The Orlando Magic’s front office made decisions to focus on defense and length. Leaving the team with glaring holes that seem to be growing under pressure.
There seemed to be some soul searching going on as the Orlando Magic pondered their latest loss — a 91-84 slugfest with the New York Knicks. Players were somewhat quiet as they tried to assess this latest loss.
Something was clearly missing. Something was clearly off.
The disappointment was palpable too. The team felt like it had scrapped and fought to get back into the game and took a late lead, only to see it slip through their fingers. They had done so much and yet still had so much left to do.
They certainly pointed the fingers at themselves. The expectations within that team have risen a ton. They expect more of themselves and the kinds of mistakes that cost them this game were ones that were in their control.
Still, when you are at the bottom of a low, it can be hard to see the top. This moment — on a six-game losing streak and playing the worst basketball they have played by almost any measure since Steve Clifford arrived three years ago — will be one that tests the team and whether the team has truly built a new culture.
“That’s the way we’ve got to play,” Aaron Gordon said after Monday’s game. “When the ball is not going in the basket, we’ve still got to be able to defend, we’ve still got to run our offense and create shots. If we continue to create shots and play defense, the ball will start to go in and start looking like how we need to have a chance to win the game.”
The Magic’s problem right now is as much about the way this team was constructed and what is left for the team to work with in the face of all these injuries. This roster is the consequence of the decisions and characteristics that Jeff Weltman valued in trying to fill out a roster that was already flawed and in need of improvement.
He valued length, defensive versatility and familiarity in the last two offseason hoping to build on the successes of the last two seasons. Injuries have derailed that. But the misallocation of assets have forced the Magic to rely on a defense that has not found its legs while leaving a big gap in shooting.
It might well be no one’s fault. But his biggest free-agent acquisition remains Al-Farouq Aminu, a defensive-minded forward who has played only 18 games before a torn meniscus knocked him out of the lineup for more than a year.
Meanwhile, the team continues to struggle to shoot, a skill that makes up for poor rosters. A hot shooting night can beat any good defense. The Magic do not have that to lean on when things are tough as they are now.
Shorthanded facing adversity
When teams face adversity, a team’s weaknesses come out. Even the best general managers get it wrong in the face of dire circumstances — just look at what happened to the Golden State Warriors when they lost Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
The Orlando Magic are undoubtedly shorthanded. Far more shorthanded than any team can truly prepare for.
There is no planning for a season-ending injury to two starters and a prolonged absence to the team’s best shooter and starting shooting guard. The Magic have been hit with injuries at all the spots on the roster they are weakest.
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Shooting is perhaps the best way to cover for these shortcomings most effectively. Yet, shooting is that very weakness the Magic are missing.
Margin for error
After two straight runs to the bottom run of the playoffs by the seemingly the skin of their teeth, the Orlando Magic had to find a way to increase their margin for error. They needed to make it so their games did not rise or fall on the whims of Terrence Ross’ shooting, among a ton of other things.
Orlando needed to find a way to keep a way to play even if others were struggling. The Magic even at full health were a carefully pieced puzzle with everyone needing to play their roles well to have a chance for a big win.
There was only one way to play, not multiple paths to victory.
That is part of the problem of lacking a true superstar to lead the team. It is also the problem that comes from a team with a lack of shooting. That dearth of shooting has been on full display during this losing streak.
The Magic have shown signs of life for the first time since Markelle Fultz’s injury. The team had energetic efforts in Saturday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets and Monday’s loss to the New York Knicks. But both were defeats. And the result is what matters. That is what matters for a team trying to accomplish a goal.
This is not a team looking for or accepting of moral victories. This is a team with playoff aspirations. These losses will hurt. The Magic may well look back at this six-game stretch as something that cost them at the end of the year.
“We hung in there,” Steve Clifford said after Monday’s loss. “They are hard to play against. The game was physical. We weren’t making shots. Yet we stayed with the defense and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
The only focus for the team is how do they get out of it? The weight of trying to figure it out with a rookie point guard starting and other players trying to fit into roles they were not prepared for at the start of the season.
The answer might well be that there is no way out of it. No easy way out of it for sure except for getting healthy again. But that will leave the same problems the Orlando Magic have yet to address.
This Magic team was a flawed team banking on internal growth to accomplish its season goals. It was never meant to withstand the injuries the team has faced.
And it feels like this group has finally snapped. Fight or no fight. But that is all they have to do as a team. They don’t control who is on the team.
“We fought,” Terrence Ross said after Monday’s game. “You’ve got to keep shooting. If you don’t you’re not going to give yourself a chance. That’s the game. You’ve just got to keep playing.”
The climb has been a steady uphill climb all year long.
The team is starting over. And figuring things out on the fly since Markelle Fultz’s injury. They are waiting desperately for Evan Fournier to return from his back spasms and Michael Carter-Williams may not be too far behind him.
The team is not giving up on anything yet. The team is 6-8 and in the middle of the pack fighting for a spot in the early playoff hierarchy.
No team in the Eastern Conference has truly run away yet and the teams in the bottom of the Eastern Conference are bunching up going through alternate stretches of inspired and frustrating play.
This may simply be a trough brought on by circumstance. The Magic might get Evan Fournier back and find their groove again. Enough teams might struggle to afford the Magic this dip and chance to recover.
But one thing is clear. The Magic’s focus on length and defense with nearly all their signings is hurting them. The decisions their front office has made has put them in a position where the season feels on the brink of collapse with no way to adjust on the fly.
The team is doing all it can and frustratingly is still finding out how much more it needs.