Orlando Magic are tanking more than just their record

Ignas Brazdeikis played admirably for the Orlando Magic even as they struggled to close out the game. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Ignas Brazdeikis played admirably for the Orlando Magic even as they struggled to close out the game. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

107. 156. Final. 101. 38

The Orlando Magic are a team that fights.

An 18-0 run in the second quarter, given up largely by the team’s deep bench crew, seemed to put the team in a hole too deep for them to climb out of. But dutifully, the Magic fought back. Wendell Carter started cooking. The team limited its turnovers and got back in the game.

The Magic, certainly aided by Evan Mobley leaving the game with a sprained ankle in the second quarter, started attacking the basket and started finding their offensive rhythm.

Even that deep bench started doing their work in the fourth quarter. They were in the lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers and holding on in a close game on the road. They played well and earned an extended look as the game started to wind won.

But for a Magic team that had just come out of a game where they struggled to execute and get stops down the stretch, this was the perfect chance to apply those lessons immediately.

The question then coming out of the Magic’s 107-101 loss to the Cavaliers is why the Magic did not take advantage of these opportunities? Why did the team leave its starters on the bench at this critical juncture, going up against a playoff team desperate for a win to maintain their position?

Why are players who, frankly, will not be part of this team’s long-term future on the court instead?

The Orlando Magic did their most over tanking move, leaving their reserves in and balancing their starters’ minutes as they fell late to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a winnable game.

The Magic do not have much to play for. They have long been eliminated from the playoffs but the team has tried to make it clear it would not play out the string. The way the team fights each night — including in this game against the Cavaliers — is a sign of the young culture this team is trying to build.

That is the most important thing for the team to foster as the season comes to a close. Continuing to build this culture and this idea.

It is something ephemeral and hard to define. But you know it when you have it. And it can get lost pretty quickly.

No one within the Magic will say it, but the answer is painfully obvious at this point. Watching a certain section of the fan base wring their hands over every near win or watching two fan bases in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers cheer against their teams as they head into overtime (the Thunder won, by the way, for their 21st victory), makes it obvious.

With just seven games left in the season, Lottery positioning seems to have taken over for the Magic. And now it is being done in an overt way.

Orlando led Cleveland 92-90 when Jamahl Mosley called a timeout with about 5.5 minutes to play. This would normally be the time he would reload with starters. Maybe he would stick with Ignas Brazdeikis, who was doing a good job attacking the basket. Or maybe he would stick with Chuma Okeke for his shooting ability.

But if the Magic were trying to win and if the Magic were trying to gain the lessons from Saturday’s disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings, this would have been the time to bring back Wendell Carter and Cole Anthony and Franz Wagner — ostensibly, the team’s three best starters right now.

Instead, Mosley kept them on the bench. He rolled with that deep bench unit, crediting them for their execution to put the Magic in the position to win and sticking with them.

It did not work.

Cleveland proceeded to go on a 12-0 run to put the game out of reach. Darius Garland finished with a flourish, hitting a few tough jumpers while the Magic were struggling to generate any offense.

It was abundantly clear, this lineup was not working.

Orlando stuck with a lineup that was not working instead of going back to a starting group that did not have a single player with a negative plus/minus. If the Magic were trying to win, they certainly made a choice that went against that idea.

Entering a tight game with a chance to win is the exact kind of growth opportunity the team talks about all the time. The exact lessons they want to learn and apply.

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Instead, the Magic punted on the opportunity. Everyone knows it, no matter how much the starters were cheering on their teammates to get the job done.

As much as president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman hates the idea of organizational culture, it does exist. And largely the Magic have done well to build that culture.

The team fights — even after going down by 10, that bench group finally snapped to attention and hit a few threes that brought the game to within four with very little time remaining. Orlando has carved out a top-10 defense over the second half of the season.

The Magic may not be judging this season on wins and losses, but they still want to play the part. They want to instill those values and that desire to win. This is a competitive team eager to learn and improve.

If the Magic are a development outfit, why are they taking that opportunity away? Why are they signaling to their players that this is not important?

This culture is something that trickles down to everyone. And that culture ultimately needs to be about winning.

Nobody is beyond the reality of the season. Orlando should be thinking about the team’s future.

There is no reason to push players too hard. Sticking with a bench lineup longer or using more egalitarian minutes is perfectly fine. The Magic should not be overtaxing players. There may be no reason to pay Jalen Suggs the rest of the season — setting up a healthy summer is far more important for him.

Mosley has spoken openly about playing different lineups together and experimenting some — Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz shared plenty of minutes throughout Monday’s game.

Sticking with a bench lineup is not something the Magic have not done before — he stuck with an entire bench lineup for the entire fourth quarter in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Even then, fans sniffed that out as a bit odd. But the Magic scored 27 points and had an offensive rating of 103.8 points per 100 possessions to hang on for that win.

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The Magic were cruising through the first half of that quarter and built a 14-point lead and just needed to hang on. If anything, that should have been some proof that this was a mistake.

And the Magic were hardly using the same kind of lineup in this game. Not to mention the game was considerably tighter Monday night in Cleveland. Terrence Ross was not there to bail the team out (he was active, but was a DNP-Coach’s Decision yet again).

Outside of Okeke, no player on the floor to end Monday’s game likely has a future beyond this season.

To the point of how tied together the team is, Wendell Carter said he had no qualms about sitting out the end of the game. He trusts the coach’s decision.

Orlando has talked about trying to get better with each experience. The team is robbing its young players of some of this experience by practicing “tanking” like this. This is about as overt as the Magic have been all season on this front.

No one knows which pick will land the top pick. The focus for this team should be on the players the team has now and getting the most out of their development. These are indeed opportunities the team should not waste.

But that is exactly what tanking does. It gives away key close-game reps that could help players grow and develop beyond this year.

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It sends a bad message to a team that has done so well to build something intriguing this year.