Orlando Magic must make short-term gains to understand long-term needs

Paolo Banchero got some of his first run as a center for the Orlando Magic in critical minutes in the loss to the Utah Jazz. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero got some of his first run as a center for the Orlando Magic in critical minutes in the loss to the Utah Jazz. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are saying all the right things as they work their way through training camp.

The team has a clear focus on what its goals are for this upcoming season. Players were not afraid to talk about the postseason as a goal for this team. Gary Harris, always the veteran, set that goal unequivocally. Wendell Carter was among the younger players who said wholeheartedly the team was capable of making the postseason.

There is a different energy and vibe within the Advent Health Training Center. There is certainly the belief the team is about to accomplish something exciting this season.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman is not about to dampen those expectations and that excitement. Everyone can indeed feel what is possible for this season.

But his eyes are always on the future as much as anything. He is the one who has to see the whole picture of what this team will become. And while there is still plenty that feels unproven.

The Orlando Magic are eagerly eyeing this season and what the team can accomplish. So too is the front office as they evaluate this team’s long-term needs.

This season for him is about letting the young players prove themselves under this optimistic outlook and determined season and then make some hard decisions. And there are hard decisions ahead.

Weltman acknowledged as much. The realities of the league and the end of rookie contracts are approaching. His patient approach is going to reach a limit.

In the short-term, the Magic have their goal of making the postseason — or rather, playing better basketball. That is something the team needs to achieve so the team can begin assessing its long-term needs.

The short- and long-term goals for this team — and to be sure that championship by 2030 is dancing around in the background not as a hard and fast goal but as a good yard marker for this team’s potential for progress — are running on different tracks. But they are working hand in hand.

At this important inflection point for the franchise, the Magic need to see short-term gains to make important long-term decisions and figure out what this team needs to compete at a higher level.

Even Weltman could openly admit that.

"“We really feel that we have a lot of internal growth baked into this team,” Weltman said at media day. “And I’ll say I feel like we have it baked in for years to come. That’s what happens when you draft young guys, letting them play and building a team around them. So now they are all in their pre-prime years still. We need to really understand the dynamics on the team this year. We have a lot to learn.”"

This is the central thesis for the season.

Orlando has put the team together and sorted out some of the ingredients. Now it is going into the oven to cook and see what comes out and what seasoning they need or what ingredients to leave out for next season and moving forward.

This is a season for the evaluation as the team tries to figure out what comes next for this team and its young core. The Magic are trying to figure out what kind of team they want to be and what they already have.

Orlando does not really know what it has.

The team thinks it has something to build around with Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. The team certainly is confident in the young players in the staritng lineup — Wendell Carter and Markelle Fultz especially. There are plenty of other young players looking to prove themselves to varying degrees — Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs both have to prove themselves albeit on different ends of that spectrum.

The constant message though as Weltman talked about the future of this team, it always came back to this evaluation.

And the only way to properly evaluate the players and clarify how to achieve the team’s long-term goals is to see them succeed in the short-term. A playoff berth especially but playing in meaningful games generally will help clarify the team’s overall direction and point them in the right way.

That is at the core of this season. They want to see the team play “better basketball” and improve into a more serious winning outfit. That is part of the process for this young team. They want to see how the team grows and mature.

The way the team finished last season — 29-28 after the 5-20 start including a top-10 defensive rating during that time — seemed to be proof of concept of what this team can do. It was essentially enough for the team to commit to bringing back the same roster and rolling over its cap room to next season.

"“I do believe that continuity matters,” Weltman said at media day. “It has to be a continuity of a team you believe in. If you don’t have a team that you believe has a ceiling and a good trajectory, why have continuity for that team? The fact we have maintained continuity this summer speaks tot he fact we believe in these guys, we think we’re going to get better and want to track where this thing takes us before we make wholesale decisions.”"

The Magic certainly believe in this group. Without that strong finish to last season and the energy that created — let’s not diminish the fact that Paolo Banchero won Rookie of the Year with a historic rookie season and Franz Wagner continues to look like a future All-Star — the Magic likely would have begun tinkering with the roster.

Having shown a strong run to end last season, Orlando certainly felt more comfortable bringing back the same roster to foster that growth.

And so the short-term goal this year is to see the team make good on that faith and grow.

But that is the double-edged sword. By improving and taking that all-important next step, new holes will be revealed. The team is going to develop a rotation and figure out its way to play and win. What does not work in that context might get discarded.

More importantly, the more this team wins, the clearer it will be what the team needs to surround Banchero and Wagner with to help them make the most of their prodigious talents. The Magic did not make any moves this offseason because it does not know what moves it needs to make quite yet.

There will be mistakes still made. This is a young team. And there has to be some allowance for those mistakes and evaluation of whether those are mistakes individual players can overcome. That is part of the discovery for this season.

And so the short-term goals for this team — making the postseason and winning more games — will help serve the team’s long-term goals — advancing in the postseason. It will inform what this team needs to do.

The two things will play with each other throughout the season.

Training camp though is for working toward and preparing for those short-term goals. The offseason is for figuring out how to get the team closer to those long-term aims. But to be sure, the Magic’s ability to accomplish things in the short-term is critical information for this team’s long-term direction.

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This is the year to figure out what the team really needs. To do that, the team has to take major steps on the court first to inform those long-term goals.