The countdown to the Orlando Magic’s training camp is already on.
The FIBA World Cup and the strong play from both Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero have only whetted the appetite of what is one of the most anticipated seasons in Magic history. It is certainly the most anticipated season since Dwight Howard’s departure in 2012.
Magic fans certainly had something to grasp onto after the team’s strong finish to the season and the hope that came with being the last team eliminated from the postseason. For the first time in a decade, it feels like the team has a true star to build around in Paolo Banchero.
This is indeed like the early stages of the Dwight Howard or even Shaquille O’Neal eras. There is a clear path to grow a team and perhaps a superstar player to build around. Maybe even two with Wagner continuing to grow and expand his game while making everyone else better.
That is the fun part of this whole thing though. We do not yet have the full picture of who this team. We do not yet know how good Banchero or Wagner can be. We do not quite yet know who this Magic team is.
The Orlando Magic are still at the beginning stages of building a playoff team. With hopes of a postseason bid this year, the team is going to learn a lot about itself in the 2024 season.
Orlando indeed feels on the precipice of an extended playoff run. Both Banchero and Wagner have proven themselves capable enough and if the team’s goals of leveling up are true, there is only one goal to reach to level up one more time: the postseason.
The Magic are at an important stage of their building now. They believe they have a team capable of competing and now they are looking to see how best to build around them.
If there is a quiet mission statement for this season it is that very idea. This is the season where the Magic as a team will discover who they are and what they will need to maximize the talent on their team.
To be sure, that is what is both the clear text and subtext of the season. That great mystical beyond: What will this team look like when the team is ready to compete more seriously?
That is what this season is about. The Magic’s front office has some big questions to answer and figure out. They need to see who actually belongs and what kind of team the Magic are going to be.
This is something that has happened throughout the course of Magic history. It is probably most similar to the Dwight Howard years and how the Magic slowly built around Howard, giving him the chance to catch up to the physicality and speed of the NBA before putting chips in when the team was ready to compete after its playoff breakthrough in 2007.
That was a slow build. Howard was not the dominant force he would become as a rookie. The Magic brought him along slowly giving him simple responsibilities in his rookie year.
By the end of his second season in 2006, the Magic were starting to win and made a rally to nearly make the playoffs. The team made some changes to set up that 2007 postseason run.
By the time the Detroit Pistons ended up sweeping the Orlando Magic in the first round, the Magic knew they had something with Howard but also that he needed more. That is when the team used cap room to sign Rashard Lewis and brought in Stan Van Gundy, who brought a clearer idea of who the team should be.
This year’s Magic team is hoping that last year was like 2006 with the team providing proof of concept that they could win and that this year is like 2007 when the team made its breakthrough and made clearer what the team would need around their two young stars.
So much of this year and assessing where the team is at is seeing what kind of leap Paolo Banchero makes in his second year.
Many around the league believe he is a potential All-Star. He may not get there this season, but he can still take a sizeable leap — it appears he has taken some major steps defensively with his work for Team USA.
Wagner too can still take steps and grow. It is not yet clear to anyone if he is the kind of All-Star who excels at a small role or if he is someone who can have a team and offense built around him. He is at minimum the former and potentially still the latter.
The bigger question for the Magic organizationally is still how best to build around those two players.
As a franchise, the Magic have never truly built around two wing players — Grant Hill never played long enough to see what his pairing with Tracy McGrady could do. And that is something they do not quite know yet.
It is why winning is so important for this team. The only way for the Magic to know its weaknesses is to test it under pressure. They need their weaknesses exposed in a playoff series so the Magic better understand how teams will attack Banchero and Wagner and what they need to do to make their lives easier.
Shooting is the simplest answer — and the Magic may have addressed that by adding Jett Howard and Joe Ingles although they are surely also counting on internal improvement and could look externally again next offseason when they have some money to spend.
It is a prove-it season then for a lot of players. Not merely for Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony facing new contracts or Jalen Suggs facing to solidify himself after two up-and-down seasons but for players like Wendell Carter who still have lingering questions about him.
The Magic need to see what they can all do so they can make some decisions about their future and which direction they will go.
That is what the 2024 season is about for Orlando.
The exciting part is there is a clear path forward for the Magic. Everyone can see a future for this team that leads to playoff victories. Soon, the Magic will have to pick their path. And that is what everyone is anticipating from this team.