At the end of the day, NBA players are just like you and me at a certain point in every season.
There is a time when they too are on the sidelines watching the games unfold and becoming fans once again. Perhaps they watch things with a different eye and a different perspective, but they get amped and into these postseason games as we do.
It is no surprise then to hear the Orlando Magic’s group chat is still buzzing even though the season is one month out from being done. Within the first week of the season’s conclusion, Paolo Banchero noted during his Rookie of the Year Award press conference he and his teammates were talking about the playoffs in exactly the same way us fans would.
Well maybe, not quite the same.
Unlike the fans sitting on the sidelines reveling in the best version of basketball, these players can actually do something about it. And watching the Play-In Tournament and the early round of the playoffs has seemingly only steeled their resolve.
Just a month out from the end of their season, the Orlando Magic have already set the terms for their 2024 season. The Magic are not planning to sit out another postseason.
Where the Magic have often been a franchise reticent to set clear and open expectations and goals, the players are making it clear. Banchero at least made it clear what was going on in these conversations.
The Magic expect to be in the Playoffs next year. They are putting that pressure on themselves to meet these expectations. There will be no sitting out next year.
"“Next year, it’s playoffs or bust for me, for everyone, for the guys,” Banchero said after winning Rookie of the Year. “I know the way we’ve been talking to each other, that’s all we’re worried about. That’s all the guys are focused on doing whatever is trying to do whatever we can to be in the best position this time next year to be where we want to be and be in a seven-game series. We know it’s not just going to happen. We aren’t going to be able to coast through the season and let our talent win. We are going to have to work. We’re all excited though.”"
That is as plain a statement of intention as there could be.
And while some might scoff at a 34-win team putting those expectations on themselves, the Magic have certainly earned that kind of thought and discussion.
Making a 12-win improvement from 22 wins last year is certainly a step up. Going 29-28 after a 5-20 start is certainly a sign of just how good this team can be — ranking sixth in defensive rating during that stretch. Finishing six games out of the final play-in spot and being the last team eliminated from postseason contention was certainly a sign.
But it will take something more for the team to reach that height. They still ultimately fell short.
It is going to take a lot of work for the team to get to that level as excited as the team is for its future and excited to see and experience postseason basketball.
As Banchero said, it is not going to be an automatic. Progress is never linear. And it is going to take a lot of internal work to get there, as much as everyone is excited about the opportunities outside this roster.
Everything starts with the Magic’s core players improving and understanding the lessons of this season.
"“This offseason is huge,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Paolo Banchero won Rookie of the Year. “It is going to be big for all of our guys. Understanding the level of work we need to put in. A lot of guys are watching these games and the playoffs and texting back and forth talking about the work that needs to be put in and how we need to get better, the maturity we have to have and the approach that we have to have every single day in the summer and moving into the season.”"
The 2023 season then seemed like a vehicle to show the Magic what was possible. Their goal to level up was to begin to put the pieces together toward winning and understanding what it would take to win.
The next level is to do that more consistently. It is to understand the consistency in effort and approach necessary. There will be no room to start 5-20, injuries or not, next season.
Everyone has indeed seen what this team can do now. They have seen its potential. And so now it is about living up to it more and more.
Mosley has credited his team’s togetherness for getting through what was at times a difficult season. But they never wavered in their belief and Mosley said allowed the coaching staff to push them. That created clear results this year.
But there is still more to do. And the playoffs, even at its early stages, is another way the team sees how it can push itself.
"“We’ve always said this group of guys is you want them to have that belief system,” Mosley said after Banchero won Rookie of the Year. “You want them to watch games and have a level of confidence in who we are and what we’re doing. Every NBA season is different. The desire and the want are phenomenal to have. But there has got to be a body of work that goes behind it. It just enhances the way in which we work, the attention to detail that we will continue to have and them pushing each other knowing the level we are trying to achieve.”"
Banchero said Mosley has been showing the team clips from playoff games throughout the season to share the intensity and adjustments that get made in the postseason. Last year, Mosley took Cole Anthony and a few other players with him to a Western Conference Finals game in Dallas.
Even though the Magic are not in the postseason yet, Mosley has been trying to prepare his team for the postseason.
They have been watching with that different eye and focus knowing how close they were to playing these intense games.
Banchero noted he saw how much more efficient star players are with their movements knowing how tight and intense playoff games are. It is easy to see how the games slow down and it becomes about pure execution.
But there is no substitute for experience. The team can talk a lot about making the postseason, but it will be different when they get there.
The Magic know they do not want to sit this out again.
"“Me being in my first year, watching the playoffs, how could you not want to be there,” Banchero said after he won Rookie of the Year. “You can just see the intensity and the difference from the regular season to playoffs. How much more the games mean, how much more intense the crowds are. Everything is just heightened during the playoffs. I think the city deserves it. I think the guys and the coaches here, I think we deserve it as long as we put the work in. We are obviously talented enough, we have the pieces and we have more pieces that are coming. I think everyone is excited. We’re going to get there for sure.”"
Working to get there will be a challenge.
Banchero said he hopes the team is able to get together and work out throughout the offseason. That togetherness that drove the team through the 2023 season will be valuable moving forward. But it will still take a whole lot more.
But the stakes are laid out clearly for this team. They are not hiding from the expectations anymore. They know exactly what is at stake for next season.
And they are clearly stating their intentions and goals. This is the standard they already want to hold themselves to.
"“Next year, we have to take everything to another level,” Banchero said after he won Rookie of the Year. “We all have to come together even more. I was texting some guys today, enjoy the time but let’s try to link up and get some work in this summer because that’s what it is going to take for us to get there.”"
The Magic have the talent to make it for sure. They have put those expectations on themselves now too.
Now the challenge this offseason for the players — and the coaches and the front office — is to rise to that challenge and help this team get over that hump.
So that next year this team is not watching from the sidelines.