The Orlando Magic are not a team many people around the league think too much about. Not yet at least.
The team operated quietly this offseason, focusing more on adding depth and maintaining consistency by rolling back much of the same roster. The team was hoping that its 29-28 finish to the season over the last three-quarters of the season was the start of something bigger.
Orlando was the last team eliminated from postseason contention in the Eastern Conference this year. While the Magic never were able to get over the hump and get closer than three games back of that final Play-In spot, they were hovering in the background.
Everyone is starting to make their predictions this offseason — ESPN’s power rankings still had the Magic at 23rd, 11th in the Eastern Conference — and make their final calls about the offseason — Robby Kalland of Uproxx gave the team a somehow approving B- for the offseason — as the league goes virtually silent.
There is a rumbling the Magic are a team to watch and once again a League Pass darling. But they did not do anything this offseason to inspire a firm belief the team is about to break through to the Playoffs.
Not everyone quite believes the Orlando Magic are due for a postseason run quite yet. But they have all the elements of past Magic teams that went on long playoff runs.
The faith that this team is about to make the push to the postseason is based on how the team finished the season and the consistency they showed. And the belief Orlando is a young team capable of improving internally rather than seeking an external boost to the team.
The Magic acted this offseason as though this was a team on the precipice and had all the pieces it needed to improve. They acted like a team that believes it can reach the playoffs with what they have. They just needed the last little bit of push or development to get over the hump.
Are two rookies in Anthony Black and Jett Howard plus a veteran addition in Joe Ingles enough to get over the hump? Only time will tell.
It starts with how the team played. From Dec. 7 to the end of the season, after the team’s 5-20 start, the Magic went 29-28, putting them 16th in the league in terms of wins. Their 113.0 defensive rating was the sixth-best in the league during that time.
That is all positive and something the team can build on.
Of course, the Magic needed to be better at stringing wins together — after their six-game win streak in December, they did not win more than two games in a row until late March and that was the only win streak of three games or more the rest of the season. The Magic did a great job being a .500 team, which is a huge step up for this young team, but it will take more to break through.
Still, even that is a sign that something is brewing. The Magic began to establish a defensive identity and carry it through for much of the season — despite noted weaknesses with their rebounding, turnovers and 3-point defense.
The Magic have had teams that seemed to establish this identity through the end of the season and breakthrough into the playoffs the next year.
The next part of the equation might well be having a player on the verge of stardom.
Both Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner seem like they are on the verge of hitting stardom. Wagner averaged 18.6 points per game in his second season, improving his efficiency and playmaking as he made solid leap in his game.
Banchero was the runaway winner of Rookie of the Year after averaging 20.0 points per game. Many of his numbers, especially his free-throw shooting, put him among the ranks of other long-time All-Stars. It feels like the Magic have found their central player to build around.
And the growth into stardom for both Banchero and Wagner is at the heart of the Magic’s bet and decision to stand pat this offseason. They want to give those two players the chance to spread their wings and grow into stars.
Because whenever the Magic were on the verge of their long playoff runs, it was typically because of two things: the development of their organizational culture and the emergence of a superstar on the team.
Back in the 1993 season, Shaquille O’Neal arrived and completely changed the franchise in the greatest rookie season in Magic history. The Orlando Magic improved to 41-41 in that first season with O’Neal and missed the playoffs on the fourth tiebreaker with the Indiana Pacers.
O’Neal clearly became the culture and the sun around which the entire team orbited.
In the 2000 season, the Magic established a culture under coach Doc Rivers in the famed Heart & Hustle team. While that team was designed to lose and split up just as quickly to accommodate the arrivals of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, they established the identity that would need to carry over.
Of course, the Magic’s playoff seasons from 2001-03 were driven by McGrady. He was a promising young player with the Toronto Raptors early in his career, but he blossomed into an All-NBA player and the best scorer in the league during his four seasons with the Magic. His presence alone largely made the Magic postseason contenders, even if the team did not ever have enough to get out of the first round or be more than a .500 team.
Finally, the 2006 season saw the Magic’s young players put things together as Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson led a wild rally that nearly put the Magic in the playoffs in a season that felt similar to this past 2023 season.
Orlando cleared away some of the veterans holding players back — a key trade of Steve Francis at the deadline fully unleashed Jameer Nelson, who averaged 14.6 points per game that season and 15.8 points per game and 5.6 assists per game after the All-Star Break — and allowed the young players to flourish.
The team went 17-13 after the All-Star Break and Dwight Howard averaged 16.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in that run (15.8 and 12.5 for the season).
Those Orlando teams under coach Brian Hill were strong defensively and it established the bones of what became a playoff team in 2007 and within two years a true title contender with a 2009 Finals appearance.
The elements for a team on the precipice of a long playoff run then appear to be this: a strong culture and a developing identity, an emerging star and handing the keys over to young players who need the opportunity to fly.
Looking back now at the Magic’s 2023 offseason, it appears the team saw these factors at play.
The Magic have a strong culture under coach Jamahl Mosley that has everyone bought in and some results to back it up, even if it still needs development. The team has two emerging stars in Banchero and Wagner. And the team has the willingness to let them grow in those roles.
Orlando still has work to do. The team is not guaranteed to make that push into the playoffs. But all the elements of a team building something sustainable is present.
This is indeed a team on the precipice of success.