Orlando Magic’s only way to develop is to win and compete

Steve Clifford will be managing an Orlando Magic team still fighting to compete but having a long road to do so. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Clifford will be managing an Orlando Magic team still fighting to compete but having a long road to do so. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford knows there is noise around this team.

The entire All-Star Break it seemed was spent bringing up rumors involving several players on the Orlando Magic as the trade deadline creeps closer and closer. Every player outside of the Magic’s absolute core players of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz were seemingly mentioned in some type of trade rumor.

With the Magic sitting at 14th in the Eastern Conference, there is at least some anticipation the team will be more willing to sell off some pieces in a way the team was not willing to do so during the offseason. Orlando has seen its project collapse — thanks largely to injuries — and certainly could use a bit of a reset.

It is easy in that case to begin paring the roster some — perhaps trading out Evan Fournier before his contract expires — and better positioning the team for its future. The team then can look forward to what appears to be a high draft pick in a loaded draft class and begin rebuilding with Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and that draft pick as core players with Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and Mohamed Bamba still developing and Nikola Vucevic and perhaps Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross to provide stability and keep the team competitive.

It is this latter point that seems to have the Magic fan base divided. How does this team make the most of this season? How does this team set itself up for the future?

While much of the focus on this Orlando Magic season has turned to the big picture with the Draft Lottery and trade deadline as potential franchise-shifting moments, the team can still reap the benefits of trying to compete and win even if the result ends up futile.

The front office will work independently of the team on the court. They must have the bigger picture in mind.

As important as Fournier is to the team’s day-to-day success as one of the team’s few reliable and efficient shooters, the Magic have to consider his free-agent future and whether they want to commit to him in the long-term yet again.

The odds are seeming that they will not. And so the Magic are going to begin shaping and shifting the roster at the trade deadline.

That will likely continue in the offseason, although Orlando is likely to exhibit the same patience and restraint the team has the last few years.

There is little the team can do to control what the front office does. And it is working on its track.

Clifford has made it clear that while those rumors are flying around his job remains to help this team try to win and prepare with the intention of putting the team in its best position to win.

This is the philosophy the Magic should hold for the rest of their season.

If the Magic want to get the most out of this season — including the development of important young players like Okeke and Anthony — they have to be going for wins. They have to be working and expecting to win. They have to feel the sting of defeats and the disappointment and frustration that comes with them. And when the opportunity to win presents itself, the team must still expect and demand victory.

This is how the team should approach things on the court, at the very least.

The playoffs are not so out of reach that the team should give up on these dreams. A 3.5-game deficit is smaller than the gap the Magic had to make when they rushed to the playoffs in 2019.

But undoubtedly that task will be tough. The Magic face one of the toughest schedules in the second half of the season by any metric you can think of. It will not be easy.

But the team still wants to support and build a culture that values winning, even on the smallest scales. The best way to develop players is to put them in positions where they will succeed and help the team succeed. As they get better, their roles will expand and they will be able to contribute more to winning.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team is right to bring players like Okeke and even Bamba along at the pace they are. So long as they are earning their place in the lineup and continuing to show growth, they are doing right by them.

For sure, that means the team needs to prioritize playing Bamba. But he needs to prove he has earned that time — he largely has, but has not made the statement definitive, which is also partially because he has not been given the time.

Losing does nothing to help these players. It allows them to make mistakes without repercussions or puts them practicing roles they will not play when the team is back at full strength. It creates bad habits.

If this team believes injuries are the only reason they are struggling, then they must do everything in their power to keep lineups as normal as possible. The silver linings that come from this season should come in seeing these players improve and play well in a way that helps make the team perform better.

The playoffs are going to be tough to reach. Even the team admits that.

With all the injuries the team is facing and the uncertainty the trade deadline brings, it is hard to see the team’s fortunes changing too much. The Magic are likely to finish with one of the five worst records in the league. They will have plenty of opportunities to win the Draft Lottery.

The team should not have to do anything to manipulate those chances. Nor should the team hope to be worse than it already is. That helps nobody.

There certainly might come a time when the team becomes extra cautious with players returning from injury. Perhaps the team is already there. And so there might be a moment where a player sits out longer with an injury.

Those are decisions the team will make as they cross those paths.

But for the players hitting the floor each night, their goal should be to keep winning. There is no turning on and off that mindset. Trying to win and trying to compete is ultimately what will help this team most for the long-term.

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It is what this team is ultimately going to continue striving to do on a day-to-day basis. Even if the odds are they will come up short of this mark most games.