The Orlando Magic are struggling to shift away from Markelle Fultz’s injury and become a new team. This is like a new preseason for the team.
A lot happens in training camp.
The foundations for a team and the way they will function gets laid down. It is not merely about basic sets and plays and knowing where to go and where to be. It is an overarching philosophy. It is the trust teammates gain from playing with each other and learning through trial and error where everyone is going to be in the moments that matter.
The foundation that gets built in these weeks leading into the beginning of the season helps the team learn how it needs to play and what it needs to do when things are not going right. The kind of buy-in and cohesion a team needs gets built in these early days.
They find out exactly what they can rely on and the determination and confidence to go to it when they need to reach down for it.
The Orlando Magic, by all accounts, had a great training camp in December. The team was mostly back and so had cut out some of the learning curve other teams were going through. Orlando could jump right in, helping new players along the way.
That showed in the early season games. When the Orlando Magic met adversity as they did in the fourth quarter of their opener against the Miami Heat or the fourth quarter against the Washington Wizards and they overcame it. They dug deep and stuck to who they are.
They trusted themselves. They trusted each other. They trusted their gameplan. And they had the confidence to execute it.
Right now, the team does not have that trust. Look no further than what happened in the fourth quarter of the Orlando Magic’s 121-99 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
"“I thought we had the game right there,” coach Steve Clifford said after the game. “We played a good first three quarters. The game was the three and a half minutes of the fourth quarter. Just poor possessions on offense, lack of purpose, fouling on the other end of the floor. All of a sudden it was nine and then the turnovers hit.”"
The Magic scratched and clawed to make it a two-point game early in the fourth only for their offense to go completely empty. Through five turnovers (for 10 points) and missed shots, the Magic could not solve their issues and watched the Bucks catch fire to turn a tight game into a blowout.
Suddenly heads dropped and it was easy to see frustration creep in. Worse than that, it was easy to see the team not making the second and third efforts needed to beat a team like the Bucks.
In a moment where Orlando needed something to lean on — whether it was a pet play for a score or to trust themselves to get a stop — the team could not find it. It did not know where to look.
Back to Camp
As Steve Clifford put it so poignantly after the loss Saturday: This team needs a few days of practice just to find themselves again.
The Orlando Magic team playing today is different than that team a week ago. The season-ending injury to Markelle Fultz especially has changed the personality of this team completely. Many of their plans and ideas for the season got turned on its head. No one else on the team can quite do the things he does.
They got bull-rushed in a blowout loss to the Houston Rockets. They showed more fight against the Dallas Mavericks the next night. And they showed that same fight against the Milwaukee Bucks.
But in both of those losses, the Magic crumbled in the fourth quarter. Their spurts of good play providing only hope of what they can still be — a sign the season is not totally lost.
But in winning time when teams tighten the screws, the Magic do not have the trust and faith in themselves. This is something that can only be gained through time and success, through hard work and understanding.
So many players are playing new roles — from Aaron Gordon playing more of a playmaking role or Cole Anthony now as a starter or Terrence Ross carrying the second unit completely alone now — they have to learn and trust these roles all over again.
The big shift
It is hard to understate how much of a monumental shift this is for the team.
The Orlando Magic were hoping to play at a quickened pace to start the season with Markelle Fultz pulling teams apart with his driving and passing ability. Now the team seemingly has to think about slowing the game down, playing through their passing big man and trying to limit possessions to make up for their lack of offensive options.
The more the team can get its half-court defense set up the better. That is still what the team wants to be its bread and butter — although so far this season, the Magic rank 17th in the league in defensive rating and now are in the bottom-5 in the league in net rating, suggesting this team has not reached the bottom of its losing streak at the team’s current rate of play.
The team was rounding into form defensively just before Fultz’s injury. There have been long stretches of good play. But then enough stretches of breakdowns to bury the Magic. Stats overall have not completely settled down although we are nearing the quarter-pole of the season.
Orlando’s defensive effort and attention to detail have to greatly improve for this team to have any chance of success this season. This is the thing that has lagged the most this season and now that Orlando has lost its offensive groove from the start of the season it is getting exposed.
The unforced errors the Magic made in the fourth quarter and poor shot selection turned a run from the Bucks into a blowout and ultimately a frustrating defeat. This is all stuff that gets built during training camp.
"“When you play a team like the Bucks, your margin for error is very little,” Nikola Vucevic said after Monday’s game. “We felt like we played OK for three quarters and we were right there. In the fourth, we just made too many mistakes on both ends of the floor. They are a team that will take advantage of it. They are a team that has been there before. We have to be better in those situations to win the game.”"
Orlando right now is playing like it is the preseason. This is a team still making training camp mistakes because the players are still figuring out who they are and what they need to do to succeed. The team does not have much it can trust consistently right now.
This is something that is going to have to grow over time. The Magic will continue to get better.
The question is how much better can the team get and how quickly can it get there. How many losses will the team have to sacrifice?
Steve Clifford clearly holds the team to a high standard. And he should. This team should still have its playoff goals. He expects them to do more than make progress each night, even if he understands there are going to be growing pains along the way.
The kind of change the Magic are facing inevitably forces the team to get back to basics. Simplifying things could well help them begin to rediscover who they are.
And when that happens, they will have the confidence and faith to withstand the bad times. They will have trust in themselves to get things back. And they will be able to fight through these struggles to win these kinds of games when things start to go wrong.
That is the point the Magic have to get to. That is the point that still feels so far away.