Orlando Magic can use a strong finish as a springboard

Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic used a strong finish in 2006 as a launchpad to their 2007 postseason appearance. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic used a strong finish in 2006 as a launchpad to their 2007 postseason appearance. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic were in a deep hole. Their season was drifting to the end and it did not seem like they had much hope. It felt like this would be another rebuilding year and a year filled with meaningless basketball.

That was the feeling for this team in late November.

Yes, this was a young team with plenty of players who needed to learn and would go through their growing pains in this season. But they were still expected to win and do more. It was not looking that way early in the season.

The Magic were seemingly out of the postseason race before it really began.

That was where the Magic stood at the end of the first quarter of this season, sitting with a 5-20 record. The team has turned things around since then going 27-24 and providing the franchise with hope for its brighter future.

The team still has a lot of work to do to get there. But getting to this point has made the season a resounding success. Even as the team certainly still has plenty more to work on.

The Orlando Magic are hoping to end their season strong and make a late postseason push. But really the team is trying to set a launchpad for next season.

The reality though is the Magic are running out of time if they have not run out of time already. They are four games back of the Chicago Bulls for the final play-in spot with six games remaining. If the Bulls finish .500 the rest of the season, the Magic would be eliminated from the postseason.

To say the least, the Magic have to go undefeated to make the playoffs. It is the longest of long shots.

The question facing many fans in these final weeks of the season then is just how valuable these games are. Certainly, they will be facing teams that need wins just as much as the Magic do to stay mathematically alive (except for the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, every game is against a team in postseason contention with only Friday’s critical game at the Washington Wizards against a team outside the current playoff picture).

The question is whether momentum from the end of the season can truly carry over to the next year.

The Magic are signaling they believe winning is the most valuable thing to get out of these final games of the season — even with remote playoff hopes. They have a young team that is going to stay largely intact — especially the core group with presumptive Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero and high-level sophomore Franz Wagner. They are not a group that can waste these final games of development and growth.

Fans have grabbed onto the current situation and tried comparing it to the 2020 Phoenix Suns.

The Suns were one of the outliers in the bubble, included despite their remoteness to the postseason race to help make the schedule work and because they still had a remote shot at the postseason.

Needing to only get within five games of the final playoff team to make the play-in game, the Suns knew entering the bubble they had to go undefeated in the eight seeding round games to make the postseason.

They did just that and still fell short because the hill was too tall. But it was confirmation of the Suns’ ascendancy and proof of concept the team was ready to win on a higher level. The next season, they acquired Chris Paul in the offseason and reached the NBA Finals, breaking a 10-year playoff drought in the process.

That is what the Magic are likely trying to prove to some extent. If the last 50 games did not do it already, one last postseason push could be proof of concept of the Magic’s readiness to take the next step.

The Bubble was obviously its own thing and completely unique circumstances. But the Magic do not have to go deep into their own history to see how much a young team can gain momentum from a strong finish to the season.

Let’s wind back to 2006.

The Magic were in their second year with Dwight Howard and he was still a raw and precocious player figuring out his impact in the league. The team still had Steve Francis, although he was certainly starting to recede after the trade of his buddy Cuttino Mobley the year before. And there was some chaos in the front office (just look up Jon Weisbrod) that bled to instability with coaching.

The 2006 season did not start off well to say the least. Orlando was 20-40 on March 6 and on a six-game losing streak. That left them 9.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the final spot in the playoffs.

The team had salary dumped Steve Francis at the trade deadline to open up room for Jameer Nelson to play more. They were acting like a rebuilding team (although they were still 12th in the Eastern Conference at the time).

There were serious questions about the Magic and their future at the time. It did kind of feel like the Magic were letting the gift of the No.1 pick (everyone knew Dwight Howard was good, but his future was still very undefined) go to waste.

Something crazy happened though. The Magic won 16 of their next 20 games including an eight-game win streak. Suddenly Orlando started climbing the standings, getting as close as 2.5 games from the postseason on April 15.

Unfortunately, that would eliminate the team. The Magic made their wild rally too late. They had a big matchup with the Bulls in their penultimate game at the TD Waterhouse Centre (nee Orlando Arena) that was rendered meaningless after the Bulls won the weekend before. The Magic were eliminated with just two games remaining.

Still, this run was essential in setting up the Magic’s future.

From March 6, 2006, to the end of the season, you could begin to see the hints of what would become an Eastern Conference championship team just three years later. Dwight Howard averaged 16.1 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. Hedo Turkoglu led the team with 18.2 points per game on 52.5/47.7/85.6 shooting splits. Jameer Nelson scored 15.9 points per game with 5.5 assists per game.

The Magic had the second-best offense in the league at that time (a now-paltry 110.6 points per 100 possessions). The team had the 11th-best defense in the league at 104.0 points allowed per 100 possessions.

That offensive surge was at least in part to adding some shooting and the electric play from Carlos Arroyo after he arrived in Orlando. The addition of Darko Milicic also gave the Magic a huge inside presence which benefited the team since they took so few threes (the following season featured the last time the Magic failed to make a 3-pointer in a game).

Whatever the case, the table certainly felt set for the Magic to have a stronger 2007 season. They seemed destined to take that next step for a young team with a former top overall pick.

Orlando started the 2007 season 13-4 before settling in at 42-40 and earning the 8-seed, the first postseason appearance for the Magic with Dwight Howard. The rest was history as the Magic would launch to division champions in 2008 and the NBA Finals in 2009.

That is not to say the current version of the Magic are on that trajectory. But for a young team that is expected to carry over, these games can serve as that launch pad and a boost of confidence that they can compete.

The Magic may have already accomplished that part of the process. They have seen they can compete with the best teams in the league and do so sustainably. Orlando absolutely should have postseason aspirations for next season already.

Next. Injuries kept Orlando Magic from reaching full potential. dark

The question is how much of a launch pad this season will truly prove to be.