The Orlando Magic appear to be running back their same lineup from last year. That will only highlight the inevitability and need for change.
In the NBA, there is no standing still. Teams are either improving and getting closer to a championship or they are moving backward, sliding closer to the Lottery or, in this league, potential implosion.
Young teams getting their first taste of the playoffs can be expected to continue improving, or that is the hope, with little change. More veteran teams sliding back may need something a bit more.
There is a reason the middle of the NBA or mediocrity is considered to be no man’s land in the league. Some of it is simply the paralysis of knowing the team needs more to break through to the next level but still having faith in what you have to develop.
The Orlando Magic are situated in this no man’s land of sorts. They clearly have something to work with but also clearly need something more.
The team made the playoffs for the second straight year, a clear sign of progress for a team still searching for stability even eight years after Dwight Howard left. It confirmed that a surprising 2019 Playoff run was no fluke.
But the 2020 season was still undoubtedly a disappointment. The team went from 42-40 and seventh in the Eastern Conference (making the playoffs on the penultimate game of the season) to 33-40 and eighth in the conference. While the Magic made the playoffs more comfortably in 2020, no one was satisfied with the final result.
At least the team remained a fairly tough five-game out in the postseason, as undermanned as they were.
There is still that one truth though. There is no standing still in the NBA.
Teams are either improving or getting worse. Stagnating may be an important lesson, but it ultimately means the team is turning back.
The Orlando Magic know this. And it felt like this offseason would be a chance to begin shaping the roster for a future that must be brighter than the present.
Instead, the Magic could not find the moves to push the team forward. The starting lineup and most of their roster from last year remain intact.
That may not have been the primary plan, but it is the one the Magic are enacting.
And the question for the team in a league of constant motion is: What are the Magic accomplishing by standing still?
The team re-signed many of its own free agents. The only additions to the roster will be two draft picks — 2019 first-round pick Chuma Okeke and 15th overall selection Cole Anthony — and end-of-the-bench guard Dwayne Bacon.
For a third straight year, Orlando is keeping its roster largely intact. They will be much the same team — with some individual improvements and regressions — we have seen battle for the postseason the last two years.
The Magic could certainly point to injuries as a key cause for their drop-off in 2020. The Magic were never healthy and suffered severe and significant injuries inside the Disney Campus when the season restarted.
Coach Steve Clifford said he used the pandemic hiatus as a chance to jumpstart his offseason, later saying he implemented many of the changes he wanted to make in the run-up to the bubble. He said there were only small tweaks in store for the quick turnaround to the 2021 season.
The Magic have been publicly saying they felt like their team was clicking and playing at a high level at the beginning of the bubble after wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings. But the Jonathan Isaac injury sucked all the oxygen out of the Magic and the team limped to the playoffs and the offseason.
Even then though, the Magic were not likely looking at a season or a finish significantly better than their 2019 efforts.
Orlando was on pace for 39 wins, which considering all the injuries the team faced was not a significant drop-off. The team likely would have finished seventh in the East and taken another unceremonious four- or five-game exit from the playoffs.
Even in the most optimistic views, this is not the kind of progress the Magic needed to make. The Magic talked about potentially contending for home-court at the beginning of the season. Instead, they fell flat against opponents that mattered, going 5-30 against teams with records better than .500 (only the Chicago Bulls had fewer such wins).
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If there was one conclusion the Magic should have made, even without Isaac for most of the year, it should have been that as constructed the Magic did not have enough to compete consistently against high-level opponents. The Magic reached their ceiling as a low-seeded playoff team.
That conclusion should necessitate change. And that conclusion likely has not changed.
Waiting on the change
The disappointment is knowing that this change did not happen this offseason. These changes that seem inevitable have not happened yet.
At some point, the Orlando Magic are going to have to flip the page and move to a new era. That bill is coming due soon with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz’s rookie contracts set to expire next offseason — with potential extensions possible in the coming days.
The question then is more about what the Magic hope to accomplish this year. It already feels like something of a lost year with Isaac likely out for the season with a torn ACL.
Very clearly, this front office believes making the playoffs is valuable as a tool for development. They entered this offseason clearly with a goal of having a team that is playoff capable. They did not bite on any deals that did not include a player coming back — deals for future picks were clearly available to them.
And so the Magic stayed virtually the same. They added two rookies with Lottery-level talent at least in Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony. But the starting lineup will be the same as last year — without Isaac because of the injury.
It is hard to imagine this team doing much more than being at the back end of the playoffs again. Absent Aaron Gordon taking a star leap or one of the Magic’s rookies blossoming quickly into stardom, the Magic are likely staring down the same fate.
And with the Eastern Conference looking much improved, the same team is no guarantee of a return to the playoffs.
In a league of change, staying the same has clearly put the Magic in a worse position. Even if we account for the injuries from last season, it is hard to see the Magic getting much better with this same roster.
In this sense, they have not pushed the team forward. In this sense, they have gone backward.
The Magic will have to prove then that change is not inevitable. But even then, the team’s future is approaching. Staying the same yet again has only made the need for change greater and put the pressure on young players to force it to happen sooner.
This year’s team, as currently constructed, is younger than previous versions. The Magic will need major contributions from rookies and for young players to make major steps up to have a chance at the playoffs.
The Magic’s reticence to change is likely more a sign of biding time to wait for better offers than a desire to resist what must happen.
So everyone is still waiting for this team to put its chips in and pick its course.