Final quarter of Orlando Magic’s season must have some focus on the present

Chuma Okeke has seen tremendous growth for the Orlando Magic. That cannot stop to end the season. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has seen tremendous growth for the Orlando Magic. That cannot stop to end the season. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

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For much of the last week as the Orlando Magic’s brief two-game win streak started to fade into history, coach Steve Clifford has been trying to preach his philosophy for his new team.

He understood the challenge that lay ahead of him: Find a way to get a new and young team tied together and organized so they can compete and win.

Fans had already waved the white flag.

They would be happy to see any glimpse of hope and progress. But not at the expense of picking up too many wins. There is a Lottery filled with top prospects who could be the centerpiece of this new vision for the Magic.

Whether Clifford wants to admit it or not, the front office is likely betting on this eventuality. A top-five pick in this year’s Draft would deliver the team that potential centerpiece star. That was the one thing the Magic were missing for the decade since Dwight Howard left in a trade. The lack of a star eventually put a ceiling on a team that went to the playoffs.

The focus for the team is on the future. Nobody can ignore that fact.

But there is still a quarter left in this season — 18 games to finish the year and get to that point when that future becomes clearer. What does the team make of that?

Even though the Orlando Magic have squarely put a focus on their future. That future has to begin with growth and development in the present. Simply losing will not get the team where it wants to be.

Young players will get plenty of time on the court. Making that time valuable will be the biggest task facing the Magic the rest of the season.

It is a fine line. Even Clifford acknowledges the team is working at a severe deficit and wins are not going to be so simple to come by.

But everyone acknowledges that it does not and cannot look like what it looked like the past two nights: A 37-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks followed by a 27-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

"“Everybody is just trying to get adjusted,” Wendell Carter said after Monday’s loss to the Spurs. “Especially us being a young team, we’ve got to learn how to win. That goes for myself too. We’ve got to understand that as a team, defense is what wins games. I feel like, including myself, we get caught up too much on the offensive side of the ball. We can’t allow leak-outs, straight line drives, nobody helping, giving up easy points.”"

In both games, the Magic looked stagnant and defeated offensively, not even capable of initiating their sets, devolving into isolation moves as the veteran players tried desperately to keep the team in the game. Any moment of success was snuffed out quickly.

And not even Clifford’s patented defense could keep up. The team has looked out of sync and out of rhythm on defense, late on rotations, diving into the lane with poor doubles and leaving 3-point shooters wide open.

The Magic have done nothing right and any hint of a successful identity has been lost to this frustration.

Clifford said it has been doubly tough the last two outings because so many players have had to play out of position without much practice time. The on-the-fly nature both of the season and the coming together of the team since the trade deadline has made it hard to get organized.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That is something he takes the blame for. And he said it will get better over time. But Orlando is losing opportunities to grow and develop. Bad habits and frustration can seep in easily, derailing even rebuilds with the best of intentions.

"“It could be challenging because we are all new with each other,” Chuma Okeke said after Monday’s loss. “We’re still learning to play with each other both offensively and defensively. Just learning the rotations and the defensive coverages. We’ve just got to lock in more I feel like. the harder we lock in and the harder we focus, the easier it might come and translate on the court.”"

Outside the team, losses are welcomed with the chances of adding more combinations to the Lottery — the Orlando Magic are ahead of the Detroit Pistons by one games for the third-worst record in the league and the best odds at winning the Lottery. But this cannot be the only goal.

The Magic want these players to contribute to a winning team next year and down the road. Orlando still has to have some focus on the present and what the team has to find success in this rebuild path the franchise has taken.

This is still valuable time for the franchise to assess its young group and build them as players. This is not time that should be wasted.

Orlando wants to see Cole Anthony get his feet back under him after his injury and show progress as a point guard. The team wants to see Okeke continue to expand his game and find consistency as a shooter. The Magic want to see R.J. Hampton get valuable experience and confidence all over the court. They want to re-establish Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba after uneven starts to their careers.

It is hard to do that when the team is hardly able to compete or function together on the court. The team needs better organization and execution even to have a chance to see young players make productive plays.

As Clifford has repeatedly said, it is tough to roll the ball out and compete with little organization. And individual development is meaningless if it does not come with team development together and within the structure of the team.

Hampton’s team-high 16 points were great on Monday. It showed what he can do and how dynamic he can be — including a thunderous putback dunk on the final play of the game.

But the fact the majority of those points came with the game long decided makes those numbers ring hollow.

These young players need to get tested in meaningful minutes and pressure situations to grow. And, yes, that means sometimes they will succeed and pick up a few wins along the way.

The only thing left to sort this season is how to develop those young players that will form such a big core.

Next. Orlando Magic try to balance youth with veterans. dark

And the only way to do that is to build in the now and become productive and competitive in the present.