The Orlando Magic are predicted to fight for the final playoff spot. But the team has bigger goals in mind as they prepare to begin another year.
Nobody knows what to do with the Orlando Magic when they are looking ahead to the NBA season.
It is not like this is quietly a team people are predicting to jump into the title picture. The optimistic predictions from last year that this team could compete for homecourt advantage have largely subsided.
But in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, nobody has a firm grasp on where to place the Magic. If they are not outright dismissing them.
Even among the Magic fan base, persuading them that the team could make a third straight trip to the postseason has sometimes been difficult. There is a fear the floor will drop out from under this team.
For sure, the Magic with how little the team did to transform the roster — really only adding two rookies in Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke and a bench player in Dwayne Bacon. It is hard to see the team taking that step up after struggling last year.
And to a national media that rarely watches the Magic, that inactivity is not going to convince them they are going to maintain their spot. Not with other teams making bigger splashes with more marquee players.
The Magic are just kind of there — good enough to keep from the extreme bottom fo the standings, but not good enough to be considered a threat.
The going thought on the Magic is they are stuck in neutral. A team with talent that will have them perpetually stuck in the middle and few top-end prospects that can lift them beyond it.
To say the least, the Magic would need a surprising turn to change these opinions. Someone — whether it be Markelle Fultz or Cole Anthony or Jonathan Isaac (next season) — would have to change this opinion.
The team’s goals and expectations are still the same regardless of the doubts and noise outside their bubble.
"“I think we want to obviously make the playoffs,” Michael Carter-Williams said after practice Monday. “We want to go past the first round. We have been to the first round two years in a row now. I think we have high expectations for ourselves. We want to compete with the best teams. We want to hit our stride early. We dig ourselves into a little bit of a hole and then we hit a stretch where we are playing really well. I think we are looking for that stretch earlier in the year to give us some wiggle room coming down the stretch.”"
Playing well to start the season has been something everyone on the team has talked about after slow starts in both 2019 and 2020 necessitated stronger runs around the All-Star Break to solidify their playoff spot.
The team has a goal of advancing up the Eastern Conference ladder and they want to build some cushion. Certainly, with the way their schedule is constructed, they know they have to bank some wins early — especially after a mid-January road trip.
Whether they can or not is something that a lot of people are doubting. A lot of people are doubting their ability to make the playoffs.
ESPN’s trio of predictions are anywhere from 28 to 35 wins for the upcoming season. One prediction has the Magic at 31 wins, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference. The network’s Basketball Power Index has the Magic at seventh in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric has the Magic finishing with 35 wins for ninth in the Eastern Conference.
The consensus at least from the outside is that there will be far more competition for those final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. And while the Magic appear to be favorites to make the play-in tournament, their prospects of making the actual playoff field is certainly a bit dicier.
The Magic certainly know and understand the challenge will be tougher. They also know and understand that after two straight years in the playoffs, making it back and exiting after one round is no longer the goal.
"“I always say to them that the NBA is about playoff success,” coach Steve Clifford said after practice Monday. “In individual meetings with four or five of the guys who were here last year, I let them know that making the playoffs is not going to be enough. As you have even relative success, expectations go up. That’s part of the NBA.”"
Others might not believe in their chances of doing so. But that is why they play the games.
The Magic will have to have a lot of things break their way to get there — most of all another All-Star-level season from Nikola Vucevic, a repeat career season from Evan Fournier and significant growth from Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon. Getting major contributions from rookies Anthony and Okeke are also potential wild cards that could change the team’s fortunes and potential.
A lot has to happen. Not that it is impossible. But seeing all those pieces fall into place feels unlikely, at best.
With virtually the same roster, it feels like a fairly safe bet the Magic will finish around the 30-win mark, perhaps matching last year’s 33-win season or doing a bit better with better health than they had last year.
To do that though, the team is focusing on taking things one day at a time, as cliche as that sounds.
"“I think for us it is always about today,” Fournier said after practice Monday. “Obviously we are looking ahead to the game on Wednesday. The main goal is to play one game after the other and play the best basketball we can play. I’ve said after the bubble, what we need to do is put ourselves in a better position in the regular season. The key for us is to take one game after the other. And it starts on Wednesday.”"
The goal for the last few weeks was to have a good training camp. Unlike last year, Clifford said he believes his team had a good camp and got better as it went on.
The team may not be where it is for a regular start to the season, but Clifford seems pleased with the progress the team has made. Only time will tell with the season opener where the team is at.
There is a lot on their mind and there are big goals the Magic are trying to accomplish this season. Even if the noise on the outside is doubting or downplaying their chances.
The rest of the league may not know what to do with the Magic fully. But Orlando knows what they are capable of and what they want to accomplish.