Orlando Magic playoff chase will be a task as tough as 2019

Jonathan Isaac is one of the few holdovers from the Orlando Magic's miracle 2019 run to the playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Isaac is one of the few holdovers from the Orlando Magic's miracle 2019 run to the playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic were a team that was unsure of its direction back in January 2019.

They had just lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder to fall to 20-31. The trade deadline loomed — as did the prospect of trading away their soon-to-be All-Star in Nikola Vucevic. The team’s playoff prospects seemed dim. Making up five games from an inexperienced postseason team seemed like an impossibly tall task.

This was the second year under president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman. He had largely sat back and observed what the roster was, choosing to focus his efforts on changing the team behind the scenes. But the roster felt like it needed some major change.

The Magic on the court was seemingly spinning its wheels. This same veteran group led by Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon had improved under coach Steve Clifford but clearly not enough.

It felt like a group on its last legs.

The Orlando Magic’s incredible 2019 playoff run provides some important lessons and clues to what is in store for the rest of the 2023 season.

Something incredible happened during the final two and a half months.

The Magic caught fire. They saw something in their team to give them a chance and they went on one of the most scintillating runs in Magic history.

Orlando finished that season 22-9 to reach 42-40, the franchise’s first winning season since the team traded Dwight Howard in 2012. The Magic clinched their first playoff spot since then, beating the Boston Celtics at TD Garden in the penultimate game of the season to punch their ticket to the postseason.

That team was very different than the current iteration of the Magic. While the team in 2019 was a more veteran team seemingly trying to extend a road that had a clear ceiling, the 2023 Magic are a young team with limitless potential.

As they sit on Jan. 29, 2023, they are a similar 19-31 and a similar 4.5 games back of the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls for the final spot in the play-in tournament (a smaller but still substantial hill to climb).

The 2019 team serves as an example that this season is far from over for the Magic, despite frustrations with the inconsistency of this young group. It serves as an example that there is still a lot of growth to make and a lot to accomplish.

Before beginning that 22-9 run, the Magic were 25th in net rating at -3.6 points per 100 possessions. This was a team that was a level above the worst teams in the league, but not exactly a consistent winning outfit.

They ranked 23rd in offensive rating at 105.6 points per 100 possessions and 16th in defensive rating at 109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.

The Magic had reasons to believe they could make a run because of their defense. That was always going to be the key for a Clifford-coached team. And that is ultimately what led the team into the playoffs.

The Magic finished those final 31 games of the season ranked first in the league in defensive rating, giving up 104.9 points per 100 possessions. And then shockingly eighth in offensive rating at 112.5 points per 100 possessions.

Everything came together. The team built confidence — they won seven of eight games to kickstart this run — and took advantage of a fairly home-heavy schedule to make their push to the playoffs. They took advantage of everything put in front of them and earned their way in.

It shows again how quickly things can come together and how much any team can build momentum.

This season is very different but has some similarities to note.

Orlando is 26th in net rating overall at -3.3 points per 100 possessions. The team ranks 24th in defense at 114.9 points allowed per 100 possessions and 25th in offense at 111.6 points per 100 possessions. In this sense, the 2023 team is not showing the same hints of success the 2019 team did.

Magic fans and media have taken to measuring the 2023 team since Dec. 7, when this team ended a nine-game losing streak and started a stretch winning eight of nine. A lot has changed for this team since then.

Orlando is 14-11 overall (a big step for a team that won just 22 games last year and remained largely intact). The team has a -0.1 net rating, meaning the team is likely outperforming its stats a bit.

The Magic rank 18th in defensive rating since then at 114.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (an improvement in comparison to the league but a marginal improvement over their season number). The big jump has come offensively where the team ranks 17th at 114.5 points per 100 possessions.

If there is actual improvement in this team, it is in how much better it has played offensively. The question this team faces is whether that is sustainable with the team’s current defensive levels. It is why there is so much emphasis on finding defensive consistency.

Because the Orlando Magic could make a run if they are able to get their defense right — it highlights how important the lesson from Saturday’s loss to the Chicago Bulls may yet be.

To be sure, the road ahead is not easy either.

Orlando is set to embark next on a four-game road trip that will take them to Philadelphia, Minnesota and Charlotte. Even with the Charlotte Hornets’ record, no game on this trip will be easy. They still have a West Coast trip to come in mid-March while the NCAA Tournament moves into the Amway Center.

According to Tankathon, the Magic have the 11th-most difficult remaining schedule based on opponent win percentage.

The Magic have a long hill to climb for sure. Nobody is denying that or running from the hole the Magic are digging themselves out of.

This is not the 2019 team in terms of experience or even focus. That 2019 team needed to make the playoffs to stick together — even players on the roster openly talked about that external pressure.

This 2023 team is still in its beginning stages. Only the players are talking openly about their postseason ambitions.

But that pressure is a good thing to have. That carrot is still out there.

Orlando is one solid run — another eight wins in nine games, for example — away from likely making up that gap. The team trails Washington and Chicago by four games in the win column. That does make things feel a little less daunting.

Even if the Magic stay only on the periphery of the postseason chase, this season is on track to be a smashing success with the potential the group has seen.

What the Magic did in 2019 was incredibly special. To go 22-9 and rally for the postseason is one of the greatest stretches in this franchise’s history and one of the best stories this team had. That 2019 team will always be special.

To copy that would again take a miracle. But it is possible. It has happened.

And the Magic have seen this version of the team rally together and put together some really special runs of basketball. Right now, they seem to be at a solid level of .500 basketball — tantalizing but ultimately frustrating. That is progress, believe it or not for this group.

Next. Turnovers are the Orlando Magic's last hurdle. dark

But to get to that ultimate goal, it will take a little bit more. It is going to take another miracle run in all likelihood — maybe not to that extent, it feels safe to say the winner of this play-in tournament race will not reach .500.

It is still out there. And anything can be possible.