The end of the season is on the horizon for the Orlando Magic. And everyone is feeling it.
Players understand the pressure that is increasing with each passing game as they try to aim for their postseason dreams and goals. Fans understand this too as they see time running out and the NCAA Tournament puts their mind at least temporarily on the NBA Draft.
The internal debate it seems is centered on what will be best for this team and its development, creating interesting tension for fans as the season comes to a close.
This season has been an unqualified success before we get anywhere else. The Magic have blown past last year’s win total at 22 to sit at 28-40. Just based off their win percentage through 68 games, the Magic are on pace to win 34 games (finishing the season 6-8 the rest of the way). Most fans would have taken that at the beginning of the year.
Orlando has accomplished a lot. And it is good to see the team’s — or at least the players’ — ambition as the season comes to a close.
They have been the ones pushing and talking about the potential of making the postseason and the Play-In Tournament. They continue to talk about that as a goal, even though it is going to be a big hill to climb to get there.
There is definitely a debate to be had about what the Magic’s best use of these final 14 games will be. But the answer should also be pretty simple:
The end of the season often brings a great debate among fans. For the Orlando Magic the answer is clear. Winning is this team’s only pursuit from here forward.
This team needs to start practicing and putting winning expectations on it now. This is the jump start to next season — when the Magic likely will have Playoff expectations both internally and externally. And there is no reason to throw away the final 14 games to pursue a Lottery pipe dream (one that will probably still be secured even by making a concerted push to win the rest of the season).
The fun of this season is the Magic and their fans have started looking up at the standings rather than down. They are looking to make moves into the postseason rather than trying to engineer a trip down to the standings to better position themselves for the wish of the Lottery (a Lottery the Magic already won last year).
In essence, Orlando is ready to win. The team has made that clear and played that way since Dec. 7, where the team is 23-20 with the 11th-best win percentage in the entire league in that time.
And the only way to build a culture of winning is to continue to do so and to gain the experience that comes from trying to win.
The Magic’s chase for the postseason was never about making the postseason. It was irrelevant to the team’s goals and ambitions for the season to make the Play-In Tournament, as small as a goal as that is.
The postseason chase was more about gaining experience and gaining little successes along the way. It was about experiencing the pressure of a postseason chase and the weight of each game, understanding and learning from each loss and making games meaningful.
These are the moments that will be important for a young team to grow and learn to make next year truly special.
The reality is that the postseason chase is fading somewhat.
The Orlando Magic trail the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in spot by 3.5 games. Making up 3.5 games with 14 games remaining is tough enough. But the real issue is the Orlando Magic have fallen off the pace of the two teams that are still in front of them, trailing the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards by three games.
That was always going to be the bigger challenge. And a 1-3 homestand before the team heads out West this week for a four-game road trip seemed like a missed opportunity to make up ground.
Everyone in this race has essentially treaded water for the last month. And the Magic, in doing so, have failed to make up ground only letting time run out.
The end of this upcoming road trip and the look ahead to the final 10 games was always going to be a final check-in to how serious this postseason chase was going to be. It is still close enough for now that the team should keep its focus on it.
It is true that being competitive and being a tough out for the elite and playoff teams remaining on the schedule is important. There are moral victories to be had if you want to find them.
But the team also needs to change its culture. It needs to be about winning. There is no consolation for losing. There are lessons to learn from losing. But there is no progress ultimately from losing.
For those looking down at the standings, the Magic are beyond the tanking group. Yes, they sit in fifth in the Lottery standings. But they are closer to the postseason than to the group that will have the top odds in the Lottery.
The Orlando Magic lead the Charlotte Hornets by seven games for fifth place in the Lottery odds. They also now trail the Washington Wizards by three games for sixth in the Lottery standings.
Because the Western Conference is also super competitive — the Play-In Tournament has worked to end tanking throughout most of the league! — the Magic’s choice is essentially take fifth in the Lottery standings or make the play-in tournament.
It really is the best of both worlds for those who believe Lottery positioning is the team’s best path forward and continuing to compete and push for the postseason is the best.
But that is not really the concern, is it? That is not what this season is supposed to be about.
This season is supposed to be about the Magic’s growth and development. It is about the team figuring out what it has and how it can begin to push forward.
The only way to do that is to experience the pressure that comes from needing to get wins. The only way for the Magic to grow is to learn through their experience and mistakes. And this is the year to make those mistakes.
There is a lot of value in the attempt for this Orlando team. Every misstep and mistake this season is going to be something this team can learn from for next year. That was what was on full display in the Orlando Magic’s overtime win over the Miami Heat on Saturday.
So the last thing the Magic should think about doing is packing it in and calling it a season. Even if the team is unable to make the postseason, there is still so much for this team to play for.