The Orlando Magic sat 22-22 almost two weeks ago. Losers of 17 of the last 28 games, the Magic from the beginning of the season seemed to be fading. Like the Houston Rockets out West (now three games under .500), the young pieces that were previously matchup nightmares got figured out.
In Orlando, losing games around the trade deadline opened up the conversation for trades centered around a few key pieces that, three months ago, were not close to a possibility. Winning games will always be front of mind for fans and supporters. Change has to be made if that isn't the case.
The last two months have been tough for a young team on the precipice of contention. Led by Paolo Banchero, whose first All-Star selection is almost as fresh as him turning 21, the team exceeded expectations to start the year. Franz Wagner continued his ascent as the complementary piece alongside the Duke product. Jalen Suggs is the dog at the top of the defense. Even with injuries to players like Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter, the Magic were doing work fast.
This league, though, is a "what have you done for me lately" league more than anything. Overall, it has been a slow return for Fultz and Carter, two players who have been indispensable for Orlando in the last two seasons.
At least up until the last five games.
What Fultz has done recently has given this Magic team a lift as a second-unit guard for a team that has won four of five. Averaging 10.8/3.2/3.7 splits on 60.3 percent shooting from the field, the 25-year-old has begun to return to form, showcasing his breakneck speed in the open court and activity up top on defense.
As for Carter, he has been the back end of one of the most dangerous closing lineups in basketball.
Unofficially nicknamed the "Death Lineup," the five-man combo of Jalen Suggs/Franz Wagner/Banchero/Jonathan Issac/Wendell Carter has posted an absurd 97.9 defensive rating in the six games coach Jamahl Mosley has sent the group out to finish games.
That is a dominating defense in a league where five teams are averaging more than 120 points per game.
On offense, it has been just as effective. A 114.5 rating is above the team's average and a good number for a Magic team that ranks in the bottom six in offensive rating this year.
Carter has blossomed back into the starting-caliber center that Orlando was looking for when they acquired him at the deadline from Chicago in 2021.
Now, Fultz and Carter have hit their strides at the perfect time, just two days before this year's deadline. And it comes at a solid time in a trade market that has been relatively tame in the last week.
As described a few days ago in our latest trade deadline piece, a slow deadline week could be the driving force to keep this roster intact, even if a player like Washington Wizards guard Tyus Jones is available.
But that, coupled with some wins at the right time, has shifted focus in Orlando away from improving the roster immediately and more willing to let the season ride out.
That is not to say the roster does not need improvement. It is far from a championship contender and is treading water in the battle to snag the sixth and final guaranteed playoff spot.
But with four wins coming in eight days (a feat that took 23 days between the team's last five wins dating back to Dec. 29), the brakes must be pumped slightly. The Magic have a favorable schedule and are finally healthy for the first time all season -- only players on G-League assignment are on the injury report.
The following two days will certainly be ones to watch closely. A massive game against the Miami Heat could be the difference-maker in the front office making a move to improve.
A win over a fellow playoff team and one of the few jockeying for position with Orlando could mean the team rolls forward with its current roster, content with the team battling out of a mid-season slide. A loss could be the last push Orlando executives needed to finally green-light a trade, giving away one of the team's key bench pieces -- or possibly Markelle Fultz.
Thursday night at the Kia Center, the feeling in the air could be slightly different. At its core, it will be the 23rd home game of the season. But there is the possibility of some changes to a team that has primarily been intact for the last two or three seasons.
All will be decided in the next 48 hours and could be the turning point that Orlando needs to lock in their first playoff appearance in four years -- despite whoever starts at point guard on Thursday.