The focus of a franchise is always split.
Coach Steve Clifford often tells everyone his job is to get his team prepared to play each night and to have them playing their best basketball at the end of the season. His goal is to have the team improve through the course of the season.
Even now with his Orlando Magic team struggling with injuries and not having anywhere near the season the expected at the start — a season that feels like it is stagnation from what this group has built the last two years — Clifford has continued to preach simple improvement. If that happens, the Magic will get better on the court and get closer to their goals.
This will remain the focus on the court. The Magic and whatever team they put on the court will be trying to win every game and trying to get better and more effective with each outing.
This is part of Jeff Weltman’s philosophy ever since he took over as the lead executive for the Magic. He believes the on-court product should be trying to win and that the best way to develop players is to put them in winning situations.
Front offices though operate differently.
Coaches focus on the short-term. They are worried about the day-to-day and how to prepare for each game.
Front office executives are constantly worried about the long-term. They wonder how to get their team closer to winning a championship with each move.
When a team has had the difficult season the Magic have had in the context of two seasons taking the step into the Playoffs but not growing beyond that, these two goals might begin to come into conflict.
The Orlando Magic will still hope the team they field tries to win. But the front office seems ready to focus on the big picture and that means a shift must occur as the trade deadline nears.
Fans have been talking about the big picture really ever since Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL in August. They have seen pretty clearly how difficult it would be to progress this season without this key young player.
The outlook only looked bleaker when Markelle Fultz got hurt with his own ACL injury. At that point, two of the Magic’s most promising young players were on the shelf for the year. The team’s development was going to be put in stasis. For the most part, everything on the court was for the short-term.
The front office was likely always thinking about the long-term. Their approach to this season and how they would attack the deadline likely has not changed.
The front office was always going to be weighing the benefits of pushing for the playoffs and positioning for the Lottery.
Or perhaps that is an oversimplified dichotomy. The real difference is between deciding to stick with this roster and build for the present or begin to shift and build for the future.
The reality is that while fans like to pit this as between the playoffs and the Lottery, the Magic’s front office is always thinking about the bigger picture and trying to inch the team closer to a championship. They may not be willing to manipulate the team on the court to sink down the standings. But they understand that change is necessary to build for the bigger picture.
The question is whether this is the time to pull the trigger.
"“No one is ever not losing sight of the big picture,” Hammond said. “We always talk about this. Players don’t play just to be good and be competitive. Players play to win championships. Our fans, I know they don’t support our team so we are good and competitive. They want us to win a championship. And we want that as well. But we have to say what’s our best route in getting there and how can we get there?“So many things are involved in sports with a team playing well. Somewhere along the way you need a break. You need a little bit of luck on your side. Here in this organization, luck has been a number one pick t get a guy like Shaq or a guy like Dwight Howard. It could be a pick that’s a 10th pick or a 12th pick that can be a difference-maker. You never know where it’s going to come.”"
The one thing that should be clear from this bite is the team is not satisfied with its spot in the Eastern Conference standings. And that the team is not going to sell out to “save” this season.
The playoffs are a goal — and Hammond said it was good to see the team get back to that level the last two years and they would like to see a third — but just making the playoffs is not the full goal.
And quite clearly, the team has the draft on its mind.
The real call Magic fans should have for their team at this point then, is for the team to begin shifting the team to look like its final form.
If the Magic intend to build a team around Nikola Vucevic (unlikely given he is 30 years old), then build a roster that maximizes his skills. If they plan to build around Isaac and Fultz, they need to build a roster that maximizes their skills.
This should be the team’s focus when they enter the trade market. They should have their eyes on how to improve their team and build it with some overarching vision in mind.
What that overarching vision is uncertain. And the Magic have shown their willingness to be patient in building and shifting the roster. They have operated knowing teir team is good enough to make the playoffs.
But they have played things out waiting for the right move. Soon they will have to make a move and make their own luck. They will have to shape the roster into something.
It is clear and it should be clear the Magic are entering a point of transition and they need to begin that transition.
The front office is going to let the team play things out and compete. They will not stand in the way of that. But they have to focus on the big picture and begin building their team.