2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Chicago Bulls’ pursuit of the middle gets them stuck

Apr 14, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) drives to the basket against Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the third quarter at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 14, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) drives to the basket against Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the third quarter at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

There is that old saying that if you shoot for the stars, you might reach the moon.

It is a simplistic piece of life advice that is meant to be about setting big goals even if they are difficult to achieve because you might still do something special along the way. It is about always having something bigger to chase after.

Teams whenever they embark on a rebuild talk about building a championship team. They all know that winning championships is exceptionally rare. Especially when there are built-in disadvantages that come with being in a small market.

The process of team building is still a difficult one.

The Orlando Magic are a team that is shooting for the stars. Unlike the first phase of their post-Dwight Howard rebuild, they are not speaking so openly about chasing championships as they were back then. But they have certainly set themselves up to build incrementally toward contention.

The one thing the Magic were desperate to avoid in that first rebuild and every team is constantly aware of to varying degrees is getting stuck in the middle. They worry about having a roster that tops off as a low seed in the playoffs with few prospects to improve and advance.

Getting to the playoffs can be lucrative and healthy. But everyone eventually wants more. Playoff cameos are only so valuable. And those spots at the back end of the postseason are only so stable.

The Orlando Magic are trying to build a championship team with good bones and a good foundation. The team that spearheaded their rebuild made the mistake of being satisfied and invested in a team stuck in the middle.

That is where the Magic found themselves in 2021. They were faced with a choice with a roster that had finally delivered the team some relevance in two postseason appearances but a dwindling hope for future improvement.

That is where the Chicago Bulls find themselves now. And unlike the Magic, they had no choice but to soldier through. And that has them stuck and left them with a stuck season.

The Bulls went all in on the postseason by trading Wendell Carter, Otto Porter and two future first-round picks (picks that became Franz Wagner and the 11th pick in the upcoming draft) for Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu.

They aimed to build a roster to keep Zach LaVine and end a three-year absence from the playoffs.

They accomplished both of those short-term goals. But at what cost is the question now as they think about their long-term future and just what their team can now accomplish.

Chicago acquiring an All-Star center in Vucevic seemed like the right idea. They paired LaVine with Vucevic to give him some offensive support. The project failed in 2021 — Vucevic got COVID and had to miss time and the Bulls fell short of the playoffs.

That only accelerated the panic within the organization. But that urgency helped build a solid team. They signed DeMar DeRozan, using the connections between DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic from their days at USC. They added Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

Chicago raced out to a strong start and was the 3-seed at the midpoint of the season. Then Ball got hurt and Caruso got hurt and the team’s defensive backbone went away. Chicago relied even more heavily on their trio of stars as they all tried to figure out how to make it fit.

The Bulls fell to the 6-seed. But even with a veteran team, the Bulls felt that with health they could compete in the East.

That health never came. Ball did not play in the 2023 season and his long-term health prospects are in major question. Caruso played in 67 games, but his effectiveness never reached his early 2022 levels. The Bulls struggled to make their three stars fit even as DeRozan continued a stunning second stage of stardom in his career.

Chicago had to rally to make the play-in tournament. And while the Chicago Bulls showed themselves talented enough to compete, they could not hold a fourth-quarter lead on the road in Miami and fell to the Miami Heat in the final Play-In Game.

Twisting the knife further, the Bulls did not keep their pick. So they ended up with no consolation prize for losing in the Play-In.

A team like the Magic could view playing in the Play-In Tournament and losing in the Play-In Tournament as a valuable experience for a team on the rise. The Bulls, like the 2021 Magic, are a veteran team that should be aspiring to more. Their failure to make the playoffs entirely or failure to further advance is a sign of a team in need of deep reflection.

And the question for the Bulls is how exactly does this team get better? Especially with Vucevic entering free agency and likely boxing the Bulls in to re-sign him with no better options readily available.

The mix with Chicago was mostly off until the end of the season — credit to Billy Donovan and his team, Chicago went 10-6 to close the season to earn that play-in spot and get a win at Toronto, another team that is kind of stuck in the middle right now, although perhaps not to the degree Chicago is.

The Bulls needed to take a step forward this year to justify the expense of acquiring Vucevic and the doubling down on a veteran team. There was no time to waste.

Instead, it became clear the purpose of the Bulls’ trade that the Magic took so much advantage of to jumpstart their own rebuild was simply to get to the middle. It was not about winning a championship or some larger goal. They were simply about making the playoffs.

And that in itself is just incredibly limiting. It is a short-term goal hoping for an unclear long-term goal. And it is a decision and organizational goal that is perhaps easy to achieve but difficult to pivot from when a team wants more.

Every rebuild project gets to this point where a team has to accept who it is and make a big decision about what its overall goals. But dreaming small always ends the same way — a team petering out perhaps hanging on too long to playoff dreams to give up a chance for a real reset.

The 2021 Magic were in this spot and they hit reset before it was too late to get value for their players — and even then Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton were not the best return for Aaron Gordon in the end. They got assets for their restart and have certainly used that to catapult into something they hope will be more. The jury of course is still out on what this Magic team will be.

Orlando has spoken about a larger goal with their rebuild. But that was mostly in generalities of where they ultimately wanted to go. The Magic have championship aspirations and they have focused on the building blocks they need to get there while maintaining flexibility.

It is easy to say from a distance that the rebuild is going fine as long as there is a path forward to improve.

Paolo Banchero certainly provides that. Jeff Weltman has not overcommitted to any one player and all of his contracts have provided easy outs if the team’s goals or identity or needs change.

For now, all the Magic’s young players of consequence are growing and developing nicely. The Magic seem content to let things continue to build even with winning expectations and some cap room to spend.

For now, it does not seem like Orlando is going for the “sugar high” as Weltman has often called it of a playoff berth. It is hard to see the team expending assets to go after a high-priced player just to get them to the playoffs. They still want to build and grow organically.

If the team falls short, what will the team do? That is the question this front office will face at some point. The short-term pressures from ownership and fans often lead to mistakes just as thinking too far in the long-term or continually playing the Lottery can try everyone’s patience.

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What is clear is that short-term moves only work or become necessary when the long-term goals are near to their completion. And a team like the Magic — or even a team like the Bulls in 2021 — is better off focusing on a long-term bigger picture than chasing a short-term result.

The middle is not a goal. It is a stepping stone.