Orlando Magic must still build and grow to make Lottery trip temporary

Chuma Okeke's return from an injury has enabled the Orlando Magic to begin planning for their future again. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Chuma Okeke's return from an injury has enabled the Orlando Magic to begin planning for their future again. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

There was always a chance the bottom could drop out for the Orlando Magic.

The team had too small a margin for error and injuries to the wrong players would seriously test the Magic’s depth. Even at full strength, the Magic needed every piece to placed in perfect harmony to succeed. They needed everyone to play their role.

And that likely would get the Magic only to the six- or seven-seed in the playoffs.

If the ultimate goal was to win a championship, the Magic still had plenty of work to get there. And several major moves to help the team position themselves.

But it was always a step-by-step process. The team was still fairly early in that journey.

Part of the strategy president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman surely set out was to build inherent value in the team through winning. The goal — with the team’s high payroll — was to one day be able to flip players for the kind of star players that would tie the whole project together with the players Weltman has drafted.

A lot of that has gone on hold this year.

The Magic are without their most important young player in Jonathan Isaac with a torn ACL. They then lost one of their other promising young players in Markelle Fultz, also to a torn ACL.

Things have fallen apart quickly for the Magic in their absence.

The Orlando Magic are drifting toward the bottom of the standings. But the team should not pack it in. They need to keep growing and set the table for a quick return to the playoff picture in 2022.

It has been easy then to say the best way for the team to advance is to accept losing and the potential of a top pick in the draft. There are even a few people calling for or expecting the Magic to blow things up completely and do a complete teardown.

The Magic are not likely there.

They are going to remind everyone they were the last unbeaten team in the league this season and sitting at 6-2 when Fultz went down with his injury. They will tell everyone they were coming off back-to-back playoff berths and were on track for another in an Eastern Conference that certainly appears weaker at this early stage of the season.

Orlando will not see a complete teardown as ideal. The team will stick to believing it can make the playoffs in 2022 again. And that should be the team’s focus and goal.

While the Orlando Magic are certainly not giving up on their 2021 playoff dreams — sitting one game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the final spot in the play-in tournament, 1.5 games back of the Toronto Raptors for the 8-seed and 2.5 games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the 6-seed entering Sunday’s games — they are looking increasingly bleak unless the team significantly improves its play.

One good week could turn things around for the Magic. But the statistics are not suggesting the Magic will make that push — they are now 29th in the league in net rating at -7.4 points per 100 possessions. The team is sinking fast having won just three times in the last 16 games.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There is still no sense in completely giving up though. The Magic are laying the seeds for their 2022 season. And The most important goal the Magic will face the rest of this season is making sure the team is set up to make this potential postseason absence a one-year thing.

Maintaining the culture

The Orlando Magic have to develop and grow to maintain the culture the team built the last two years under Steve Clifford. And they have to do everything with an eye on a quick turnaround for next year.

They cannot let bad habits creep into the team and its psyche. They may have their struggles, but the team needs to continue playing with high energy and with the defensive principles that could lead their way back.

Yes, even the trade deadline and offseason should be focused on how to set the team up for more success in the 2022 season and re-establish the base the team originally hoped to grow from.

Nobody should view a potential lottery as anything more than a detour. If that is what it comes to.

The team should still have its bigger picture in view. And if that means shifting a few players to better support the team’s final vision in a trade or slowly shifting rotations to reflect this vision for the future, that is what it means.

What the Magic should not do is simply sell off players just for the sake of change. Like was clear this offseason, every move should have some purpose behind it to help the team get better.

And it should be done with the expectation the team will return to the postseason next year.

Orlando should not expect any less of its players or the way it wants to play. This has been the most alarming development of this season. The team does not resemble in any way the team that pushed for the playoffs the last two seasons. Injuries should not be an excuse for this kind of slippage.

Building back

The Orlando Magic have held the philosophy that young players grow best when put in meaningful games and situations. The franchise as a whole seemingly wants to avoid any prolonged rebuild.

But even through the playoff appearances the last two years, this is still largely a team trying to rebuild and develop young players. Veterans like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross help the team remain competitive. But the project was about letting Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and even Aaron Gordon continue to grow into bigger roles.

At a certain point in the rebuild plan, the team would be able to consolidate some of these players into elite players or role players to take them to the next level.

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A lot of that has been put on hold because of injuries. It does seem like the Magic are going to have to make some moves at the deadline both to free up time for younger players and to set the team up for its future.

After Mohamed Bamba’s impressive fourth-quarter in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Bulls, it is getting harder to justify not playing him. Khem Birch has played well but his game would fit better on a team with a settled rotation and solid players around him.

This is a team that needs impact playmakers throughout the roster. And no doubt Bamba has that potential. Seeing if he can reach those heights is vital to the team’s development and future planning.

But the point is that it would be a move that would help set the table for the 2022 season. That is what the purpose of this season is quickly becoming.

Playing to win

None of this means the Orlando Magic should be purposefully losing games. The team should still be trying to win and implementing lineups that will help the team’s chances to win. The hope would be that young players that set up the team’s future — especially Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and Mohamed Bamba — can still experience the pressure of executing and winning in must-win games.

Here, the play-in tournament is helping create that atmosphere even though the team is abjectly bad right now. If this was the intention of the play-in tournament, then it has helped the Magic achieve one of their goals while also sinking down the standings.

Anthony is certainly getting some really valuable experience and pressure in these situations. He has started to play better individually, but seeing him get some wins would help his development too.

Next. Nikola Vucevic is in the background no more. dark

There is still a lot for the Magic to play for and accomplish this season. And the ultimate goal now is to set the team up for a playoff trip in 2022 and to continue the progress that has been arrested this season.