2023 Orlando Magic Season Review What Went Wrong: Choosing development first

The Orlando Magic again made critical errors down the stretch as the team struggles to close games. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic again made critical errors down the stretch as the team struggles to close games. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

Expectations are a funny thing.

They change and they shift. What each situation requires and what everyone deems success or failure can change in an instant.

The Orlando Magic, for instance, entered this season with fairly low expectations. The team was coming off a 22-win season, anchored by a rookie player and with a still fairly young team. There was some talk of the postseason with the raw talent on the team waiting to coalesce, but that was not what anybody thought would happen.

Orlando just wanted to see a progression forward. That was something they largely accomplished, raising those expectations entering the offseason.

Still, the 5-20 start felt like a low.

Credit to the Magic then for continuing to work and continuing to build. Credit to the Magic then for continuing to fight and build themselves back up. Credit the Magic for changing those expectations.

As Orlando improved, eventually finishing the season with 34 wins and a sizable gain from last season, the expectations for the team changed. Suddenly, the Magic’s postseason dreams did not seem so crazy and that changed everything.

The Orlando Magic changed the expectations for their team in the middle of the season. But they continued to focus on long-term development and their big picture and that likely cost them some wins.

Expectations indeed change as the season progresses. And while coach Jamahl Mosley did a great job keeping the big picture in mind to foster the team’s growth and development, the open talk of the postseason from players and the eagerness of fans pushed the team to a new phase of the rebuild.

A phase where winning is more important than development.

And this proved to be a tricky balance for the Magic — maintaining their long-term development plans and taking whatever bumps and bruises might come with that while still trying to compete and make up the ground to make a postseason run.

This may be the biggest challenge Mosley faces next year. The Magic have made it abundantly clear through exit interviews and postseason interviews that they believe they will be in the playoffs next year. The leveling up continues.

It is hard to complain too much because Mosley so masterfully fostered an environment that focused on long-term development and improvement. He was coaching to win games for sure but gave players room to make mistakes. He actively made decisions that hurt the team in the short term but would help the team in the long term.

That is all fine. It will help the team in the big picture. And that is ultimately what this seaosn was about.

Still, with the postseason so close, these decisions hurt the team and their ability to make something more of this season.

This is not something that necessarily went wrong. But there has been a constant criticism of Mosley in his two seasons as coach that he makes poor rotation decisions and late-game decisions that ultimately cost his team wins.

With the Magic trying to make winning a clearer priority for this group to reach its next level, it is going to require a change from Mosley. That is a flip that fans are worried he cannot flip and something he is completely unproven at.

For now, there were a few decisions of note that appeared to cost the team throughout the season, even if they had plenty of justification.

The biggest one was the insistence on playing Bol Bol in the team’s rotation deep into the season.

Bol had a blistering start to the season that earned him a starting role while the team was dealing with its early season injuries. He averaged 12.0 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting through Dec. 30 as he started 32 of 37 games.

But after that point, Bol averaged only 5.8 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting in the 33 games he played the rest of the season, seeing his minutes drop to 16.3 minutes per game.

The poor offensive showing highlighted his defensive shortcomings. Although from Jan. 1 to the end of the season, the Magic had a strong 108.5 defensive rating with Bol on the floor.

This was all part of the contradiction with Bol. Visually, his defense looked off as he struggled to track defenders off the ball or make his rotations seamlessly. His offense certainly took a nosedive.

Still, the Magic certainly owed him a chance. And they wanted to give him every opportunity he was not afforded in his time with the Denver Nuggets.

To be sure next year if Bol struggles as much as he did, it will be hard to justify keeping him in the rotation deep into March when games get tighter and feel more important.

The difference between this year and next year is the weight of these decisions and mistakes will be greater. There will be less time to wait things out — although coaches always give everything a greater chance to succeed or fail. Leveling up this time will require a quicker hook.

The same could be said for some of the team’s late-game decisions.

The Magic made a conscious decision to put the ball in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero’s hands. And they both struggled.

Despite the reputation of being “Fourth Quarter Franz,” Wagner shot just 38.8 percent on a team-high 1.6 field goal attempts for 1.8 points per game in clutch situations last year (when the game is within five points in the final five minutes). Banchero was slightly better scoring 2.3 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting and 1.5 field goal attempts per game in clutch situations.

The Magic needed them to make mistakes and get used to handling the decisions in these late-game situations. That is best for the team’s long-term growth.

But Markelle Fultz was also one of the most clutch players in the league by the numbers at least. He made 59.1 percent of his 1.5 field goal attempts per game for 2.5 points per game in clutch situations. He added a team-best 0.6 assists per game in clutch situations for good measure.

At least based on these limited numbers, if the Magic were trying to win games more consistently, the ball should have been in Fultz’s hands to set things up.

In more must-win situations next year, this is an adjustment the Magic might have to make. Fultz might be a greater key to winning than Banchero or Wagner, even if the Magic will need Banchero and Wagner comfortable in these situations for their eventual postseason and their future.

This is emblematic of the tricky balance the Magic are trying to reach next year. They will still surely want to develop these players more — that is the only way they will see progress. But they will also need to see results too. And if something is not working, they will need to move on.

The balance in the 2023 season clearly tipped more toward development than toward winning now. The Magic were happy to be on the periphery of the postseason, but they were willing to drop games for learning opportunities for future postseason runs.

The season was still a success despite this. And future seasons will be a success because of these lessons learned this year with the decisions they made.

Still, there was a general perception that Mosley could have done more to make players’ lives easier. He could have made small decisions to put the team in a better chance not only to grow and develop, but also win more.

The biggest thing for him and this team moving forward is whether Mosley can still foster the culture of development that has created such a bright future while making sometimes hard, short-term decisions to pick up wins and advance the team.

Next. What Went Wrong: Beating the teams they should. dark

For the 2023 season, the Magic made their decision on their priorities. It could easily have kept the team from making a more serious postseason push.

That will not be the case moving forward.