2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: The margin for error was too small

The Orlando Magic had several solid seasons from key players. But none of it was enough. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic had several solid seasons from key players. But none of it was enough. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic saw players have solid, if unspectacular, seasons in 2020. That was only good enough to stay where they are. And that is not good enough.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was always very realistic about his team and what they could accomplish. He was optimistic perhaps, but always realistic.

He believed the Magic could be a good team and a playoff-caliber team. He believed they could advance up the standings.

But to do so, the Magic would need to repeat their performance as a top-10 defensive team. He believed the Magic could reach the elite of the league. And it looked like they might get there.

They would also need to be a top-15 offensive team. Something that still seems far off. But with how the Magic finished the season in 2019, Clifford seemed to believe the Magic could reach even this small goal.

This was a season of small goals for sure. But a season that still held the potential for tangible progress. Even getting into the conversation for home-court advantage, even if briefly, would have been a rousing success for this team.

But that is not how things went. The season hit difficulties from the very beginning. Injuries hurt the team from the start, holding the Magic back in the preseason until the very end inside the bubble.

The Magic ended tied for 10th in defensive rating, playing poorly as the season went on its pandemic hiatus. They ended 23rd in offensive rating, although they played some inspired offensive basketball heading into the All-Star Break.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That all seemed short-lived. The Magic were not the same team as they were in 2019.

Quite simply, the team persevered through a ton of adversity, missing several key players and ending with the emotional drain of Jonathan Isaac’s return and devastating injury. But even with the team playing at its average or struggling to stay above water, it was not enough.

The problem though lies within the roster. It is hard to win when the margin for error is too small.

Ultimately, the Magic success this season relied on a repeat performance of last year’s stellar 2019 run and the emergence and development of young players like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and even Markelle Fultz.

The Magic needed everything to fall into place perfectly to take that leap up the standings. Things during a NBA season rarely go perfectly. Certainly not to the extent the Magic needed them to.

Instead, Orlando ended up where they were predicted to all along. Their step back from 42 wins to 38-39 (they won 33 in an abbreviated 73-game season) can be attributed to injuries as much as anything. The Magic sort of stayed still.

And whatever improvements in experience and poise they gained from last year’s playoff run — and they were certainly apparent throughout the course of the season as the team stayed in the playoff race — were negated by the inability to advance forward.

Nothing went perfect and the results were expected. That leaves the Magic pondering what their eventual ceiling might truly be.

The Magic got a stirring run from Markelle Fultz as he went from a complete unknown to a potential long-term starter. Isaac took significant steps forward before injuries cut his season short.

Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross both got off to slow starts, but they recovered by the All-Star Break when the Magic were just rearing up and readying for a playoff run. Evan Fournier turned in a career season that was only halted by a non-COVID illness he experienced inside the campus.

There were positive and encouraging moments throughout the season.

We might be accused of being light on our grades. But with our player evaluation series done, we gave out a lot of fairly positive grades. A lot of Bs among the Magic’s key players:

So how do the Magic have such a poor season with so many players playing adequately? This is the heart of the problem facing the Magic.

Outside of Aaron Gordon failing to make the leap to stardom, it is hard to say whether any player played below average. And even Gordon started figuring things out near the All-Star Break when he was finally healthy and the Magic moved him full-time to power forward and played him closer to the basket.

Individually, Magic players seemed to have solid seasons. They seemed to play well and at least to their career averages.

But unlike in 2019 where everything went right — from Nikola Vucevic’s career season to the team clicking at the right moment — there was no moment of clarity where everything clicked. The team was always chasing the ghosts of 2019 and never quite reached those heights.

33-40. 8th East. ORLANDO MAGIC. C.

In almost every way the Magic were worse in 2020 than they were in 2019. However, it was still good enough to make the playoffs. The Magic deserve credit for sticking together and finding a way to best the seven teams below them in the standings.

As they will point out, they were likely to pass the Brooklyn Nets for seventh and make a push for the playoffs with the easiest stretch of their schedule due to begin just as the pandemic cut the season short.

The 2020 season then is a lesson in margins for error.

The Magic’s 5-30 record against teams with records better than .500 is proof of how perfect they needed to be. To win these games, they needed the best from all their players. It is hard to expect career seasons from everyone at all times.

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The lesson of the 2020 season is how the Magic needed to be perfect to be great. And that is simply not sustainable.

Orlando had players have good seasons or average seasons. But an average season from the Magic’s best players is only going to take them to the 7- or 8-seed. It is only going to get them to the periphery of the playoffs.

The Magic obviously want to do more. They want to be more than this.

And if this is average, they have to ask themselves this offseason whether they have enough internally to improve — especially with Isaac likely to miss the entire 2021 season.

The Magic had extenuating circumstances for their fall in their record. Injuries really gutted the team, speaking to the team’s lack of depth in some areas. They desperately need more shooting and offensive players to take that next step.

But even considering all that, they finished too far behind the Philadelphia 76ers to be considered a real threat for sixth in the East. The Magic are in their own tier just at the bottom of the playoff standings. That is not a place the team wants to be for long.

This next season, the Magic have to start making moves to position themselves for their future.

But for 2020, Orlando was simply not greater than the sum of its parts. The Magic likely hit their ceiling, stretching the team as far as it would go. They were unable to break through and be anything more.

The Magic have some difficult choices ahead as they plan their team’s future. They certainly do not want to give up their place in line for the playoffs line. But they have to find a way to expand their potential moving forward.

The answer might be taking a soft reset of sorts and shuffling their deck in a major way.

Next. New rumors a sign of Magic's difficulties. dark

The 2020 season still saw the Magic accomplish a lot. But it left a lot on the table. And a lot of questions for Orlando to ponder in the offseason.