Orlando Magic dealing with thin margin for error once again

Terrence Ross' absence this weekend was felt as the Orlando Magic lost a lot of scoring punch. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Terrence Ross' absence this weekend was felt as the Orlando Magic lost a lot of scoring punch. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic rely on every player doing their part in perfect unison. Any injuries can throw that off. And the team is dealing with thin margins again.

The Orlando Magic last season dealt with an unusual amount of injuries.

The team’s preferred starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic played together for only 240 minutes across 19 games. It was still the most-used lineup from the Magic last season.

The rest of the season was held together seemingly with tape and glue.

Fournier gave a yeoman’s effort with Vucevic and Gordon out with ankle injuries in November and December. That 5-6 effort with Vucevic out likely saved the Magic’s hopes of making the playoffs early in the season.

The year always felt like it was on the knife’s edge. The wrong injury to the wrong player could have potentially toppled the whole thing.

Orlando was playing with a small margin for error. It was clear from the way Steve Clifford spoke about the way the team had to play to be successful to the way the team had to scramble to fill in for these injuries.

One of the goals for the Magic this offseason was to give the team more margin for error. The chance to take on these injuries that befall all teams throughout the course of the season and still play the same way or survive.

It is hard to say the Magic did that.

They are relying more on rookies — with Cole Anthony looking to take on a featured role and the likelihood the Magic will need Chuma Okeke to play rotation minutes at some point in the season.

And they have the same cast of characters as last year — both integral to the team’s immediate success but also likely not good enough to get the team past the first round of the playoffs or the bottom of the playoff barrel.

In other words, the team’s margin for error is still very thin. And the team, while having justified playoff aspirations and goals, still could easily fall off with the wrong combination of injuries or regressions.

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Orlando Magic

Orlando hung tough throughout last year despite all the injuries. It was a testament to the way Clifford was able to keep the team together, focused on what they could do and focused on their principles and foundation.

Last season was a testament to the culture and foundation the Magic have built. They survived it all. So no one should count this team out.

The Magic had to find ways to make do with the roster they had after Isaac went down. Not helping matters too was Al-Farouq Aminu’s season-ending injury, taking away as John Hammond put it an entire position from the roster.

In the immediate aftermath of Isaac’s injury on Jan. 1, the Magic went 7-12 to return to 22-31, roughly the same record the Magic had when they began their run in 2019. Orlando did not need to make the same kind of crazed playoff run. But the team was still clearly trying to find its footing with a mismatched roster behind them.

Injuries were a huge story during the 2020 season. A lot of the bet the Magic are making in 2021 season is they will have a better picture of health. They believe their young players will take a step forward — particularly Markelle Fultz — but they also are relying heavily on health.

Still, the Magic are seemingly on the knife’s edge.

Orlando played this weekend down a position again. Both James Ennis and Terrence Ross missed games this weekend, leaving the Magic a bit thin on the perimeter. They started Dwayne Bacon but also used Michael Carter-Williams some at small forward, particularly in Sunday’s game where the Magic played a tighter rotation.

The Magic were already fairly thin at power forward with Aaron Gordon on limited minutes, Gary Clark and Chuma Okeke played more minutes at power forward. And Okeke was clearly on some minute or role restriction as the team eases him back into play.

The team’s top-end, playoff-caliber talent are all important to the team realizing its full potential. And losing one of them creates massive holes elsewhere on the roster.

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Losing Ross completely destroyed any scoring punch off the bench. Unless and until Anthony proves himself as a capable and consistent bench scorer, Ross is the only real offensive option coming off the bench.

Clifford is going to have to manipulate rotations again — just as he did in 2019 and 2020 — to keep starters and scorers on the floor at all times. His rotations are going to be tight nine-man rotations for much of the year and certainly when the season gets serious.

Losing any piece of this puzzle jeopardizes the rest of the puzzle. The team has more depth, but that depth is baked into young players and players coming back from injury.

Already being down Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mohamed Bamba has robbed the team of three rotation-level players. Their replacements — James Ennis, Chuma Okeke and Khem Birch — are capable rotation players, but not necessarily making the same impact these three can potentially make, with the exception of Okeke who is a rookie.

Orlando is facing a thin margin for error once again. They will need all the pieces to fall into place to accomplish their goals. There will be no backing into the playoffs this year — the team will literally have to play their way in with all likelihood.

Every team has a breaking point. Some teams are better able to survive than others.

This Magic team can play with balance and withstand a few injuries here or there. At least, if they are playing their best.

But the team cannot afford too many pitfalls. And losing Ross seems like a potential breaking point at least until Anthony proves himself more.

Next. January will be the Orlando Magic's most challenging month. dark

Orlando is playing with small margins for error once again.