The Orlando Magic have undoubtedly one of the brightest futures in the NBA.
They are coming off an impressive 12-win improvement last season, which was the highest win improvement in the Eastern Conference and third-best in the entire NBA. Orlando was the last team eliminated from postseason contention in the Eastern Conference, bowing out of the race with three games remaining.
The Magic went 29-28 over the final 57 games, a mark that if extended across 82 games would have surely gotten the team into the postseason. They finished with the sixth-best defensive rating in the league during that time period.
Magic fans see future All-Stars in both Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. And the team is littered with young players who seemed to come into their own as the season progressed.
Their rise to a playoff team next season feels assured.
But, everyone should pump the brakes on the coronation. The Magic are still in the early part of their rebuilding process.
The expectations for this team need to be realistic. As Jeff Weltman often says, the has to focus on “getting better every day and have internal improvement day in and day out.”
That is the bigger focus for the team as opposed to the end destination. And there will be ups and downs through the course of the season.
This is an exciting part of Orlando Magic’s rebuild. They have collected all the important pieces to the puzzle. Now it is time to see which ones fit and which ones will have to be moved. This season is time for an assessment of all the players on the roster.
The only thing we know is the team seems to be on the right path and got off to a good start the team can build on. That confidence and the hope for this team is well founded.
It is safe to say the Magic knocked the Banchero pick out of the park.
It seems a bit weird to say that the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft was a “steal.” But that is just how strange the 2022 NBA Draft was. There was no consensus top pick and the Magic had a tough choice to make.
They picked Banchero, a 6-foot-10 forward with the agility of a guard and the sheer strength of a big man. He averaged 20.0 points per game and 7.4 free throw attempts per game in a historic rookie season. He is simply special.
Wagner has been a surprise ever since he was picked eighth in the 2021 NBA Draft. Not even the guys who picked him, Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, could expect this much from Wagner.
The probable expectation was Wagner would be a guy who just does a little bit of everything, to help the team win. But he is looking like a surefire future star in the NBA. He, also 6-foot-10 like Banchero, can move very quickly with the ability to drive on anyone or simply go wherever he wants on the floor.
The young core the Magic have is so special that the two rookies the Magic selected in this year’s draft, Anthony Black and Jett Howard, are not a surefire lock to be in the rotation once the regular season begins.
That is simply how much depth and young talent the Magic have.
The roster is stacked with talent, but that does not mean they will automatically be a 50-plus-win team that competes for an NBA Championship this season.
It is not impossible with Banchero and Wagner on the cusp of stardom and other young players just about to enter their primes. But that is not what the expectations should be.
Rebuilding is a whole process. It takes a few years to get to where the Magic currently are.
And the Magic are only entering the third year of their rebuild this season. They are certainly far ahead of what a normal rebuilding team is. But that does not exclude them from the growing pains of rebuilding teams on the verge of being great.
Historically, if we look at former Magic teams that have gone through rebuilds. There has been a common theme within them.
Let’s start with the Magic in the Shaquille O’Neal era.
They had playoff runs from 1994-97. With one NBA Finals trip and an additional trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. But that run from 1994 onwards started in 1992, O’Neal’s rookie year.
Even though the Magic missed the playoffs that year after going 41-41, albeit losing out on the last playoff spot on the 4th tiebreaker. It was a really tight race. O’Neal helped launch the team into competitiveness for the first time in franchise history.
The takeaway from that season was that the Magic are competitive and they were ‘legit.’ But it was good in hindsight because the Magic went to the lottery with just 1.52-percent odds to win the lottery and they ended up winning it, trading the top pick in Chris Webber for Anfernee Hardaway (and three future first-round picks).
The parallels in that 1993 season were very similar to what happened to them in the 2006 season.
The Magic went 36-46 and it was the “growing pains” year before they consistently showed up in the playoffs from 2007-12. That run also had one Finals appearance and an additional Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
It shows how important having that No. 1 pick and go-to star really is. Once you have that star established, the pieces put around him start to make sense.
Having Dwight Howard really put the Magic in a great place to contend. The Magic put shooters around him and the rest was history.
Even with a very limited star in Nikola Vucevic. Once he was fully established and the pieces around him made sense, the Magic were able to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with the arrival of Steve Clifford for the 2019 season.
Unfortunately due to the limitations of that team, they were not able to get past the first round both times.
All this shows us is two things: One, having that established cornerstone star is essential. Paolo Banchero could very likely be that guy.
And two, teams show growing pains and signs of growth before big playoff runs. The Magic consistently have shown that.
In the 2023 season, the Magic started 5-20. It was rough, as Weltman said in a summer league interview, “We had so many injuries that first 25 games that we pretty much had Franz Wagner playing the point.”
After Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony’s return to the lineup, the Magic looked much better as they ended the season on a 29-25 record (29-28 if we include the last three games after they were eliminated from postseason contention). They were able to set up the Magic’s two stars in Wagner and Banchero.
This is the season we find out a ton about this team. Do they have what it takes to make a long playoff run for many years to come?
We will find out in the 2023-24 season.
There are many rightful reasons to be hopeful. This is by far the best team the Magic have put together since Howard’s departure in 2012.
The Magic have the depth in case they go through injuries again. Injuries are a part of the game, it just matters on the timing and severity of the injuries. It also matters a ton on which player sustains that injury.
With good health, this Magic team has all the capabilities of being a consistent force in the NBA. Every piece of the puzzle matters.