Orlando Magic aren’t tanking, but they are disadvantaging their team

The Orlando Magic are leaning heavily on short-term players like Moritz Wagner to end the season. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are leaning heavily on short-term players like Moritz Wagner to end the season. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are just trying to get through the rest of the season.

After spending far too many games with just eight or nine healthy bodies, the team is just hoping to be able to field enough players to get through these games. The players are still trying to win but it is just going to be hard.

Take the final lineups for Monday’s 119-112 win over the Detroit Pistons. The Orlando Magic played only three starters more than 20 minutes and only one starter more than 25.

That one? It was Moritz Wagner, who joined the team only a week ago and was pushed into the starting lineup by Chuma Okeke’s sprained ankle.

Wagner said after Saturday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies that being with the Orlando Magic brought back the joy he had in the game. That should tell you the mindset and the kind of player the Magic sought out.

Wagner was always an NBA-capable player. He had good moments with the Washington Wizards and just did not fit in with the Boston Celtics’ plans.

But playing someone like that so many minutes at this stage, especially when it means sitting a budding young player like Cole Anthony or a promising center like Wendell Carter? Nobody is confusing these for winning decisions.

The Orlando Magic will still expect their players to try to win the game. But signs are pointing to a team that is not playing its optimal lineups. This is a team with one hand tied behind its back.

The Magic finished the game — and by finished the game, they played the entire fourth quarter — with rookie R.J. Hampton, two-way player Chasson Randle, recent 10-day contract signee Ignas Brazdeikis, recent signee Moritz Wagner and promising, but disappointing center Mohamed Bamba.

This was not a lineup designed to win the game. There are hungry players for sure and they played well. But this is a team that has serious flaws and against real opponents would likely struggle to produce.

No one could foresee Randle scoring 10 of his 18 points and Bamba adding 16 of his career-high 22 in the fourth quarter to build a 14-point lead. The Pistons even nearly brought it back, dropping the deficit down to three before Ignas Brazdeikis hit a three on a nice feed from Hampton.

The Pistons “out tanked” the Magic on Monday night. And this two-game win streak has the Magic tumbling — or rising? — down the standings from the second-worst record in the league to a tie for the fifth-worst record.

One hand behind their back

The Orlando Magic are not tanking.

Their players will still try to win when they are on the floor. And the team will still give their young players every chance to grow and develop. If Cole Anthony is able to lead them to a win, that might be something the team can live with.

But if Monday was any indication, the Magic have worked to tie one hand behind their back. Or they are willing to disadvantage themselves in these final seven games.

There is at least a one-game difference between third-worst, and a share of the best odds to win the Lottery, and fifth-worst.

And if Monday’s game was any clue, the Magic are planning on doing their part to play the game.

It is going to be a fun two weeks. Or a miserable one, depending on your perspective.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team will still play key players like Anthony and he is capable of helping the team win games.

But it already seems like the team will limit the minutes from Wendell Carter. Injuries to Chuma Okeke, Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams seem season-ending. James Ennis might also be on the shelf for a little while or limited if he comes back. That is a lot of quality players who might otherwise play that are in no hurry to return to the court.

The Magic may still be trying to win. But the team, which has had plenty of experience playing with only eight or nine players, is not exactly filled with players that inspire confidence. The team needed some bodies just to protect the players they do care about.

And even their minutes might start to shrink as the season winds down. Their offseason is likely more important than these games, even if there is still something to learn from them.

Adding depth

The team has added players in the last week just to add some depth and thrown them into the fire, going against the grain of the Steve Clifford approach (he returns to the bench Wednesday after clearing the league’s health and safety protocols).

Moritz Wagner has only had a few brief moments in his time with the Washington Wizards. But the Boston Celtics discarded him quickly after acquiring him at the trade deadline.

The team signed Ignas Brazdeikis shortly after. He played sparingly with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers. With the Westchester Knicks the last two years he has averaged 20.9 points per game. So the guy can score as he showed in the win over the Pistons.

The Orlando Magic added one more player to the roster Tuesday, signing Sindarius Thornwell to a two-way contract. Like the others, Thornwell played sparingly in four years with the LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans.

These are not exactly meant to be impact signings. Yet, it still feels almost certain they will play and play a lot.

That was the case Monday. And the Magic seem to be starting to pace their players through the rest of the season and reducing some minutes.

The Magic played veteran guard Gary Harris for fewer than 10 minutes in the entire game. That was under the auspices of a sore neck that had him listed as probable before the game. He is not on the injury report for Wednesday’s game. But Harris undoubtedly makes the team better.

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Carter has played only 23.2 minutes per game in six games since returning from a rolled ankle. He played 27 minutes in the win over the Memphis Grizzlies but has cleared 25 minutes just twice since returning from the minor injury.

Anthony is the only starter for this team that seems to be playing regular minutes. And even that seems to be ready to decrease with him essentially getting the second half off Monday night.

Dwayne Bacon sops up possessions and is probably the only veteran player anyone can expect to see normal time — he still got his 23 minutes in Monday’s win.

The plan

Have the Orlando Magic committed to a bigger plan to sit some of these players? Probably not.

Have the Magic added to their depth in a way that will likely make it easier to play these better players less? It would seem so.

Would it be beneficial for the Magic to lower the workload on some of these key players heading into the offseason? Not merely for the Lottery odds, but it would be better to have players playing more regular minutes and not facing the stress of an undermanned roster. It would set them up better for their offseason.

Are current players who are injured even with relatively minor injuries or soreness likely done for the season? That feels like a safe bet.

If that is tanking, then yes, the Magic are tanking. At the very least, the Magic are not putting their best foot forward.

It is still not clear who will be available every day for the Magic. The players currently on the injured list are likely done for the year. It would make little sense to rush them back. That, in a way, is a form of “tanking.”

Regardless, the Magic seem willing to handicap their team. And while these two-way and 10-day contract players will play hard, that does not mean they will be able to compete consistently with the difficult schedule the Magic have ahead of them.

They will play hard enough to make the minutes productive for the young players. The team will compete. But the Magic seem to be pointing in the direction of keeping their roster under some protection. They seem to be willing to play less-than-optimal lineups.

And in a rare instance like Monday, the team might keep its starters on the bench even in a game that is still in the balance.

Orlando will still compete. The team will still be playing to try to win. But the signs are pointing to a team that is focusing its rotations on other goals right now.

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They may not be doing such an overt tanking job, but this is a team that is still designed to struggle and should still struggle with difficult games on the horizon.