The Orlando Magic believe their time in the NBA campus was good with the potential for the team to grow. But it also showed how fragile the team is.
The approach Clifford took was to treat the bubble as something of a mini-training camp. He spent the hiatus while the league went into quarantine and shutdown to evaluate his roster and gameplan, turning it into a mini-offseason. As the league ramped up, he promised he would begin implementing tweaks as if it were a new training camp.
The practices in those early days in the bubble were like a training camp. The focus for the Magic was put on playing and trying to rebuild conditioning. The team slowly implemented new sets.
Clifford said he was only planning small tweaks for the beginning of this season with little time to hit camp and ramp up for games to start counting on Dec. 22.
With few changes, the Magic are likely hoping that some things will carry over. How they played in the bubble is likely similar to how they will play when the season begins.
Because Orlando largely liked what it saw from the bubble. At least while the team was healthy.
That is at least what they have been selling. And there were indeed positive signs within the campus.
But injuries depleted the team far too much to draw conclusions. And most of the success the Magic experienced came with players who are no longer on the roster — most notably D.J. Augustin — or not available this season.
The bubble experience — a 3-5 record with all those injuries — was not something entirely to celebrate. It showed how fragile the team can be and how quickly the team can lose the wind under its sails.
The Magic had to mix and match a lot of lineups inside the bubble. But things were pointing toward success.
Of the Magic’s 10-most used lineups inside the bubble (during the seeding round at least), seven had a positive net rating. One had a +0.0 net rating, breaking even. The team did do some very good things.
But it is hard to draw too many conclusions for a number of reasons.
The bubble was almost certainly its own thing. The conditions were unique and teams were at different stages in getting back to full health and conditioning to play the games.
It felt like then that the Magic picked up where they left off in March. The offense was flowing and the team was playing at a breakneck pace. It was still clear the team was not at full strength too. Jonathan Isaac was still working his way back, but so too was Markelle Fultz who was late arriving in the bubble.
The Magic had a 124.4 offensive rating with a +11.9 net rating in those first two games. Granted, the Nets and Kings were both teams with records worse than .500. The Magic never got to test themselves in the way they wanted. Isaac’s injury deflated their confidence and the air under their wings.
The Magic were not necessarily ahead of that curve. But they took advantage of a relatively soft schedule and played well. their confidence was brimming. And after the shock of Isaac’s injury wore off, it felt like the Magic were grinding and staying in the fight.
Clifford said he thought the Magic played well inside the campus. Outside of the second game against the Brooklyn Nets and Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks, he felt the team competed. They just did not have the ability to sustain themselves for 48 minutes.
It is still tough to say what the Magic will carry over from these successes, as small as they might have been.
The issue here is that many of those lineups used players who are no longer on the roster or are unavailable for the 2021 season — every one of those 10-most used lineups contained D.J. Augustin, Jonathan Isaac or Wesley Iwundu. That is at least a sign of how injury-depleted the Magic were.
And the sample sizes were too small to draw conclusions because of all those injuries — the most used lineup in the seeding round played only 63 minutes together.
In the end, the injuries completely depleted the Magic within the bubble. And they could not overcome all the losses — Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams missed the entire postseason with injuries sustained during the seeding round, Evan Fournier had an illness that kept him out of practice and clearly affected his ability to play.
The Magic were projected to finish 3-5 regardless. Clifford was able to stitch the team together enough to meet those expectations. But it was also clear how much the Magic struggled to compete. The time in the bubble was ultimately a disappointment.
While there were positive signs and Clifford will surely find a way to get the most of his team, the bubble showed how limited the Magic were as a team back then. And obviously this offseason, the Magic did little to improve the roster on paper, at least.
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The way the team played in the bubble showed how fragile things can be. The Magic were riding high one moment and then it all came crashing down and they did not have the personnel to recover fully. The Magic ultimately were not a team to be feared.
Ultimately, Orlando’s starting lineup last year — Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, James Ennis, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic — had a -11.0 net rating in 100 minutes for the entire season. Even that group did not get a lot of time playing together.
But those results are not encouraging. And the Magic are rolling with that lineup again this year with a bench that likely will not be as strong with Augustin signing with the Bucks.
The team will have its work cut out for it. And simply rehashing what the team did last year in the bubble is not going to get the job done. Injuries or not.
Without the backstop of reliable veterans off the bench, the Magic are in something of a fragile state. Things fell apart quickly in the bubble with one injury — a traumatic and devastating one emotionally at that — halted all the positive momentum the team had built.
This season might play out the same way things did in the bubble in the end. The Magic are going to have to manage their emotions and survive injuries during this strange season.
The Magic enter this season confident they can make tweaks to improve the team and gain confidence. But it is also clear this confidence is fragile and can topple over quickly. And those raw results from the bubble are not all the encouraging in the larger picture.
Clifford will have to find a way to emphasize the good that he saw in those early bubble days.
This season will feature the same struggles the Magic saw in the bubble. The hope is they can handle them better this time around.