After the Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat to end their 2022 season a little more than a year ago, coach Jamahl Mosley laid out a challenge to his team.
From the rookie head coach who usually seemed careful to say the right thing in front of the media — someone who was always encouraging and willing to put blame on himself so that his team could grow — this kind of a challenge and clear statement of intent was refreshing.
Gone was the free ride the team had in its first rebuild year. The Magic may not be full of postseason expectations quite yet, but they had a directive from their coach to get better.
The statement that it was time for the team to “level up” ran through the entire offseason. It was the rallying cry and the mission statement for the team.
The Orlando Magic leveled up in a strong 2023 season. Now they have to do it again and show maturity and poise that comes with experience and expectation.
As the Magic gathered to end their 2023 season, they had accomplished the “leveling up” part of their season. They had improved by 12 games to reach 34 wins. They had seen a brighter future and the outlines of a competitive team.
But they were still ending their season after 82 games. They still had a long way to go. The Magic still have to level up again.
"“I think they did a very good job of that,” coach Jamahl Mosley said during the team’s exit interviews. “Obviously there are going to be ups and downs within that. I think their leveling up of their focus, the attention to detail, the understanding of what’s happening within the game, they’ve done that. They understand the process of what it is going to take to be successful on a consistent basis. That is the next thing we are going to use is our level of consistency night in and night out.”"
There was no postseason basketball awaiting them. And so there is yet another place the Magic need to go. There is clearly more for this group to grow and develop into.
The Magic showed in recovering from a 5-20 start to get to 34-48 that they are beginning to understand what it takes to win. They showed their resiliency and they showed their maturity. Or at least the beginning of their maturity.
Orlando won a little bit, as Moe Wagner put it. The team has experienced success. But reaching the postseason and playing a higher level of basketball will take something more.
The team went through the daily grind of a season and found some success. But now that focus and that attention to detail needs to be sharper.
The next step for the Magic is to be more precise and more definite in their execution. It is to be better and more consistent day to day and game to game.
"“We want to talk about is we can play good basketball on both ends and that’s how you pressure test your team,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during exit interviews. “So that when you hit adversity are you playing clean basketball? And then you look at the talent and that’s the next way you get to the next level. As these guys grow up and they play understanding what that looks like and what that’s supposed to be, all of a sudden you start to eliminate mistakes and add an awareness of how you make each other better. And that’s how you get to the next step. And really there is no next step, it’s a continuous process of growth.”"
The Magic, at least among their front office, are not tipping their hand on what comes next. The team knows it will have to add players and explore opportunities to push the team forward.
But so much of it will start with the continued maturity and improvement of the team. The Magic ranked 27th in turnover rate this season, highlighting the mistakes the team made.
Orlando’s rebounding was solid but still inconsistent with the team giving up extra possessions at inopportune times. The Magic ranked 14th in opponent free throw rate, a number that is solid but could still improve.
These are all things the team can still get better at. But it is also something that comes with maturity. As would the team’s poise in close game situations.
Maturity was a constant theme as the team wrapped up its season. Orlando knows it showed some of the things it can do. It showed that the postseason is absolutely possible.
So while the front office is playing coy, the players are not. They know what this team is capable of. And now leveling up is not just about the intangible things, it is about something much more measurable and clear.
"“Absolutely [next year has to be a playoff year],” Markelle Fultz said during exit interviews. “I know a lot of people are talking about this year and we talked about earlier. I said something about the fourth seed. That’s what we want to do. We want to be a playoff team and we want to win. We believe that we can. We still had a chance this year which was pretty exciting. In all our minds we all agree we will be very upset if we are not in the playoffs next year.”"
During the preseason, the Magic talked about this goal in vague terms. Only veteran Gary Harris spoke openly about believing the team was ready to make a postseason push. Now it is everyone who seems to be saying it.
There is no hiding this time from these goals and this tangible marker to reach.
And that is the good thing, everyone seems to get that it starts with them. Getting to this next level starts with individual improvement. And the hope is certainly that alone will get the team into the postseason — with external additions adding onto this base that is already growing.
Magic players, at least at this early juncture in the offseason, are embracing this challenge. And perhaps embracing it openly is a sign of the team’s seriousness and renewed belief in what they are doing.
"“Playoffs. I think guys don’t like to look at it is as we’ve got to make the playoffs or the higher teams we’ve got win the championship to be successful,” Wendell Carter said during exit interviews. “I think we’re at a pretty good point where we can say that now. I think guys want to win now. That comes with winning is making the playoffs and whatever happens there happens.”"
Things will undoubtedly will change. Just making these big proclamations will put pressure on the team they have not experienced before. Orlando has been able to skate by with just focusing on improvement — including in this “level up” season.
Now everything is on the line and the team has to show measurable growth.
And while this team has a bright future, progress is not inevitable. As Moe Wagner put it really poignantly: Inconsistency happens when you start believing it is easy. The Magic will have to work just to get back to this level and advance.
There are still lessons to learn. The team will have to hold each other accountable to these high goals. They will have to be ready and focused for each moment. That is something the young Magic would sometimes lose focus on at times and lose their way.
That was part of what Orlando had to control and improve.
There is a lot to improve for the Magic. They are not a perfect team yet. They are still so young.
But they have shown they can level up. Now comes the next task. To do it again and meet these clear playoff expectations.