Orlando Magic are building their foundation this year

The Orlando Magic's rise in the Eastern Conference standings has everyone eager to think about what comes next and make the future the present with bold moves. But the team's goal remains the same: Build a foundation to grow this year.

Jonathan Isaac and the Orlando Magic are heavy on defense this season. But that might be the point.
Jonathan Isaac and the Orlando Magic are heavy on defense this season. But that might be the point. / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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The Indiana Pacers are looking for answers right now.

The team that got off to a hot start and rode that to the finals of the NBA's In-Season Tournament cannot seem to find a winning formula with their offense-first, shot-happy identity. Tyrese Haliburton has tailed off some since the beginning of the year and that has been a big factor, but there does seem something deeper.

They looked across at a team like the Orlando Magic and saw a lot of the things they were lacking. And they made that clear throughout their postgame news conferences.

Rick Carlisle criticized his team for not punching first and bringing the fight to the Magic as the Magic had 29 free throws in the first half and were by far the more aggressive team in the end.

Buddy Hield seemed to confirm an interaction that courtside microphones seemed to catch of Tyrese Haliburton directing his team to load up on Paolo Banchero and ignore shooters after Caleb Houstan checked in for Franz Wagner. The Magic extended the lead from seven to 14 after that interaction.

Hield said that despite their lack of shooting, the Magic just play hard. He credited Jamahl Mosley for their effort and attention to detail.

Haliburton perhaps had the biggest compliment of all saying the Magic are the future of the league with their size on the wings. Having a pair of 6-foot-10 forwards who can handle like guards and make plays off the dribble is the direction the league is going.

The Magic are the young team in the East that has made the most gains this year. And it is still a shock to the rest of the league.

Orlando seemingly has the potential to do anything. And fans are beginning to expect the team to act swiftly to plug some holes this season.

But the Magic are not likely to lose sight of what matters for them. This was always a season about laying their foundation of who they will be and what their contending teams will look like. They are seeing that contending team develop in front of them.

Ultimately this is what matters to this team this year and why they may yet remain patient at the trade deadline. The purpose and goal of this season was to establish the team's identity and foundation for the next phase of this rebuild -- the part where they layer on top of that foundation the shooting and skill work (like shooting) that will become necessary to advance deeper into the playoffs.

From that perspective, this season already feels like an unqualified success. The Magic seem to have built their identity and style and found a way to win consistently with it.

On the court this year, the Magic have established a defensive identity that thrives because of this positional switching and length. They are fifth in the league in defensive rating giving up 110.5 points per 100 possessions. It does not seem like that part of this team is going to change.

It is the biggest reason why the team is fourth in the Eastern Conference standings at Christmas

The league values positional versatility -- the ability to play and defend multiple positions -- but the Magic increasingly value skill versatility. I would define skill versatility as the ability to have players who have skills that are unique to players their size.

This is the heart of the Magic's project. They have sought positional length, but their rebuild kicked into high gear because they could put the ball in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero's hands and let them operate as playmakers.

This year everything has come together to work. Banchero is on track to be an All-Star. Wagner is not too far behind. The duo is on pace to be the first Magic pair to average 20.0 points per game each in a season since Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway in 1996.

For the first time in a decade, the Magic have a clear direction and path forward. They have clear playoff hopes and seemingly the base from which to grow from this first playoff experience.

They have young players who are building an All-Star resume and role players who are completely bought into what they do.

As Hield put it, this Magic team plays hard and that makes up for a lot of shortcomings.

Still, the success this year has everyone eager to see the team make changes and add that extra layer on top. And there is something to that.

The Magic may not be in their championship window quite yet, but they are in a winning window. And once flaws are exposed, they are fully exposed. The team has to be smart about adding players and continuing to get better.

But that is something for beyond this season. Orlando is young enough that the most important thing they do is let their young players develop and grow. And the last thing the Magic want to do is disrupt the foundation they are building this year.

The Magic want to win. But they want to win their way and with their style. And they want that in place before they begin tinkering with the roster.

That starts with this foundation the team has built during the last two years and has hardened and cemented through the success this year.

That was always the big overarching goal this season. Everyone sees how strong this team's defense can be. That is proof that the team's foundation is growing and building.

The idea will be to maintain a core group of players that know what the team's defense needs to be and layer on the skill players on top of that.

This season is about building that foundation. It sure feels like Orlando has done that. The rest of the season then is about cementing it and giving the team something to grow on.

Next. Wagner steps 12.25.23. Franz Wagner has taken steps back to step forward. dark

In this sense, the season already feels like a success as the Magic continue to grow and build the rest of this season.