2020 Orlando Magic were not close to 2019’s breakthrough

Michael Carter-Williams provided a huge energy boost for the Orlando Magic in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Michael Carter-Williams provided a huge energy boost for the Orlando Magic in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

Orlando Magic brass believe the team was set to turn the corner before the season went on hold. They may be right, but they were still not close to 2019.

At first glance at the Orlando Magic’s 2020 season would undoubtedly elicit some disappointment. The optimism that followed the team’s 2019 breakthrough into the playoffs was quickly replaced with the frustration that comes from stagnation and injury.

The Magic entered the 2020 season hoping to take their next step and begin to climb into the upper half of the Eastern Conference. Instead, the team faced almost an identical type of season — in fact, they were an identical 20-31 at the end of January.

By the time the regular season ended inside the NBA campus, the Magic had a record far worse than the year before and they finished eighth instead of seventh.

Indeed, the Magic face a daunting future. Jonathan Isaac’s injury has clouded that future and the 2021 season a ton more. The Magic have already ruled him out.

It is harder to see a way forward heading into 2021 than it was heading into 2020.

Stagnation might be part of the growing process for a young team learning to win for the first time. It can be an important learning experience. That in itself is not a reason to turn back or tear the whole thing down. But it certainly feels like the team has to make some changes. Running back the same group — without Isaac — is not going to create the desired results.

While some fans are certainly eager to see dramatic changes to the roster — especially facing the prospect of something of a “lost” year without Isaac in the lineup in 2021 and a stronger draft class in 2021 — the Magic seemed eager to tell a story of a team about ready to turn the corner.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There is something to that. Orlando was facing the opportunity to pick up wins against the easiest part of its schedule. But this Magic team was not close to last year’s breakthrough. Injuries are part of that story, but they were struggling to match 2019’s breakthrough.

The Breakthrough Narrative

That is not how the Orlando Magic were telling things though.

As the Magic started to decompress and assess their season, a similar message rang out. One that would suggest the Magic did not take the step back everyone seems to believe.

Yes, Orlando finished the regular season 33-40. The team slipped from seventh to eighth in the Eastern Conference standings and finished in the same five games in the Playoffs — a Game 1 win and four straight losses. The Magic at least looked better in the postseason despite massive amounts of injuries.

But if you heard Jeff Weltman and Steve Clifford tell it, the Magic were ready to turn a corner when the season went on hiatus. They see the time in the campus as valuable, but not quite how a normal season would have gone. And they understood what laid ahead of them when the season went on break.

Orlando had the second-easiest schedule remaining when the season went on hiatus in March. The team was preparing to play eight of its next 10 at home and seven of its next 10 against non-playoff teams. Nine of the next 10 games were against teams with records worse than .500.

Unarguably, the Magic were playing their best basketball of the season at that point too. They had just come home from a 3-1 road trip and their offense was soaring.

Orlando was playing confidently. And certainly, another March push was coming for this team. The team truly believes that. And that may go into their considerations on what happens next.

If there is any sign of optimism coming out of this often frustrating season, it is that the Magic may not have lost as much ground as people believe. At least that is what the front office would believe.

But the reality is the Magic never played at the level they did to end the 2019 season. Getting back or close to those marks would have taken an unreal run of play that this team simply had not put together.

The Magic might have been on their way to playing their best basketball of the season heading into the playoffs. But the team cannot ignore the bigger issues that their record displays.

Breaking down the schedule

The Orlando Magic finished the regular season 33-40 after going 3-5 inside the campus. All three of the Magic’s wins inside the campus came against teams with records worse than .500.

Games inside the campus certainly should be considered their own thing. But those games displayed a similar weakness that this team had shown outside the campus.

Orlando’s hot play might have netted the team a few more wins and might have enabled it to finish seventh. But the difference are likely only cosmetic.

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This team was who it was.

The team’s .452 overall win percentage would equate to 37 wins in an 82-game season. But that does not quite reach where the Magic were at. Orlando had nine games thrown off its schedule. And seven of those nine games were against teams that did not even head to the campus.

Orlando was among the teams in the league who lost the easiest part of its schedule — the New Orleans Pelicans certainly were another as many believed they were ready to make a charge for the eighth seed.

But let’s be more mathematical about it.

Orlando had a 28-10 record against teams with records worse than .500. That .737 win percentage would suggest the Magic would win five of the remaining games against teams with records worse than .500.

A 5-4 overall record, counting losses in both games against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, added to the Orlando Magic’s bubble record of 3-5 would have the Magic finish at 38-44.

The Magic’s win percentage with their remaining schedule seems to be spot on. This was really a team that would have struggled to rally to get to 40 wins.

But that does not account for momentum and how the team was playing at the time.

The Magic might have well gotten four wins in the next four games they were scheduled to play. The Orlando Magic played four of their next five at home facing the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers. Even getting three of those four games would get them close to that projected 37-win mark.

They would need only one win to hit this 38-win projection. A 38-win season for this group feels very realistic.

It is easy to see the Magic could have gotten past even that 38-win mark. If the team was playing well, they could have perhaps stolen that game against the Pacers or Celtics. And with all the injuries, seeing the team win 39 or 40 games feels like it is not as significant a step back.

Of course, no win is easy. And you cannot just tick games off. The Bulls were a strong defensive team playing well too and the Magic, despite three wins in the season series, needed some gritty wins to defeat the Cavaliers early in the season.

Things are not as easy as saying the Magic would have gotten this win or that win.

Not so easy

It would have not have been so simple to get to 40 wins. Although there might have been some hope of doing so. Everything would have had to go right — and we are already assuming the bubble results go the same.

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As well as the Orlando Magic were playing, Evan Fournier was likely facing a prolonged absence because of the elbow injury he suffered in the loss to the Miami Heat before the team won its last three games.

Further, Orlando’s closing stretch was going to be very tough too.

After that home-heavy stretch ended, the Magic would finish the season with five of their final seven games on the road. The two home games were against the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors (a game they lost in the bubble).

As optimistic as the front office seemed to view its team and its lost potential to finish the season, there are definitely still reasons to be concerned they would not have gotten to .500 or that it would have come to fruition.

Statistically, the Magic still played the entire season like a team well below .500. Basketball-Reference’s Pythagorean Wins formula projected the Magic to win 34 games in the 73-game season the Magic played. So the team finished below its statistical profile would suggest.

In the games the Magic played before the hiatus, they were projected to win 30 games. Right in line with what its statistical profile would suggest.

The Magic finished the regular season with a -1.9 net rating. They finished the 2019 season with a +0.6 net rating, the statistical profile of a 42-40 team.

And even if the Magic faced its most optimal outcome, they still would have finished far behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for sixth.

All the numbers seem to be against this thought that Orlando’s weaker schedule would have saved the team and the perception of the season.

Orlando undoubtedly played worse this year. The offense did not perform well at all and the defense took a step back. The Magic’s optimism certainly suggests the team would have finished seventh. And they might have used injuries as a factor in the wins decreasing slightly.

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But the analysis should also be clear. The Magic were not nearly as good as they were last year.