The juxtaposition Saturday night was fairly clear to see. The Orlando Magic’s present was bleak and its future? Its future is still uncertain. But still tantalizingly promising.
The Magic, down to seven men with Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch missing the game with a non-COVID stomach illness and Mohamed Bamba leaving the game after the first half with the same stated condition, were down by as much as 46 points to the league-leading Utah Jazz.
Sometimes it is not your night. And against the best team in the league, they were merciless in reminding the magic of their deficiencies. For the first time since the trade, the Magic could not out-effort a team and looked every bit the part of a rebuilding franchise.
Flipping the channel though, the future the Magic hope to have was on full display. It was hard not to look away as a basketball fan, even with the Magic playing.
An overtime battle between upstart UCLA and the undefeated leviathan of Gonzaga was coming down to the last shot. Corey Kispert challenged a shot by Johnny Juzang. Juzang got his own rebound and laid it in with three seconds left.
Then the kind of magic that only happens in the single-elimination atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament occurred. Jalen Suggs took the inbound pass and quickly moved beyond midcourt. He pulled up with the defense late to challenge him and fired, running toward the baseline as if he knew.
The shot banked in to deliver Gonzaga to its second national championship game and turn Suggs into a legend for however long basketball is played.
No player in the top grouping of the NBA Draft has probably helped himself more than Suggs in this Tournament. This moment — and the calm and cool way he took the biggest shot of the tournament — will stick out to scouts who have not been able to see him in person yet.
The Magic have tied themselves up to this future. This is the future they want.
While the Orlando Magic were suffering one of the worst losses in franchise history, a player they may well consider to be part of their future had his shining moment. They are betting the Lottery will make this pain worth it.
They traded away the three best players on their roster, recognizing the limitations those players put on their team and their franchise. They saw this as the time to make their move and reset their organization.
With the team already sitting near the bottom of the standings, the team felt this was their time to strike. They could leverage the young talent on their roster already — Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba, Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony — with the young talent they would acquire — ending up with Wendell Carter and R.J. Hampton — along with the extra draft picks they would acquire to build a brighter future.
They would jumpstart their rebuild then with the top pick they would get. With those young players in tow, the Magic clearly determined the gamble of winning the Lottery would be enough to truly transform the roster and get them out of the treadmill of mediocrity.
A player like Suggs is very much the prize.
Getting there though? That has been nothing but pain. Especially for a franchise that has been spinning its tires for the better part of a decade.
The team was already going through a seemingly historical rash of injuries that handicapped the team. The Magic have likely played the most games they have ever played with the league-mandated minimum of eight active players available to them. No team has lost more games to injury this season than the Magic.
Trading away those best players only made that task taller.
Orlando had to play incredibly well and take advantage of injuries from their opponents to have a chance. The Magic have to play well to compete and win. That much was clear.
And things could look incredibly bleak if the Magic did not.
Worn down by the road trip and being undermanned, even to Clifford’s admission, the Magic got beat badly. Their 137-91 loss to the Jazz was a sign of what happens when they are not able to play defense effectively and get into their opponents. It was a sign when their effort was not enough.
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Like other underdog teams in the franchise’s history, there are going to be some nights where the Magic do not have it. And this may well be the result.
This was not the first time the Magic had a night like this and it certainly will not be the last with how thin the margin for error is.
This was the third time this year the Magic trailed by 40 points and came one point shy of setting the franchise record for the largest regular-season defeat.
Any time the team has a lackluster effort, it is going to get ugly like this. That is just the talent level of this team.
Orlando still has plenty of fight in it. The Magic were never going to drift silently into the deep Lottery. They are going to steal some wins that fans do not expect and they are not giving up on the season by any means.
The Magic still trail the final Play-In Tournament spot by three games. That carrot is still out there. And the team is getting past the most difficult phase of its difficult second-half schedule.
That task remains pretty tall.
The Magic’s margin for error is very small and the team has shown in even just four games how little offensive push the team has. If Dwayne Bacon or Terrence Ross have an off-shooting night, the team is in deep trouble. And the Magic have made just 12 3-pointers in the last four games.
The reinforcements promised by Cole Anthony and Gary Harris will help in that department. But the Magic still are looking at an uncertain and potentially bleak short-term. The Magic are still going to have plenty of struggle the rest of this season — just as there may be moments or short stretches where the team has its breakthrough.
After two straight years in the playoffs and the scars of the six years before it, there is plenty of skepticism and concern the Magic will be able to climb back even to the middle class of the NBA. Or climb back there quickly.
A lot of that depends on what happens in the Lottery. And this is the bet the Magic have made.
Orlando’s future depends on whether a ping pong ball bounces the right way. Everything becomes clearer if that bounces the right way and a player like Suggs lands in their laps. Without it, the gamble the Magic made at the trade deadline to reset their franchise looks a lot different.
It was easy Saturday night to let those visions of the potential future dance around in the face of a bleak game.
Orlando bet big on this year’s Lottery delivering for them. They saw their season drifting away, the expiring contract of Evan Fournier and the dissatisfaction from Aaron Gordon and understood this was an opportunity to reset. They moved boldly to do so.
The early returns from the trade have been encouraging enough. Orlando quietly has built up a cache of young players. There is something there.
But the whole thing needs what it has always needed — the one guy to tie the whole project together. That is ultimately what it is all about.
And the Magic are betting that nights like Saturday will be worth the short-term pain and embarrassment for the long-term return of a top pick. It is a gamble that has not gone right for the Magic in some time.
All the team has to trust is the hope that luck will turn around for them.