a long time until the NBA Draft — scheduled for October but president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman was not committed to that date or knowing when it will — the Magic will have the chance to study themselves.

The one thing they do know is they have their way to play.

“I think our guys are comfortable with who they are,” Jeff Weltman said Monday. “They know how we win. There needs to be growth and there will be growth in our approach to how we translate this in tot he next season. That’s the maturation of young players and the maturation of a team. That’s what I would hope for obviously.”

Hewing to that and playing that at a high level for long periods of time — and in the playoffs — is going to be the question left for this team to answer moving on to next year.

Clifford would not comment in the immediate aftermath of the season on what the team needs to improve upon. Some of those answers may be obvious, but Clifford will dive deeper into the season and the game tape to map out a plan for the team’s future.

Something was certainly left on the table for the Magic. And this team still has a lot of growing to do.

Next. Nikola Vucevic stepped up big for the Orlando Magic in the playoffs. dark

Just like last summer, the Magic are confident they can get better and look ahead to a brighter future. But there remains a ton of uncertainty about how the team moves forward and when the team moves forward.