2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: New Orleans Pelicans’ plan B goes only so far

Feb 27, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (3) dribbles against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum (3) dribbles against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are not going to be sympathetic to any team complaining about injuries.

For the last three seasons, the Magic were the most injured team in the league, losing more games to injury than every team in the league and often lapping the field with an insane number of missed games.

Not that the Magic were likely to go to the postseason with the teams they had constructed. But they had no chance to find any measure of success.

The reality for the Magic was they had only one path to success. They needed everyone on their roster on the court together and playing well. Their margin for error was very small.

That proved true even this year as they improved their roster.

Their 5-20 start was largely because of injuries hitting the point guard position, knocking out both Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony for the majority of the first 20 games. Those kinds of losses would hurt any team significantly, but there was no plan B. The team had to figure out everything on the fly and it fell apart because of it.

The Magic were not a postseason team because they could not lean on other players to step up even when key ones were out. They could not hold the boat steady.

The Orlando Magic did not have a plan B when injuries hit the roster again to start the season. A team like the New Orleans Pelicans reminds them of how critical depth is and how much injuries can still limit any team.

There was no other path to walk.

Throughout the league, it is clear how critical it is to be able to win consistently without star players. But it is also clear examining the entire league that there are limitations to this. Losing a star is more about holding the boat steady than anything else.

There is no team — at least at the middle level — that displays the power of a plan B and the shortcomings of needing it more than the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans’ season was nothing short of a roller coaster.

The Pelicans had a solid, if not spectacular, start and then got supercharged when Zion Williamson returned to the court. He averaged 26.0 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game in 29 appearances before his hamstring injury knocked him out for the year.

New Orleans zoomed out to a 23-12 record, among the teams setting the pace in the crowded Western Conference. When Williamson played his last game of the year on Jan. 2, the Pelicans were 23-14.

They would struggle the rest of the season going 42-40 in the regular season before they lost in the Play-In Game. An injury to Brandon Ingram further put them behind. Their margin for error became too small.

All was not lost for New Orleans. And the team knew that.

The team still had a strong season from Brandon Ingram, averaging a career-high 24.7 points per game, and veteran guard CJ McCollum, playing the majority of the season with an injury of his own. Solid role players like Jonas Valanciunas, Jose Alvarado and Herbert Jones.

This was a team that could exist and stay competitive even with Williamson out of the lineup. And his absence had been so sporadic, the Pelicans probably accounted for not having Williamson always available.

Eventually, the floor fell out. But never enough to knock the Pelicans out of postseason contention.

That was something the Magic simply did not have. They could not start their season until they were fully healthy. There was no margin for error.

After that first quarter filled with injuries, the team was relatively healthy and intact for the rest of the season. Orlando’s record reflected that.

Every team is going to be better with their full complement of players.

Just as every team reaches its breaking point if it stays injured for too long.

The Pelicans did eventually break. Injuries overcame them, especially decimating their depth. New Orleans fell from that high to finish 42-40 in the year, a run that included a 10-game losing streak.

Ingram’s own injury issues limited him to 45 games and that became too much for the Pelicans to stick with and overcome. No team is going to succeed down its two best scorers. It is just going to hope that it can hold steady and limit the damage before they can return.

This explains many of New Orleans’ stats for the season.

New Orleans finished 20th in offensive rating for the season and was 25th in offensive rating, barely ahead of Orlando, after Jan. 2. The Pelicans were not still solid defensively and that kept them afloat. Much like the Magic were solid defensively but searching for offensive consistency to build momentum.

That is the reality of a team trying to hold the ship steady.

A factor in team building is certainly to understand how players can fill in for each other. It is to build a roster that can withstand injuries for a few games. It is a realization that not everyone is going to reach 82 games. And while injuries to key players and star players hurt more, the good teams know how to fill in and survive.

That is a space the Pelicans lived in this year as they waited to see if Williamson would return. Their margin for error decreased dramatically and another injury made it too much for them to overcome, sending the Pelicans tumbling to the Play-In Tournament.

As the Magic do their team building they have already moved past the need for Jonathan Isaac to be healthy for their success — he is truly just a bonus at this point and likely settling into a role off the bench even though he has the talent when healthy to be a starter. They probably still have to make some investment in the center position with Wendell Carter’s injury history.

They are fortunate they have an iron man in Franz Wagner who rarely misses games in his first two seasons. Paolo Banchero has had few injury issues, spraining an ankle that caused him to miss some time and playing through a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Markelle Fultz played every game until the end of the season after returning from his fractured toe.

All in all, the Magic should be focused on shoring up their depth and adding role players who can step up and fill in when injuries inevitably hit. That is likely the next evolution of this roster on top of the internal development of their young players.

When they are able to rely on their bench and not sweat injuries, that will be how this team knows it is ready to compete seriously.

Otherwise, they will be walking that narrow path. They will be just as likely to finish .500 as they did after Dec. 7 as they are to start 5-20 because of injuries. Because there was no plan B for success.

Next. Playoff Lessons: Going all-in went all wrong for Minnesota Timberwolves. dark

The Pelicans are not the most successful model of this. They too could not overcome their injuries. Their plan B fell apart. But they took it far and serve as a reminder that injuries cannot be the end of a season.