Orlando Magic breaking at the seams as their project comes undone

Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic are struggling to do the basic things as their season begins to slip away. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic and the Orlando Magic are struggling to do the basic things as their season begins to slip away. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

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It is time to stare into the mirror for the Orlando Magic.

What kind of team do they want to be? What do they want to make of the rest of their season? What did the last two years mean in rebuilding the franchise?

Whatever this team’s identity was from the last two years, is no longer present. The team is no longer doing the very things that gave them a shred of respectability. The things that helped lift them finally into playoff contention and were meant to be building blocks for their future. The kind of things that are supposed to last through injuries, absences and anything else.

This group resembles nothing of the past two years. Instead, this is a team that is seemingly lost and struggling to find consistency. The bad habits of losing teams starting to creep in and infect the team.

Orlando is ripping apart from the seams and the team’s season is quickly falling apart.

"“Where to start? There are a lot of things, but I really feel like it needs to start with our spirit,” Evan Fournier said after Sunday’s 115-102 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “We are obviously going through a tough time. Things aren’t easy for us. But I feel like it’s very heavy on us. Of course, we need to do better defensively, we need to do better offensively and I need to make shots. But I think it starts with the way we approach everything. I think we need to change that.”"

The Orlando Magic are in free fall down the Eastern Conference standings. Worse still, the team resembles nothing of the gritty team that escaped the league’s basement the last two years.

The Magic have faced their share of major injuries this year. The team the Magic are fielding each night is not the team they imagined they would play. Perhaps a fully healthy Magic squad would have been able to sustain the hot start they were on.

But this poor play that has led to 11 losses in Orlando’s past 13 games suggests something deeper. Something far more concerning.

Coach Steve Clifford said it best, the team is not going to do better until it plays better. The disappointing thing as the Magic try to recover from Markelle Fultz’s devastating injury is they are not getting better.

Worse still, things seem to be getting worse. The Magic are losing by double-digits regularly and forsaking the things that built their playoff runs in 2019 and 2020.

The Magic’s playoff dreams are not completely dashed. The team is 8-13 and only one-half game out from qualifying for the play-in tournament, 1.5 games back of the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth-seed and three games back of the Atlanta Hawks for sixth.

The standings would tell you the Magic are far from eliminated. And the team has to keep that mindset.

But the play on the court would suggest otherwise.

Offensive struggles

The Orlando Magic’s latest loss followed an all-too-familiar pattern.

The team got off to a slow start, falling behind by double-digits from the start. They never really got back into the game, cutting the lead down to five at one point in the second quarter, but giving up that lead quickly.

The offense, ranked 28th in the league in offensive rating, looked disjointed and out of sync. The Raptors were able to clog the middle, not concerned with the team’s shooting or ball movement. Orlando had 22 assists on its 33 field goals in the game. But the Magic were struggling to generate good looks.

There were good moments, but they were few and far between. The Magic have changed how they play offense and it is not merely just Fultz’s absence.

"“We were playing with pace,” Cole Anthony said after Sunday’s game. We were moving the ball and everything was fast. We weren’t thinking much, we were just playing basketball. That’s when I think we are at our best when we are playing fast and smart. The more we do that, the better I think this team can be.”"

Somehow, 3-point shooting was the only thing saving the Magic for much of the game as they could not hit a shot near the rim or inside the arc. And Anthony was right, when the team could get into its flow, the offense was working.

The Magic entered the season talking about increasing their pace behind Fultz. But they have undoubtedly slowed their pace down as they play more through Aaron Gordon as the initiator and as they seemingly try to protect Cole Anthony as a rookie ballhandler.

It seems the team is eager to pick up its pace more. But the team has to do that better and stick with it.

Defensive inconsistency

More concerning then has been the inconsistency defensively.

The Orlando Magic, a top-10 defense for much of the last two seasons, has dropped to 21st in the league in defensive rating. The Magic looked disconnected defensively throughout the game. For long stretches, the team was late to get out to rotations or struggling to make the right decisions and reads on where to be to cover the next rotation.

Steve Clifford’s philosophy to build teams from the ground up is based on limiting mistakes and cutting off the easy ways teams can beat you. His teams play strong defense, but they also limit turnovers and control the glass. They do not give away any easy points.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This team is not doing that at all. Orlando is seventh in turnover rate but 12th in opponents points off turnovers. The team gives up the 17th-most fast-break points per game in the league.

More than that, Clifford teams are usually extremely well-organized. They are deep into the details and extremely well organized. They know exactly where they are going to be and how to rotate and work together.

This year, they have all looked a step off. They have struggled to rotate properly and stay disciplined on the defensive end. Too often the Magic’s offense has affected their defense.

All this has added up to the Magic looking like one of the worst teams in the league overall.

A better way to play

There will be a lot of time to assess and find blame for this team’s struggles.

Injuries are undoubtedly part of the problem. But the team’s culture and way to play should supersede injuries. The Orlando Magic should know their way to play and be able to play it through injuries.

Their inability to do so is an indictment on the players for not staying committed to their way to play. It is an indictment on Steve Clifford for not teaching it effectively enough — even with the pandemic limiting teaching and practice time. It is an indictment on Jeff Weltman for not putting together a roster that could fill in when there were inevitable absences.

The best teams — including the Toronto Raptors — do a good job filling in and staying the same when they have injured players. They have to change some things but the core of who they are remains the same.

They cannot let adversity affect how they play. And far too often that is happening.

"“We never felt down we never felt down about ourselves,” Evan Fournier said after Sunday’s game. “We always had a winning attitude and we always wanted to get better day after day. that’s what we have to get back to.”"

That is a break in the team’s culture and the team’s identity. That is not who the team believes itself to be or who the team needs to be to succeed.

Next. Cole Anthony is Orlando Magic's x-factor. dark

The team feels itself breaking at the seams and the work they did the last two years quickly crumbling.