When you are coming off a 22-win season and are one of the youngest teams in the league, you know you are playing the long game.
The season is not wholly about this season. It is about the team’s long-term development and how they grow and improve throughout the course of the season. It is about setting up the future and trying to make that future come as quickly as possible.
The Orlando Magic have put their future in focus this season. They have moved past the injury-filled 5-20 start to put themselves on the periphery of the postseason. Orlando may not quite be ready to make that leap or make up the ground they lost earlier in the season, but the team has already proven itself ready to take that next critical step.
That is thanks to the drafting of Paolo Banchero and where he sits in his rookie year. That is thanks to the individual growth of Franz Wagner and Markelle Fultz. That is thanks to players accepting their roles like Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs. That is thanks to the return from injury from Jonathan Isaac and thanks to the solid play from Wendell Carter.
Everyone has contributed something to the Magic’s rise and seeming imminent push to the playoffs for the 2024 season.
Yet, expectations change. They should change.
Expectations for the Orlando Magic have changed. They want to be in the postseason chase. And on that front, the team is merely treading water as they struggle to build momentum.
The Magic are trying to stay in the postseason chase. But while they are good enough to hang around in that race — they are closer to the play-in chase than the tank chase, if such things matter — they are still treading water.
That is progress in itself for a young team. But it still has a tinge of disappointment as the Magic try to take that next step and become a postseason team.
Orlando is 21-17 since ending their nine-game losing streak back in December. They rank 10th in the league in defensive rating since that time. Orlando has established itself as at least a competent team and a tough defensive team to crack — at least most nights.
The Orlando Magic are 4.5 games back of the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors for ninth and 10th in the Eastern Conference. This has been about how far back the Magic have been behind the postseason chase for several weeks now.
The team remains behind the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls before they even get to the play-in spots. This was always going to be a long climb.
But the Magic have been effectively treading water. The team has not really built any long win streaks since their six-game win streak in December ended.
In fact, the Magic have not had a losing streak longer than two games since the three-game streak right on the tail end of that win streak. But they have also not had a winning streak longer than two games since then either.
Orlando’s growth this year has been in stopping the bleeding and responding to losses, finding ways to scratch out wins. That is tremendous progress for a team learning how to win. If the Magic do this the entire year next year, being a .500 team should put them in the postseason in the Eastern Conference.
But this is not how you make up ground in a postseason chase. At some point, a team has to go on a streak. Perhaps the Magic still have that in them and they are one big run away from climbing back into the postseason chase.
Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets is a must-win — losses to the Hornets, two to the Detroit Pistons and a loss to the Houston Rockets really sting in a chase separated by four games. The team would finish a 2-1 road trip with a win Friday too, a positive sign especially winning the swing game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday.
The Orlando Magic have a critical four-game homestand starting Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers. That homestand will continue with the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Miami Heat. The Magic only have one win against those teams — a three-point win at Portland. But the Magic need to build some momentum before they go on their four-game West Coast trip the following week.
Orlando has the 16th most difficult schedule remaining according to opponent win percentage. There are still opportunities to build momentum this season. But the path is not easy.
Time is not running out to do it. But the pressure is increasing for the Magic to start making moves and do more than tread water if they are serious about making a postseason push.
There is at least some disappointment the Magic have not been able to take advantage or makeup ground. The hill is only getting taller.
But this is a sign of progress itself too. It is a sign the Magic have reached this point.
As teams improve throughout the course of the season and the standings shake out, teams should reassess and reevaluate what they can accomplish.
This is how the postseason talk started to get into the conversation. The players felt they had made significant improvements and could see the carrot of the postseason within their grasps.
This year has been an unqualified success already. The team has far surpassed last year’s 22-win total. They are one win away from beating their Vegas over/under projections. Everything the Magic are doing now feels like gravy.
But Orlando wants more. The players have made sure of that by mentioning the postseason so often. It is no longer quiet confidence or youthful confidence, this is something the team wants to accomplish. This is the standard they want to measure themselves again.
While no one should be living and dying with every loss or willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, playing pressure games is vital to this team’s future success. It previews what the team will need to continue competing and where the team can still grow.
So the team remains focused on the play-in chase for the rest of the season. And it is there the team is a bit disappointed. They have not been able to build momentum and makeup ground in the play-in chase.
The team is just treading water. And the team could fall further behind if the team does not start to build up some momentum.