2021 NBA Playoffs: Orlando Magic, Miami Heat bet wrong on stability, progress

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic has carried over his play from the bubble, putting up All-Star numbers to lead the Magic to a fast start. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic has carried over his play from the bubble, putting up All-Star numbers to lead the Magic to a fast start. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The opening night of the 2021 season seems so long ago.

The Miami Heat were coming off a trip to the NBA Finals. They believed their confidence and experience would help them become true contenders.

The Orlando Magic were coming off an incomplete run in the bubble. Injuries had derailed any hopes they had of being a surprise team. They still liked the way they played and with some health luck, they believed they could be a surprise team in the Eastern Conference.

Orlando was without Jonathan Isaac, but the team largely returned the same roster. And in a season that was not going to have a lot of practice time, the Magic believed their continuity would help them get a leg up.

That opening night battle was a test for the team, as much as the opening night game could be. Orlando wanted to prove it could compete with one of the Eastern Conference’s favorite teams.

Not much had changed about the Heat either. And while some suspected the Heat took advantage of the special conditions in the bubble, the Heat were still largely the same team.

Orlando won that game to open the season. They were in a tight game toward the end before Aaron Gordon fed Nikola Vucevic in the high post who gave it to Evan Fournier on a backdoor curt for a lay-in and the basket that more or less sealed the game.

That was a long time ago and a lot of things changed for both teams.

The Orlando Magic and Miami Heat came into the season with high hopes. But both teams struggled to take advantage of their continuity as both teams went stale.

For both of Florida’s franchises, the season ultimately ended in disappointment. Their continuity and their hopes to build on their recent successes did not come to fruition. Both the Magic and the Heat found themselves at something of a crossroads.

They bet wrong on their stability and their ability to navigate their season. Culture has proven not to be enough, especially in a strange season like this.

Talent has won and it takes talent and culture to win at the highest levels in the end. But no team can simply run it back and bet on stability as a clear path forward.

Coach Steve Clifford likes to say before each season that a team has to start over. And while returning players have a leg up in understanding offensive and defensive schemes, that does not mean they will not execute it.

The problem of more

It was current Miami Heat president Pat Riley who vocalized what he calls “the problem of more.”

The idea is that as a team experiences success or works together, their interests change. The team goal no longer becomes the only goal. Players have individual contracts to chase and marketing opportunities. It is hard to keep a team with pure interests in a championship tied together.

If you watched The Last Dance, even among one of the greatest teams of all time, there were so many competing interests that the Chicago Bulls had to struggle to tie together. They ultimately did, but not without some conflict and some near falls.

Other teams certainly succumb to this phenomenon. Charles Barkley said that after the Phoenix Suns made their run to the title in 1993, the team returned to camp and he could already tell the vibe was off.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Even the 1996 Orlando Magic are a good example of how the problem of more can eat up elite teams — Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway were fighting off the court with jealousy over one or the other’s fame and marketing opportunities in hidden and overt ways.

The 2021 Magic were not at that level — and neither really were the 2021 Heat. But the issue of teams going stale and teams not progressing in a straight line were certainly present.

The Magic had been together largely for the last seven years.

Orlando had Nikola Vucevic since the 2012 season in the Dwight Howard trade. Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon both arrived on draft night 2014. Those three toiled together trying to find a way to win and make their mark in the league for a long time.

Their breakthrough to the 2019 Playoffs was an accomplishment for all of them. No one was happier or felt that accomplishment more than those three players. You could tell as they completed the comeback and walked off the floor in Boston that clinched that playoff spot.

The 2020 season was a disappointment only in that the team could not advance themselves. They could not take that next step. Injuries played a role in that, but the Magic had this sort of malaise as the same group struggled to push forward.

This whole season was played seemingly under that malaise. The Magic’s inability — Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac’s injuries excusing as the team was without two starters virtually the whole year — to take that next step seemed to have everyone believe they were playing out the string.

Orlando’s continuity this year became a hindrance to their progress rather than a benefit. Maybe a fully healthy team would have taken the steps they anticipated. And the Magic likely did not see ways to get better even with the roster they would have available.

The step forward

The fact the Orlando Magic were stuck on their books and stuck on the court ultimately led them to start over. They determined looking at their roster they had gone as far as they could with the current group as constructed.

The team seemed to feel that way too. It came to the front when Aaron Gordon went public with a trade request and some discussions he had privately. It was even present when Evan Fournier seemed to understand that his time was up.

Orlando’s plan to grow from the middle hinged on players taking the step up on the court and opening pathways forward. That is something the Miami Heat used to push itself into the Eastern Conference picture.

But the Heat too, despite a high-profile trade deadline acquisition of Victor Oladipo, never took that meaningful step forward either. They suffered too from their own problem of more.

Miami Heat
Miami Heat /

Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler had a stellar season and looked like an MVP candidate at times. But his scoring was wildly inconsistent even as he improved as a playmaker.

Playoff hero Tyler Herro stagnated, seemingly impressed with his own fame, had a mediocre season. Miami was not the defensive juggernaut it typically is.

The only good thing that came out of the Heat’s season was Bam Adebayo’s All-Star run. The Miami Heat were extremely disappointed with its season and not merely because the team looked disorganized in a sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks.

This is all to say that stability for the sake of stability does not work. It did not work for the Magic and it did not work for the Heat. Miami is certainly more capable of staying the course with a young All-Star in Adebayo and a star in Butler. But the Heat need change just as much as the Magic needed to reset.

Both teams seemed to go stale and go stale very quickly.

Everyone is always guarding against this, but nobody can be really sure when it sets in. The good executives know when to pull the trigger and make the big moves to shake things up or when to reset this.

Orlando hit reset. It is not clear whether the Heat will stick with their core or make a significant move — Riley always seems to have one up his sleeve.

dark. Next. Orlando Magic silver linings: Takeaways from the season

That should prove that the one thing that is constant in the NBA is change. The Magic needed it and the Heat needed it after seasons of failure.