Markelle Fultz’s absence still leaves the Orlando Magic wondering what if?

Gary Harris never got to play with Markelle Fultz as the Orlando Magic already found themselves playing from behind when he arrived. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Gary Harris never got to play with Markelle Fultz as the Orlando Magic already found themselves playing from behind when he arrived. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

Final. 97. 38. 122. 93

The Philadelphia 76ers wrapped up the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 122-97 win over the Orlando Magic at Wells Fargo Center on Friday.

The rest of the playoff spots are quickly getting finished up with the Washington Wizards eliminating the Chicago Bulls with a win, setting the field of 10 that will play on past Sunday.

The game the Magic played Friday was fairly academic. Orlando struggled to shoot but played scrappy enough to keep the game close. Then Philadelphia overwhelmed an Orlando team that just is not going to be able to shoot consistently each night.

Even coach Steve Clifford had to admit after the game, the team just is not good enough to compete.

"“These teams are a lot better than we are,” Clifford said after Friday’s loss. “It can make guys look like they aren’t trying as hard. That’s anything but the case in my opinion. You play the teams that we’ve played these last stretch of games where games are very meaningful and these are veteran players, it’s hard.“One of the things where it is hard to evaluate some of the guys is they are out there with each other. These guys would play a lot better if they were out there with Gary Harris, Otto Porter, James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams. It would be a lot easier.”"

Those are a lot of names left off the team. So many of the Magic’s veteran players have been out these final weeks of the season — an admission that these games are not as important as the offseason or their development potential (or, maybe more quietly, the team’s need to collect losses for the Lottery). But each of those players would undoubtedly help the team and they do not even include stalwart players that would otherwise be available as starters.

This season has been a frustrating struggle from the beginning. Orlando has lost more games to injury than any other team in the league. Eventually, that led the Magic to lose their season and hit the reset button.

The Orlando Magic had high hopes for their season and dreams of making these last games really matter. But injuries quickly derailed the season and there was no saving it once Markelle Fultz was lost for the year.

But it was not always meant to be this way. The Magic first faced the 76ers on New Year’s Eve with a 4-0 record. It was the first game that would truly test the team.

It was a test the team failed. Orlando’s 4-0 start was not fake by any means, but the team needed another chance and still needed a chance to grow. Leaving that game, especially with Evan Fournier leaving four minutes into the game, it seemed like this Magic team just needed another chance in a marquee game to prove their place.

They would never get that chance.

Three games later, Markelle Fultz crashed down the lane and tore his ACL. And the Magic’s season completely changed. There was no saving it after that point.

If there was a turning point in the season, it was not the cascading and never-ending injuries that kept piling on. It was losing Fultz.

"“I look at the teams playing right now for fourth, fith and sixth and if he doesn’t get hurt, we’d be right there,” Clifford said before Friday’s game. “I’d still say if we weren’t so absolutely ravaged with injuries, we would have been a factor in this. The East wasn’t nearly as good as it was a year ago.“I think there are three elite-level teams and then a bunch of teams that have done a really good job. If Markelle doesn’t get hurt, I believe we’d be right there with Miami, Atlanta and New York. We’d be right there in that mix.”"

The Magic thought they would be among the teams in that fight. They expected that after two straight playoff berths. They expected to be competitive.

Orlando’s margin for error was always extremely small. The team relied heavily on its starters all working together and they could not afford to lose too many of them.

But they especially could not lose their point guard. Fultz’s absence had a crushing blow on the team, forcing them to rely on a rookie at that integral organization spot with Michael Carter-Williams also out with an injury.

In a season with little practice time, the Magic were banking on their familiarity to give them an advantage. But that quickly disappeared with the injuries and with losing Fultz in such a sudden matter.

As Clifford said, they had no reason to think they could not compete for at least the play-in spot with how the Eastern Conference has shaken out — the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics are sitting at 35-35.

Fultz averaged a fairly modest 12.9 points per game and 5.4 assists per game. His shooting was tailing off near the time of his injury. The strong play he used to carry himself and the team to that strong record was slowing down.

But Fultz had a preternatural ability to manage and control the game. The team seemed to function better with him on the floor. As good as Cole Anthony or R.J. Hampton have become, Markelle Fultz is still a much more potentially transformational figure.

Getting him back into the lineup will be one of the biggest ways this team can get better.

"“I think that presence on the court,” Clifford said before Friday’s game. “He has great size at that position. You can play through him in the post. He and Vooc had developed a really difficult pick and roll game for people to defend. People have to remember, a lot of it is just talent. Markelle is a number one pick. He has a sense of the game and a feel of the game that not many people have.”"

But that is a what-if. That is something the team will have to review and think about as it assesses this season.

Then again, the Magic might have already made those assessments and all those decisions. Orlando pulled the plug on its season and its team with the trades at the trade deadline. It decided to hit reset.

Fultz will be rejoining a completely new team. He will have to learn his new teammates just as much as they will have to learn and adjust around him. Clifford is going to have to devise a new way to play.

That familiarity the Magic hoped to have at the beginning of the season will have to be a tool once again for the Magic to get back on track as everyone works on their own and occasionally together this offseason.

"“It’s going to be awesome just to really build that chemistry,” Cole Anthony said after Friday’s game. “I think that’s something this group really hasn’t had a lot. We got to know each oter off the court a lot, but on the court, it has been just go play. We haven’t had much time to practice. It’s not anybody’s fault, but it’s something we haven’t had the luxury. I’m excited for the offseason to get in the gym with everybody on the team and build that chemistry now.”"

Cole Anthony, for one, is excited to play with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz next season. There is palpable anticipation about getting those players back with all the potential they hold. Even if next year will be something of a transition year for them as they recover.

The hope too is that young players for the Magic will get better and put in the work. The Magic ended up playing a lot of young players to end the season. They each showed promise and showed proof they can play. The team will have to see if that can come together in a meaningful way.

That will not happen in their last game remaining. It likely will not happen at all until they find out Jonathan Isaac’s overall status and Markelle Fultz rejoins the team.

By then the team may be able to spread their hope around to players acquired in the draft.

Next. Orlando Magic missing consistency to compete. dark

But this year’s hope went away the moment Fultz got injured.