The Orlando Magic struggled through the 2020 season, ultimately disappointing with a playoff cameo. The team is eager to pick up and step up in 2021.
The Orlando Magic could feel their momentum building.
It might be wishful thinking, looking back on a season that ultimately ended the same. But the team, finally with some sustained health in an injury-filled season, felt like it had something brewing. Something working that could sustain itself.
That was before everything got taken away.
The coronavirus pandemic put the season on hold in March just as the Magic were soaring — coming home from a 3-1 road trip and facing the easiest part of their schedule in the coming three weeks.
It might not have salvaged an entire season of frustration. But it would have portended a brighter future.
Instead, injuries filled the team again inside the bubble, chopping off any forward momentum. The Orlando Magic went 3-5 in the seeding round and limped through the playoffs, stealing a game against a similarly struggling Milwaukee Bucks team.
The 2020 season was not anything anybody wanted.
It has led to a season where many are expecting the Magic to fall back to the pack, especially with other Eastern Conference teams making major moves and the Magic standing relatively still.
Orlando does not feel that way. The team feels it was on the cusp of figuring things out. And the Magic are eager to show that 2020 was the fluke, not a downward trend of a team hitting its ceiling.
"“I don’t think last year was a good measure of where we were at,” Aaron Gordon said in a media teleconference Thursday. “I believe we were going to be higher than the 8-seed. There was going to be an improvement there and it got cut short. I think we have a really good ball club. I think we’re smart. I think we have depth to us and have all the necessary tools to make noise in the East and show much more improvement.”"
If the season had ended normally, that might very well have been the case.
Piecing it all together
The Orlando Magic would point to its soaring offense — 117.8 points per 100 possessions in the 10 games from the All-Star Break until the season went on hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic. They might also say their defense, struggling in equal parts during that same time, was starting to come around.
The last game they played before the shut down was a spirited 15-point comeback in Memphis against the Memphis Grizzlies. No team does that against a playoff-caliber team on the road without strong defense.
Orlando was piecing things together and finally playing with the pace and aggression they had sought.
There was no picking this right back up when the team went into the bubble — although in the eight seeding round games, the Magic posted a 111.7 offensive rating which was 11th among the 22 teams that played. And there will be no picking things right back up as the next season begins.
Injuries filled the team in the bubble too.
The wind under the team’s sails was taken out when Jonathan Isaac went down with his torn ACL. Quickly after that Evan Fournier missed practice with a non-COVID illness that slowed him down throughout, Terrence Ross had to leave the bubble after a health scare and miss time, Michael Carter-Williams and Aaron Gordon both had injuries that kept them from returning for the playoffs.
It all added up to keep the team from reaching its potential.
"“It was disappointing,” Gordon said in a teleconference Thursday. “I think everything in me in my nature was telling me to wrap it up and go out there and play anyways. I’m really glad that I have a conscientious coaching staff and training staff that told me to relax and come back healthy for this year. I’m finally starting to feel better from the hamstring and I’ll be ready to go. It was difficult to cheer my team from the sideline knowing we could have had a 1-8 upset.”"
Carter-Williams expressed the same frustration. He said his goal this year was to play in all 72 games after missing 28 games last year with various injuries throughout the season.
Injuries were such a dominant storyline from last year. It is hard to talk about the team without that context. The team’s preferred starting lineup played only 240 minutes together in 19 games last year — the team’s preferred starting lineup played 852 minutes in 33 games in 2019.
That is why there is still some optimism the team can piece everything together and reach the potential they believe they had in 2020. To them, last year’s Magic team was nowhere near its zenith.
Orlando is back to being something of an underdog. The team has long been overlooked in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. And with the changes teams made beneath them in the standings, the Magic are not considered a sure bet to make the postseason again.
That still remains the goal for the team. They still have belief in themselves and in their group.
But these were also all the same things said at this time last year. If the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results, the Magic are quickly falling into the trap.
Fans certainly feel it. Perhaps the team does too. There should be an urgency to make the most of this year.
And this is why the Magic are relying on themselves.
"“The goal remains the same,” Fournier said in a media teleconference Thursday. “It’s really to keep getting better. Obviously, we are going to start the season with a different roster. But the goal is always to play Magic basketball. To be a tough team to play against and have a defensive mindset. It never changes. Years and roster are obviously different, but the mindset stays the same.”"
That is the foundation the Magic hoped to build. The identity they hoped to cement.
It has been good enough with this group to get them into the playoff conversation. Last year was meant to be a step forward.
So many things derailed them from that goal. But it still falls on them to produce better results.
This 2021 season is not redemption for a frustrating and disappointing 2020 season. It is going to be a continuation and proof of their maturation and growth — using that setback as a chance to grow.
So far it seems everyone is eager to get back into the gym and defend their spot. Whether they can truly take that next step will depend on how much they learned and how much they are willing to sacrifice to get there.