The Orlando Magic trust they will be ready for the season after a good preseason and confidence in what they are building.
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has high standards for his team. That is how he has become a coach known for helping teams build their foundation and grow from bottom-rung teams to playoff contenders.
He demands and expects a serious approach to the game and is able to get the most out of his teams.
Getting to this point is a process that typically starts from the time the team gathers for summer workouts and mini-camps in September until the end of the season. One thing the Magic can certainly say after two years with Clifford is they tend to get the better as the season goes on, playing their best basketball as the season comes to an end.
If this trend continues, the Magic are hoping to give themselves a stronger base to build from so they are not scrambling to make the playoffs. That journey though starts with a single step and having a good training camp.
Even with all the restrictions and uncertainty facing this season, the Magic feel ready to get things started.
"“I think we’re in better shape to start out the season,” Michael Carter-Williams said after practice Monday. “I think we’re way far ahead of where were our last two seasons. We’ve played together a little bit now so we have that experience.”"
Last season, the Magic did not have a good training camp by Clifford’s own admission. The team stumbled out of the gate despite returning virtually the same roster.
Injuries were part of that story. Several players were not able to participate fully in that camp. So too was perhaps the weight of rushed expectations. Everyone was trying to find their fit again.
Steve Clifford ended up making a lineup change to try to create some spark — adding Markelle Fultz permanently into the starting lineup possibly faster than anyone imagined — as he tried desperately to find stability.
Then injuries completely overtook the team. They were not able to find any real rhythm again until close to the All-Star Break. The forgiving Eastern Conference gave them the chance to return to the playoffs and the team took it.
If not for the coronavirus pandemic putting the season on hold, Orlando might have found a true, sustainable way to play offense and finished strong enough to finish seventh. They might have done the same if not for Jonathan Isaac’s injury in the bubble.
Orlando is hoping some of what the team learned from those two moments and from last year as a whole will carry over to this year.
After all, Clifford spent the entire training camp last year saying that each team is new and a coach has to treat each team differently. The only thing familiarity and continuity might be able to do is speed through the process of re-learning the team’s offensive and defensive schemes.
The nature of this offseason certainly made things a bit different. But Carter-Williams said he felt the continuity has helped the team get ahead of where they were last year.
Getting back to a regular routine will help tamp down some of the irregularities of this season. Evan Fournier said things have felt somewhat normal.
But the big challenge has been having the right attitude to get ready for the season through it all.
"“I think the mental aspect of it plays a huge part,” Evan Fournier said after practice Monday. “I think if you are looking forward to playing and you are looking forward to starting things again, you have a lot of energy and you can go fast through the fatigue. If you are dragging your feet just to go to practice and feel like you had a short offseason, that’s where stuff can get hard for you. Attitude has a lot to play with how you feel and how you attack things right now. Attitude has been good for us so far.”"
Clifford has been pleased with the team’s training camp and feels the group has accomplished its main goal — to continue getting better and back into rhythm. The preseason was a bit uneven for several reasons. But largely the team showed signs of its progress.
The team’s final preseason game was the best the team had played to this point, in his estimation. He did not get to play everyone their normal minutes or rotation, but that is part of the problem of a condensed offseason.
"“It was the best that we played and the best defense that we played,” Clifford said after practice Monday. “All of that is a positive. Normally, even if you had six preseason games, the last couple you would play with guys playing regular minutes and try to get to rotations. We didn’t chance to do that. Looking at the box scores, I don’t think many other teams did either.”"
The team is also getting healthier, although it will not be fully healthy for the start of the season.
Steve Clifford said James Ennis will miss the season opener Wednesday and likely the weekend games against the Washington Wizards. Mohamed Bamba started practicing with the team late last week and did the most contact he has done to this point Monday, playing eight straight minutes during the team’s scrimmage.
The Magic continue to be cautious with both knowing how brutal and challenging this season’s schedule will be and how tricky their injuries are to recover from and stay in the lineup with.
The Magic know they will need everyone ready. And at this point, Clifford said he will plan to start the season with a 10-man rotation with the hopes of dropping down to his preferred nine-man rotation later in the season.
The team feels like they have put themselves in the best position they can be to be ready for the season. Nothing is perfect yet, but they are ready to play.
"“I think we’re all just excited to play,” Fournier said. “It has been a long offeason. I thas been a weird year. We finally get to play at home. It has been a while. I think we’re all happy.”"
But they trust they have done what they need to have a solid season.
It is still important to remember that this is only the first step for the team. And there is a lot more work ahead.