The Orlando Magic finished the 2020 season with consecutive Playoff berths, but will still need to make adjustments if they plan on competing for the Eastern Conference crown.
Just go get LeBron James.
Before last year, that was about the only guaranteed way to the Finals through the Eastern Conference. James went to eight straight NBA Finals and won three titles, two as a member of the Miami Heat and one as the leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But since acquiring James is not a reality and the Orlando Magic will not see any glimpse of the King in a Magic uniform, they have to find another way to make their third NBA Finals appearance.
The organization has seemed to have hit a standstill in the Eastern Conference.
The Magic finished the last two seasons around .500 and near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The team was not able to take that important next step toward contention.
No one will fault the Magic for their playoff defeats the last two years. In the first year, the Orlando Magic lost to the eventual 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors led by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in the first round. And this year the Orlando Magic lost in the first round again but this time to likely back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Milwaukee Bucks team who boasted the NBA’s top seed.
Pretty tough sledding and stiff competition for a franchise that just climbed from out of the NBA cellar in recent years.
While the Magic blamed some of their troubles on injuries — Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams all missed the entire postseason — and they felt optimistic they were about to make a run if the season had not stopped for the pandemic, the team still has a lot to do to get to the Finals picture. Clearly standing still and returning virtually the same roster will not do the trick.
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The Magic still would have been one of the lower seeds in the playoffs. The Orlando Magic finished 10 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the sixth-seed. It was not likely the Magic would get anywhere close to that with their final 17 games. It would have been hard just to reach 40 wins.
Most winning franchises think it is a disgrace to finish last in Playoff seedings and is not the way to go out. But for the Magic, it was a statement to make consecutive Playoff berths no matter how they lose. It shows that the team has grown since Dwight Howard’s departure in 2012.
While starting at the bottom of the playoffs is a standard progression for even the best teams — Antetokounmpo made his playoff debut as a 7-seed in 2015 with three first-round defeats before last year’s breakthrough and the Raptors’ recent playoff run began as a shocking third seed in 2014 (they lost in the first round to the Brooklyn Nets) — it is not where anyone wants to stay.
Eventually, teams want to grow and advance beyond this stage of their development. The Magic are at that stage.
This organization still has plenty of work to do if they plan on shocking the world and making a run to the Finals in 2021, or to inch a little bit closer. That task will be tougher considering the Magic will be without Jonathan Isaac for the entire year. The team will also have few options in free agency to add to the roster, relying on the Draft, trades and internal development.
The Magic are not one to give up on a season despite these daunting obstacles. Steve Clifford is going to make sure he wrings out everything he can from the roster he is given. Orlando’s philosophy since Jeff Weltman took over as president of basketball operations is to grow players in a winning environment.
Orlando is not about to tank the 2021 season. Although a step back is certainly possible because of Isaac’s injury.
How the Magic build and grow next is dependent on the star they choose to build around. As things stand now, it all starts with the type of players surrounding Nikola Vucevic.
Get Vucevic some help
Nikola Vucevic has proven he can lead a team to the Playoffs but the organization has not proven to be able to surround Vucevic with any other stars. This is a major concern if the team plans on moving closer toward its goal of an NBA Finals appearance.
There are superstar players (LeBron James, Kevin Durant) in the NBA who recognized that they need another top-10 player to get to the Finals and win it. So wouldn’t Vucevic need another top-10 player to reach the Finals? Stacking the deck is the way teams win at the highest level.
Vucevic had a breakout playoff performance. He is not a top-10 player himself. But the Magic clearly need an upgrade at the top of their roster. They have been able to put together solid playoff teams with a group of players who know how to share the ball and take the lead depending on the matchup. But they have not been able to breakthrough.
And in the playoffs, some of those players have struggled to break defenses that know what is coming. Even Vucevic is not a sure thing. His strong playoff performance was at least in part due to the Milwaukee Bucks’ defensive scheme that allows for the kind of mid-range jumpers Vucevic thrives at.
If the Magic want to be a deeper playoff contender, it starts with improving the talent at the top of the roster with or without Vucevic.
The organization would need to find a way to get Vucevic an available superstar-caliber player in order to move closer up the standings. This is easier said than done with Orlando not being on the radar for potential landing spots for superstars players in free agency or in a trade.
There may be some players out there the Magic organization may be able to entice to play in Orlando and kind of build their own legacy, kind of like Leonard did for the Toronto Raptors.
But with little cap room in a weak free agency class and big-salaried players that have no lived up to their full expectation, expecting that to happen this offseason will be difficult.
Perhaps Orlando can get in the running for someone like DeMar DeRozan (on an expiring contract if he picks up his player option) or Zach LaVine, if they become available on the market. Neither is a top-10 player or a supreme superstar, but they would demand the defense’s attention and give the team a bit more offensive heft to support Vucevic.
Get more aggressive defensively
The way to get back to the Finals is going to have a lot to do with the way Steve Clifford constructs a game plan on the defensive side of the ball.
Clifford’s defensive schemes are relatively conservative. His idea is for players to take individual responsibility but pack the paint and close off shots near the basket. His offensive schemes help with this too where he provides a lot of structure and prevents turnovers to stop fast breaks.
In the Playoffs in both years, the Magic’s defense was left a bit exposed. The team does not so much dictate things defensively rather than make opponents think about how to break through a very solid barrier.
Clifford often says he wants his team always to be prepared for playoff basketball. In a certain way, this defense becomes easier to break when teams can hone in on it and break it down as they can in a playoff series.
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Now that the Magic have two successful years defensively under their belts, Clifford should feel some confidence in ratcheting that unit up a bit — even if Jonathan Isaac is out of the fold.
The team needs to play more full-court pressure and zone schemes to take advantage of their lack of top-five defensive talent available. Maybe that was the plan before Al-Farouq Aminu and Jonathan Isaac’s injuries derailed Steve Clifford’s vision of a top-5 defensive team.
Now obviously this does not fit Nikola Vucevic’s style of play defensively. Orlando has schemed around some of Vucevic’s shortcomings defensively by implementing drop coverages on middle pick and rolls.
But the coaching staff will have to be creative with the center’s minutes. Clifford will have to insert Mohammed Bamba in when the gameplay changes because he is the more versatile defender with a longer wingspan and is the ideal defensive candidate for this type of defensive scheme.
A lot of the Magic’s future is still riding on Bamba’s defensive development. They are hoping he will be able to build up his conditioning after adding considerable muscle during the league’s hiatus. They do not expect any long-term effects from his COVID-19 diagnosis in June.
The Magic do not have any players on the roster who could compete for a NBA Defensive Player Of The Year Award in 2021, and that is something that NBA Finals teams have. The last time the Magic made a Finals appearance they had the best defensive player in the NBA in Dwight Howard.
They certainly hope and believe Isaac can get there. But they will have to wait until the 2022 season to find that out as he recovers from a torn ACL.
For the most part, the Magic have been a decent defensive team despite not having Mohammed Bamba and Jonathan Issac for crucial parts of the season.
The Magic have to find new ways to reinvent themselves and although it is a long shot, these are the two steps the organization needs to take in order to get closer to the Finals and become a stronger playoff team.