If someone had told you at the beginning of the season the Orlando Magic would end January comfortably in the 7/8 game of the Play-In Tournament with a chance to host that game, the Magic would never be below .500 at any point in the season so far and Paolo Banchero was likely to get named to his first All-Star team, most Magic fans would have taken that as a sure sign of the team's success and progress.
September expectations were for the team to be competitive, hovering around .500 and readying for a strong push to close the season. Orlando is clearly on track to accomplish its preseason expectations and goals.
The team should be playing Game 83 this season.
The journey of getting there is something different, though. Expectations and potential have changed, and the Magic certainly do not feel great about where they sit. They know there is something more out there.
Orlando started the year 14-5 with a franchise-record-tying nine-game win streak. Orlando has gone 10-18 since. There may not be any prolonged losing streaks. But the Magic have struggled to regain their footing again through a litany of injuries and inconsistency.
Orlando is balancing a team that is still clearly on a positive trajectory and making positive steps this year but is still working through some growing pains and a roster that needs some injection of skill to get where they want to go.
The tension for the rest of this season is how much the Magic will value their short-term success over their long-term development.
All indications are that long-term considerations are still winning that battle.
"I think about our first year having 22 wins and the pace we set starting out the year last year at 5-20 and getting 34 wins," coach Jamahl Mosley said before Sunday's win over the Phoenix Suns. "You take that into perspective of what you are capable of doing and staying the same throughout that process. There are always going to be things to clean up and get better at whether you win or lose the game. You can't lose perspective of the big picture of the things you are going to have to improve on to continue to grow. That's what we've talked to this group about."
The Magic have accomplished a lot in the short term to put themselves in playoff position. They won 34 games last year and are already at 24 wins this season. It would take an epic collapse to miss the Play-In Tournament or not reach last year's win total.
On a very basic level, that is measurable improvement to make the season successful.
But there are plenty of other reasons to believe in the progress this team has made to this point.
It starts with Banchero putting himself in the All-Star conversation -- the reserves get announced Thursday, and it seems pretty likely Banchero will get the invite to Sunday's game in addition to his confirmed invitation to the Rising Stars Game on the Friday of All-Star Weekend.
Orlando has a true star to build around.
The more significant thing is the team has established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Orlando is sixth in the league with a 112.0 defensive rating.
As Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put it before both matchups with the Orlando Magic earlier this month, to be ranked this high at this point of the season suggests this is your team's identity.
The Magic's ultimate goal this year may have had little to do with results or where the team ended up in the standings and more about establishing this identity and culture — a foundation to pair with the star they are building around.
Things are not all rosy, of course. The offense is still a struggle, and the Magic are the worst 3-point shooting team in the league. There are clear needs the team has to address, and their time for continuity is ending as they aim to improve.
The Magic have come a long way, but they still have a long way to go, as their record in the last quarter of the season would suggest. Orlando has a lot it needs to get right.
"Honestly, we have to keep things in perspective," Wendell Carter said after the Orlando Magic's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 19. "You look at where we were last year to today, it's night and day. We're above .500. You've got to look at some of the positives in this.
"Of course, we want to win some of these games. We've got to keep a lot of things in perspective. Last year, we were at the bottom of the East trying to fight to get into the play-in. We're above .500. We're not satisfied, but you have to keep things in perspective. We're not hanging our heads and thinking it's going to be another thing like last year. As long as we continue to stay positive and continue to work hard, everything will work out."
That perspective is important. The Magic have come a long way indeed. At this point last year, the Magic were 18-29.
But, these are two very different teams.
On one hand, Orlando should look at their progress and recognize it. But the team should not be satisfied with that at all. As they repeated throughout the team's nine-game win streak, the Magic should aim to be greedy.
They have struggled to do that part of the equation on the court. Orlando must first find that rhythm to get itself back on track.
"You address it," Mosley said after the loss to the Sixers. "You talk about it. What's going on in the game? They see it. You watch it on film. You understand the different situations where you can be better. But you don't hide from it. This is what it is. This is what we're going through. This is the portion of where we can continue to get better and how we can improve."
The team still has plenty of time and controls its postseason destiny. The schedule still sets up favorably (at least on paper) -- beginning with Wednesday's first matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
Getting healthy is certainly the first part of that. But here, the team's focus on the present and future seems to be in most conflict.
Orlando has already shown how dangerous it can be when fully healthy, with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac available. But the team is still hesitant to play them on back-to-backs.
Mosley told reporters in Dallas that the team is still looking toward the long haul with how they manage their injuries. That was his explanation for playing Isaac for only eight minutes in Monday's game as the team begins pushing Isaac more physically -- he played more than 20 minutes in consecutive games for the first time since before his first knee injury in 2020.
Mosley has repeated the adage that this season is a marathon and not a sprint. The team is aiming to be ready for games in March and April and is willing to sacrifice potential games today.
In a tight playoff race, that comes down to very small margins, this can be frustrating.
But the Magic are not focused on this season still. That much is clear.
Orlando is still building a team for the long haul. That goes for the team's trade deadline strategy as much as it goes for the team's approach to this season.
There is tension to seek out short-term success and go for the "sugar high," as Jeff Weltman puts it, of a playoff appearance. But that is not where this team is at. They are still building a foundation and culture for the long term. Success this year is defined by what this season sets up for next year. Short-term success is a step in the process.
Orlando is still focused on its long-term gains and the team it will be rather than the team it is now.