Orlando Magic’s ascendancy is far from guaranteed in 2024

Feb 13, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) brings the ball up court against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) brings the ball up court against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

Nobody wants to be that guy who rains on everyone’s parade when it comes to the Orlando Magic.

At this moment, Magic fans are and should be beaming after the team made a 12-win improvement. The shine on the Wilt Chamberlain Trophy is still there in Paolo Banchero’s apartment. And the team can certainly celebrate Banchero also being the only unanimous selection to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team.

Orlando is basking too in a strong finish to the season as the team went 29-28 after a 5-20 start, even tanking the final three games. That is the pace for a playoff team — or a Play-In team at worst.

And there is plenty more to be excited about from Franz Wagner’s continued development to the solid play from Wendell Carter and Markelle Fultz to the bench burst from Cole Anthony to Jalen Suggs’ finishing kick. Pair that with the potential for two Lottery picks and realistically $25 million in cap room, and it does feel like the Magic could do a lot this summer.

The team has certainly already set its expectations for the upcoming season. Banchero said he and his teammates feel next year is Playoffs or bust. A bold statement but one that comes from the excitement of how the season ended and the eagerness from watching the early playoff games knowing how close the team finished to experiencing it.

There is a feeling that it is all guaranteed that this Magic team will take that all-important next step. It feels like destiny.

The Orlando Magic have one of the brightest futures in the league. But none of that potential is guaranteed. The team still has a lot of work to do to reach its goals.

That is not how things work. And that was always the biggest pause whenever Banchero said he believes the Magic can be a playoff team. They still have to put in the work.

Orlando believes it has the makings of a playoff team. There are the beginning pieces. But getting over the top? That is going to take something from everyone — every player, every coach and every front-office executive.

The plain fact is that as promising as the Magic’s 2023 season and the bright future it suggests may be, the team is starting from scratch ahead of the 2024 season. Every defensive rotation and relationship has to be rebuilt. The team has to start over and do this again and more.

That is a difficult challenge.

The plain fact is too that the Magic still missed the playoffs. They are not where they want to be and they need more to get there.

They made a great run and went 29-28 in the season’s final 57 games. But that 5-20 start is still right around the corner. And with plenty of opportunities to make up ground and sneak into the play-in, the Magic were not able to get over the top.

Orlando stayed within three games of the final play-in spot but never got completely there. After their six-game win streak in December, the Magic never won more than three games in a row the rest of the season. And that happened only once in March.

To their credit, the Magic did not lose more than two games in a row until a disappointing March homestand, likely the final nail in the Magic’s postseason chances. They lost four in a row to end the season when they shut their team down.

This was a .500 team in the final three-quarters of the season.

But the team still has a long way to climb up. And there is no assuming that it just happens.

Experience and development are going to be the lead in the team’s growth.

Everyone recognizes how good Banchero can be. He was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year Award. And he has already talked about the areas he wants to improve. It seems certain he will get better. The question is just how much better.

Every player on the roster will face these questions too. The Magic do not go anywhere without this kind of individual improvement — whether that is becoming a better shooter or more efficient at what they are already good at.

Even with that, it is clear the team needs to add something to the roster.

The team desperately needs shooting. It is the obsession of a team that has been held back by its poor shooting for nearly a decade. It is why fans are so obsessed with players like Gradey Dick or Jordan Hawkins in the draft. Or finding players in free agency like Max Strus in free agency.

The Magic do have all that cap room to spend, but they are not likely to splurge on a big-name player like Fred VanVleet — although they could get to his projected salary of $30 million with some other maneuvering.

Rather, Orlando seems more likely to add a few pieces to their team to bolster their depth. If anything, the Magic have to add players to shore up their bench and cover for the injuries that cost them so much earlier in the season.

They need more consistent production off the bench — the Magic could see how good a good bench could be with Cole Anthony and Moe Wagner scoring in bunches late in the season.

They have to do all this too while not upsetting the apple cart of the bonds they have made.

Players inevitably are going to move on. And the Magic may ultimately need upgrades at positions that feel settled today. Pressure is only going to increase these questions, even if the team is succeeding.

And questions for tomorrow might be OK to answer today.

There are plenty of people nationwide who wonder if Markelle Fultz can be a full-time starting point guard. Those questions are still legitimate to ask and wonder about. And the Magic are going to let him figure that piece out.

Similarly, Cole Anthony has been the heart and soul of this team. A wild card who can give the team a boost off the bench or in a spot start. Nobody is a better teammate or cheerleader for his teammates than Anthony.

But Anthony is set for an extension this offseason. And even if the team brings him back in restricted free agency next summer, there are still huge questions about his future.

It all points to the uncertainty of the future. And how this team will react to that uncertainty. It all points to how this Magic team is not yet complete. It remains a work in progress.

And the Magic are going to have to take some risk at some level to advance this team forward.

Much of the Magic are going to return. They are not about to make wholesale changes to the roster. Their work this offseason will be about shoring up depth rather than making a splashy move aimed at a sizable leap.

But the team has also set big expectations for growth. And reaching those goals seems possible. But it is not guaranteed. That is the most important thing to remember.

Orlando’s ascendancy as one of the best young teams in the league is not guaranteed. It will take work, the right mix of players, the right additions and a bit of luck.

The Magic can do it. They are on the right path and going in the right direction. But it will not happen automatically.

Next. 3 dream scenarios for the Orlando Magic on draft night. dark

The team needs more and cannot just bank on the team’s growth getting them there. Nothing is guaranteed in this league. And nothing is guaranteed for the Magic.