The Orlando Magic have started off the season winning five of its first seven games, placing the Playoff-or-bust expectations on everyone in the organization.
They started off undefeated.
No, this is not the prohibitive-favorite Los Angeles Lakers led by LeBron James or the Brooklyn Nets led by two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant.
Nope, this Orlando Magic team shocked just about everyone in NBA circles by starting off the season 4-0. Even after two losses, the team is still making pundits scratch their heads about the Magic (5-2) having the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
The range of thoughts on this team go from outright dismissal — Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer ranked the Magic 23rd in his power rankings last week despite the 4-0 record and Sam Quinn of CBS Sports was going apoplectic about the Magic’s penchant for shooting mid-range jumpers to jump-start their offense — to curiosity about the Magic’s chances of improving.
Even as early as it is in the season, no one predicted the Magic would sit at second in the Eastern Conference and the Brooklyn Nets at 10th at any point in the season. Many probably thought it would be vice versa.
But that is not the reality. Not at this extremely early stage of the season.
Now the reality for this organization is to capitalize on their fast start and maintain steadiness in the muddied Eastern Conference in a season that clearly has been affected by the global pandemic.
The Magic’s success has still felt precarious. The team struggled offensively in losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Magic’s effective field goal percentage has already dropped to last in the league at 49.1-percent.
The team still does not have a bailout player and while Nikola Vucevic is playing like an All-Star yet again, the Magic are clearly balancing on the knife’s edge as they try to push their way up the standings and keep the place they have staked early in the season.
Can the Magic keep winning and achieve their goals in 2021 without a superstar player? Is that the missing piece to sustain this hot start? Or is this Magic team destined for a fall as other teams settle in during this season?
The organization has proven they do not need one of these types of superstar players in order to make consecutive playoff appearances, just a willing bunch of individuals willing to play together as a team for the greater good of the franchise.
Nikola Vucevic has certainly stepped up his game after his star turn in the Playoffs last season. Vucevic is averaging 21.7 points per game so far this season. That would be a career-best if it continues. He is shooting an astounding 60.5-percent effective field goal percentage and grabbing 11.0 rebounds per game.
Vucevic’s expansion to the 3-point line — he is averaging 5.4 3-point field goal attempts per game, which would be a career-high — has increased his scoring and expanded his offensive game.
The Magic are leaning on Vucevic even more as a safety valve in the offense. He is about the only thing in the offense that has been consistent and he has carried the Magic through some games with an expanding array of post moves in addition to his shooting.
But no one will still confuse with Vucevic as a player who can carry a team. He might be establishing his All-Star case early on, but he is not among the top players in the league — the guys who truly make an impact deep into Playoff series.
But even without a superstar player on the roster the franchise has developed winning expectations for this season after securing the seventh seed in 2019 and the eighth seed in 2020.
Those two years the Magic started off the first seven games of the season with a losing record of 2-5 and put them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Magic were making up ground from the start.
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The Magic went under the radar and made the Playoffs and were never thought of as a team that would host a Playoff series. But the team had to rally each time.
This year is different. Orlando has put a focus on getting off to a better start. They want to play from ahead rather than make up ground later in the season.
Even with some hiccups and things to clean up, they have largely done that.
This is a significant improvement to the attention to detail at the beginning of the year and a particular focus on how taking every game seriously and winning at the beginning of the year can affect the Playoff seeding in the long run. A lot of that credit has to go to Steve Clifford.
Now instead of the expectation of making the Playoffs, the Magic have expectations and dreams of a particular seed, and it looks like they have set their goals pretty high and are attempting to be a top-five Eastern Conference team in 2021.
The Magic would love to host a Playoff series instead of being the visitor but the only way to do so is to remain among the Eastern Conference elite at the end of the year. This will be hard to accomplish with the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics all predicted to finish with the top four seeds in that order.
The Philadelphia 76ers have established themselves as the best team in the East in the early going and plenty of other teams are jockeying for positioning too. It will not be easy and the Magic have work to do to maintain their spot — currently the Magic 15th in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating and ninth in the league in net rating.
There is work to do to maintain consistency and signs the Magic can both continue to succeed at this rate and falter and fall off. But the team has put itself in the position to have this conversation this year rather than trying to figure out fundamental things and make up ground later.