In the aftermath of Markelle Fultz’s injury, some vocal fans began calling for the team to tank the season. This early in the year, that call is ridiculous.
It did not take long for the focus and mood of the season to change. Major injuries will do that.
Markelle Fultz’s torn ACL puts a damper on a season that already had a shadow over it with Jonathan Isaac’s absence for a similarly torn ACL.
The feeling in the immediate aftermath of both injuries was the same. It was the same hushed silence and sense of shock over a promising young player showing signs of tremendous growth suddenly chopped down. The hopelessness that comes with seeing the future put away for another year. Progress will be deferred once again — after years of waiting for something to strike.
The easy path it seems is to give up on the year before it has really started.
It happened after Isaac’s injury just as it happened after Fultz’s this year. One of the key goals for the 2021 season was lost in an instant. And so the season’s purpose to the big picture and the next steps for this franchise, already hampered, was lost again.
And so it was not unusual to see the mentions on @OMagicDaily filled with GIFs of tanks. The news that Aaron Gordon would miss Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets to manage his lingering hamstring injury was met with the same response. As was the 43-point loss the team took Friday night.
That is the wrong thought though. The team is not in a position to tank its season this early. No team is.
Losing Fultz is undoubtedly a challenge. The Orlando Magic are not better without their best players. Just as their defense is undoubtedly harder without Isaac there to clean things up and make the plays that make him a special player.
But the team still has its goals for the 2021 season in front of it. It still has the potential and the ability to make the playoffs and make a push to do something more. The season is still incredibly young and the Magic have gotten off to the fast start they hoped for.
It makes no sense to throw that all away on purpose.
The team still should have players capable of stepping up and contributing to the team. And the Magic muscled through injuries last season to return to the playoffs. Why can’t they do it again?
Let them play
The fact is it is still too early in the season to make any sweeping statements or pronouncements about what a team can do.
Even teams at the bottom of the standings feel confident they can straighten the ship and compete for a playoff spot. The meat of the season is still ahead. No one is too far ahead or too far out of the playoff picture to give up completely.
The Orlando Magic have gotten off to a 6-3 start, one of their best starts since Dwight Howard was around.
But it has largely been doing the same things they did last year to make the playoffs — feasting on teams beneath them in the standings, most of all. And while they still have the same shortcomings, they have established themselves as a team that knows how to make the playoffs.
The team will surely face trials — like this current stretch of eight road games in nine games with the Milwaukee Bucks at home in the middle. The team likely will not be sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference standings for long.
But even that we do not know. They have to play the games, after all. Why not let them play it? If they are as bad as some people think, they will lose and sink anyway. If they are as good as they can be, the Magic will stay in the playoff picture.
Their history in the last few years has earned this team the right to succeed or fail before anyone gives up on them. The season is too young to create a strategy of packing it in and giving up on the season.
There will be hiccups trying to figure out how to play without Markelle Fultz for sure — just look at Friday night’s loss. The team will not be as good as it could have been. But that does not mean they still cannot make something of their season.
That does not mean they are still not good enough to make a run toward the playoffs and compete to the end.
Magic basketball and culture
That is what is central to the Orlando Magic’s identity under Jeff Weltman. They simply do not believe players grow by being gifted minutes. They believe players grow by playing competitive games. It will ultimately be better for everyone — including the returning Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz — if they do so on a team that has expects and knows how to win.
Continuing to compete and play hard even through all these injuries will also send a signal to future acquisitions and free agents about what kind of program and culture the Magic have. Even trying for the playoffs and coming up short will send a clear message as the team plans its next moves.
No one here is expecting this team to make a push for homecourt advantage as undermanned as this group is. We are still talking about very small goals and hurdles to overcome. And there is something to the belief that being in the 7/8 ringer is a futile thing.
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It is a Sisyphean effort rolling that boulder up the hill.
Perhaps this is the time the team gets crushed and falls apart. But even attempting to roll that boulder up the hill is better than simply giving up and letting it crush you.
Hopes for the future
It is natural to seek avenues to find hope.
The Orlando Magic’s two most promising young players are unavailable until at least the start of next season. The team needs better top-end talent. The Draft is as good a bet as any to secure cheap talent. Especially considering the Magic’s current cap situation.
Everyone looking to see the team take a giant leap is still searching for that reason to believe in a grander plan for the future. And certainly president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman still has to answer for that. The injuries have revealed the Magic’s deficiencies in a bigger way — just watch all the missed 3-pointers from their loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday.
The Magic still have big issues to solve. Many of them they punted on in the offseason. The Magic will not be able to defer all these decisions forever.
The better strategy then is not to give up on the season but to hold true to all the team’s goals.
The bad teams do not need help being bad. They will be bad, whether for a lack of talent or bad injury luck or both. Teams eventually find their level in the course of a long and difficult season. This team will too.
The benefit of this strange season will be that the trade deadline will come after the All-Star Break and the first half of the season.
When the team hits the All-Star Break in March, it will have a clear picture of what this team can accomplish. It will have given the team the chance to succeed or fail and show what it can do.
At that point, if it feels like all hope is lost and the playoffs are too far gone, the Magic can begin making moves with the long-term view in mind rather than the short-term view (trading Evan Fournier or Aaron Gordon, for instance).
But no thought should be put toward the franchise purposefully packing it in at this stage. The Magic are still in the thick of the race. And with veterans like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon who are more than capable of stepping up and leading this team, they should still have all of their goals in front of them to achieve.
This team should still be held to a high standard.
The Magic should be focused for now on putting them in the best chance to succeed and giving them the opportunity to do so.
If they are unable to do so around the All-Star Break, the conversation might change. But right now, the team should be focused on banking wins and competing for the postseason yet again. Anything resembling anking should not even be part of the conversation.