The Orlando Magic are selling continuity as a potential strength as they try to make the playoffs for a third straight year. It will take more than that.
Last year, the Orlando Magic looked at their 2019 playoff roster and saw a team that had plenty of potential for growth.
They made their first playoff trip in six years and it would have been hard to break that team up by letting two key players walk in free agency. The rest of the key players on the roster were still young and unproven enough that they could bank on some growth.
Continuity was a rallying cry for the team. It was something they felt could give them a leg up on their competition. They would not be starting completely from scratch.
Maybe continuity did eventually help the Magic. But injuries early in the preseason derailed things too much. Orlando never got that benefit as they struggled some out of the gate.
The Magic never made good on the promise of 2020. They left the season with a fairly empty feeling — limping to the finish line inside the bubble at the end.
The offseason was met with questions, but the Magic largely sat still. They added a few rookies in Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke. But this is largely the same squad that went 33-40 and finished eight in the Eastern Conference.
Success in 2021 is going to depend on the strength of continuity once again.
"“We have a core of guys back that are comfortable with the way we do things,” coach Steve Clifford said during a media teleconference Tuesday. “There are things we will add like we do every year that will be new for everybody. My point to them as I’m talking to them as they come in here, if we want to have the type of year where we are a surprise team in the East, then continuity has to be a major strength.”"
If that feels like something similar to what Clifford said before last season, it is not too far off from the narrative the team set last year.
The front office has taken some criticism for this decision. The team stagnated in 2020, merely only holding its spot from last year. Injuries played a role in that. But the team stared down its ceiling.
Change seemed like it was necessary. And the Magic waited, leaving all those questions hanging in the air.
Rush to the start
Part of that thought process might very well be the conditions the league is entering this season. The NBA is rushing through training camp to get the season started before Christmas and the money that comes with that date specifically.
Teams around the NBA do not have the luxury of a regular offseason, which would normally include optional workouts in September where the team begins installing its offense and defense to get a jump start on training camp.
Coach Steve Clifford points to that period in 2019 as the jump start to the team’s playoff run, laying the foundations and belief that became that huge run. No team will have any of that. And so whether a team is successful or not might depend on how quickly they pick up where they left off.
And if they have a bunch of new players and have to start off from square one. That gives a team like the Magic something of an advantage.
"“It helps us in a way that we are familiar with each other,” Nikola Vucevic said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Most of us have been here for a couple of years. There is that familiarity and that helps. Hopefully, it will help some of the younger guys coming in settle in easier. We’ll see. You just never know. Each season is different.”"
That does not mean everything will be automatic. The Magic had problems to solve before the offseason began. This team still has something of a ceiling that it is trying to break through after two straight years making first-round cameos.
The team finished the year 23rd in offensive rating, scoring 107.9 points per 100 possessions. But the team saw positive signs after the All-Star Break, posting the top offense in the league for the 10 games before the league went on hiatus, at 117.8 points per 100 possessions.
During that time though, the Magic’s defense cratered. It dropped to 115.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, 26th in the league. Orlando finished the year at 109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, tied for 10th in the league.
The Magic wanted to build their playoff trip and their potential growth on a top-10 defense and an offense in the top half of the league. Orlando still has work to do to accomplish this goal.
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As Clifford put it: Balanced play wins in this league. Orlando still needs to find balance with the players they have.
Clifford said he believes the players they acquired help them solve some of these problems. He is confident that Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and Dwayne Bacon have the scoring, shooting and basketball IQ to fill in and help the team — if not at the beginning of the season than gradually as the year goes on.
Getting there is going to take a lot of work though. Not just from the new players but from the returning players. They are going to have to lift the team significantly.
The team still has to put all the pieces together.
"“I think there are small adjustments, I think a big part of that can be continuity where we have so many guys back,” Clifford said Tuesday. “We had stretches last year, where we were really good on defense and really good on offense. But what we didn’t do consistently was when we scored, our defense wasn’t as good and when we defended we didn’t score as well. Getting to balanced play more consistently is the key for any NBA team.”"
Adapt to change
Still, as the season approaches, it is not clear what it is going to look like or who will make it through. There are still so many unknowns. Every team is going to have to go through some challenges that will be unlike the challenges from any other season.
Players are going to have to be adaptable. There might be a time where a starter has to miss a week because of a positive test or potential exposure. And players will have to step in. There is no way to prepare for it.
This is what has happened in the other leagues too. MLB, NFL and MLS have all dealt with various issues with COVID-19 and have had to navigate a way to get through their seasons. All have been successful — with some hiccups — to this point with MLB crowning a champion, MLS reaching their playoffs and the NFL moving forward toward the end of its season.
Sir Charles In Charge
Steve Clifford is spending the early days of practice just focused on getting guys playing. But the potential disruption to rhythm is something the team is concerned. All they can do is plan and hope for the best.
Clifford said though he is happy with the attitude the players have so far. They seem to be in a good place and ready to start formal training camp this weekend. That attitude will take the team a long way.
Players will have to be more prepared and focused than ever before to get through all of this. There may be stretches where players are not able to practice. Even the shortened time will require focus so the team can make the most of its time.
It will be a tough year.
Focused on the finish
And through it all, the Orlando Magic are still trying to make the playoffs. A spot that everyone seems to doubt they can retain.
It is still about themselves if they are trying to get back to the postseason.
"“On paper it always looks different than how you get on the court and play,” Nikola Vucevic said Tuesday. “I think for us, we just have to focus on ourselves, try to grow as a team, try to build a way that we can play and sustain for 72 games and see where that takes us. Hopefully we won’t have as many injuries as we had last year. But we’ll see. The good thing is we do have a lot of guys returning so we will have that familiarity. Other teams have gotten better, so it’s going to be tougher.”"
The Magic are going to have to count on each other to get there. They know the goals are still there.
And there is work to do. They just hope they are ahead of the game in a way they were not last year.