As the New Year begins for the Orlando Magic are hitting something of a slump.
After starting 14-5, sitting in the second seed in the Eastern Conference and completing a nine-game win streak before December 1, the team has gone 5-9 and fallen to fifth in a logjam in the standing from fourth through eighth. The team's defense has slipped considerably.
There is a palpable disappointment as the losses mount and the team sees a slip in the standings -- even with a favorable finish to the standings and similar struggles around them in a tight playoff race approaching the midpoint of the season.
The franchise's start has changed expectations for this team. The taste of victory has everyone believing this Magic team and could do more than sneak into the Play-In. This is a Playoff team and a team very much on the rise.
The Magic have been able to retain their defensive numbers, still hovering with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league. The offense has shown signs of life but has settled in the bottom 10 after a rough shooting December.
There are clear holes the team needs to fill to be competitive and consider advancing beyond the first round rather than make a cameo in the opening series.
For context from Nov. 1 to Dec. 2, which includes the winning streak, the Magic had the 15th best offensive rating in the NBA. Since then they have more games than not where they are unable to buy open makes and baskets. Since Dec. 2 they have had the fifth-worst offense, hugged around them in ratings by teams like the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards.
The Athletic recently published an article where they declared the Magic the worst shooting team in the league -- and that was just based on numbers, not anyone's opinion or further analysis.
These hard losses teach the lesson that the Magic may have already known, as long as the defense lasts the offense merely needs to be hovering at average to retain playoff standings.
That is the part that has slipped recently. As the Golden State Warriors showed, teams are finding ways to break through the Orlando Magic's defense. Especially as the team's injuries mount.
What has become clear through this point in the season is the Magic are good enough to be competitive and make a playoff spot. But they may not yet be ready to win much in the postseason. Orlando clearly still has work to do and players to add to the team.
The team is carefully evaluating its roster now as it begins pondering these big questions. The Magic have dealt with their share of injuries -- Wendell Carter just came back from a 20-game absence and Markelle Fultz has played just one game since Nov. 2. Other players have had to play above their roles -- Anthony Black and Goga Bitadze especially filling in for the two injured starters.
Still, everyone knows the Magic are not a complete team. They have some serious needs they need to address. And they may need to address them before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. This is not a team that can let that opportunity pass it by.
There are three ways to attain talent in the NBA: Drafting, free agency and the trade market.
So far the Magic have focused largely on the draft to build the foundation for their team.
Orlando has been able to hit on recent draft picks for the past four years, highlighted by Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs. The team has acquired and played talent that has now matured enough to produce on a winning level.
The team has gotten to the point where its current rookie class -- Anthony Black and Jett Howard along with 2022 second-round pick Caleb Houstan -- is struggling to break through into the rotation. They will find it hard to get minutes when the Magic are fully healthy with the goal to win.
The Magic are likely done relying on drafting. They will need to look to add quality, veteran players to the roster to help boost this young team.
Free agency is everyone's favorite path to walk on that front.
But in 35 years of Magic basketball, there are not many marquee signings. For every Horace Grant, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu there are plenty of big-money duds. It is still a bit unreliable. And the Magic's biggest free agent signing under Jeff Weltman is either the failed Al-Farouq Aminu experiment or adding Joe Ingles this summer.
The Magic can fight for high-tier talent, but when players are faced with decisions on money, lifestyle and location, Orlando already has to outbid their southern competition Miami along with contenders sprawled around the NBA.
If the Magic choose to renounce right to all options and players who do not have concrete contracts for the 2025 season, they can open up $63 million in cap space, only to be used on a probably free agency class headlined by James Harden, Pascal Siakam, Klay Thompson, Tobias Harris, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley.
Though all talented and valuable in their own way, the Magic would likely not find themselves making any of those moves based on the timeline of their talent.
Free agency seems like the cherry on top of a title run or a place to add veterans at an overpay to help this young team. The Magic are certainly picking up some interest around the league -- and the Magic have plenty of cap room to spend this summer -- but that is just not how the league operates.
That leaves the trade market as the most viable way for the Magic to add to and improve their roster.
There are more options for team building through trades, the Magic can evaluate and gather talent that best fulfills roles they are lacking. As opposed to free agency where good teams may at best add a player or two, in the trade market, you are revolving around talent who have shown in that very season what they can contribute.
The Magic are certainly in a new position this year. As a team in the playoff race with tons of flexibility and all of their own draft picks to spend, the Magic could well be buyers and hunt for specific players that fit their style -- Magic fans have fallen in love with Washington Wizards guard Tyus Jones (also a 2024 free agent) or Portland Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon. They can go out to the market and go shopping a bit to find a deal.
In previous years, Jeff Weltman has had to be a seller. The market treated the Magic as having players they could buy off a bad team. Instead, the Magic are the ones looking to complete their roster.
With their assets, that gives them tremendous buying power.
Weltman and company will have to evaluate available trade targets who can fill holes to help with three-point shooting, rebounding and playmaking. With assets to play with and unfortunate individual situations making players expendable, this is where the Magic's front office can finalize the rebuild and begin the next era of contending.