Orlando Magic stuck in between: Eastern Conference Power Rankings

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Darius Garland developed into an All-Star and gave the Cleveland cavalier permission to chase a better team. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Darius Garland developed into an All-Star and gave the Cleveland cavalier permission to chase a better team. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Preseason Eastern Conference Power Rankings

Young and On the Rise

8. team. 156. . . . Cleveland Cavaliers

The Orlando Magic should have one kind of goal this year. It would be to be considered in the class of the teams in this tier of the Eastern Conference.

They want to be a young team on the rise. Maybe not quite a contender yet, but a team that is clearly on the rise thanks to internal development and the chance to add things in free agency or trades.

The Orlando Magic want to be this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. They want to be the team where all those young players suddenly coalesce into a playoff appearance complete with a budding young All-Star and a rookie on the rise.

The Cavaliers, to their credit, did not overreact to their playoff appearance. They may be expecting the come-to-earth moment this season as they deal with expectations. They stayed patient to foster their team.

The biggest question hanging over them now is whether they can bring back Collin Sexton — it is increasingly looking like he might come back for the qualifying offer and a chance to prove himself for free agency next summer.

The Cavaliers have a dynamic guard and center duo in Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. And that is the start for everything. Like Orlando, Cleveland will spend this season seeing how far that group can take them and learning what they need to surround their young players with.

. . Charlotte Hornets. 9. team. 170.

If there is a team that could be poised to make a big leap this season and finally break through to the next tier, it is the Charlotte Hornets. And it is not just because they are a dark horse to land Donovan Mitchell if the Utah Jazz ever trade him.

LaMelo Ball’s arrival has pushed the Hornets into the Play-In Tournament the last two seasons. This team has been knocking on the door. And the trio with him, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward have helped produce one of the best offenses in the league.

The missing ingredient has always been the team’s defense. It just was never consistent enough.

Enter Steve Clifford.

As Orlando Magic fans well know (and Charlotte Hornets fans know too), Clifford is a master at teaching and preaching defensive discipline. All of his teams have found success as a top defensive team. And he is a master at building foundations for teams to make that breakthrough into the postseason.

What Clifford has never had is a strong offensive outfit — even when he muscled Kemba Walker and All Jefferson into the postseason and even with an All-Star year from Nicolas Batum adding to that.

This very well may be the most offensively talented team Clifford has coached. And if that adds well to Clifford’s defensive acumen, this could be a team that surprised.

There are things working against the Hornets. Miles Bridges was a big part of their surge the last two years. He remains unsigned and his status uncertain after he was arrested and charged with assaulting and battering his girlfriend. It is a serious situation that should not be reduced to basketball alone.

But the Hornets are down that big piece on the court. That may be one of the biggest things holding them back from being a clear-cut team on the rise.