Heading into this season, morale around the Orlando Magic was high. Back on Media Day in September, players seemed genuinely excited about the upcoming season. With new players and a new head coach in charge, this was supposed to be the season in which the Magic finally returned to the postseason.
The team seemingly lucked out when Scott Skiles suddenly resigned as head coach. Frank Vogel was among those candidates available to choose as the franchise’s replacement for Skiles, and the idea of adding a coach who had previously guided the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed perfect for a team wanting to experience that same kind of success.
Vogel caught the attention of fans at his introductory press conference when he guaranteed the team would make the playoffs, something they hadn’t done since Dwight Howard was still in town. With several defensive-minded players on the roster, and Vogel being known as a great defensive coach from his time with the Pacers, the fit seemed to be a match made in heaven.
At least that was the feeling four months ago when this new-look Magic team first met with members of the media. There was a feeling in the air that hadn’t been there in quite some time. Players seemed ready to help in any way they could. They were ready to lead this franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Now, it seems as though the playoffs are an afterthought. Granted, the Magic are still just four-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot in the East, but watching this team lately feels like they’re even further than that. We’re now around the halfway point of the season for most teams, and the Magic are 10 games under .500 at 17-27.
They just wrapped up a six-game road trip and won just one of those outings. Road trips of that length are tough for any team to go through, but good teams figure out ways in which to make the most of them. The Magic dropped games to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans on the trip, with the lone win against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“We’re just not playing hard enough, plain and simple,” Jeff Green said. “We need to make sure that we leave it out there on the floor. We can’t worry about how many games we had on this road trip. There are no excuses. We had only one back to back; we can’t allow that to be an excuse. We had days in between. We had chances to rest. There is no excuse for the way that we’ve been playing. That’s not what we came here to do. We all want to win, but we’re all not giving an effort to win. That’s the result right there. We’re losing by 20. It’s embarrassing.”
The Magic were expected to be a stout defensive team, led by Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. While they’ve shown during stretches how great they can be (they were a top-five defense at one point), they’ve taken a step back and have dropped out of the top 20 in defense.
Trying to diagnose the problem seems much easier said than done. Vogel has seemingly tried everything he can do to flip the script this season. He has made lineup changes, benched players for lackluster effort and has even tried intense film sessions to help the problems. Whatever the problem is, the players don’t seem to have the answers, either.
“I’ve been asking myself that every day and I have no idea why we can’t do the right things,” Nikola Vucevic said. “Basketball is a very simple game and if you keep it simple, it works. The best teams play simple. They don’t complicate stuff. Look at Klay Thompson when he had 60 — he took 11 dribbles. It’s simple. Why would he need to take more? They set up every shot for him. That’s how it should be. [Nikola] Jokic had 30 [against us]. They set up every shot for him. He didn’t score any one-on-one on [Bismack Biyombo] or me. Anthony Davis. He didn’t score one-on-one. It was all off setups. Yet, we don’t play that way. We try to play pick-up. That’s what we’re doing: playing pick-up.”
Vucevic’s candid response to reporters Wednesday night following a 20-point loss to the Pelicans is an indication the team has reached perhaps their lowest point of the season. The Magic appeared to be on the right track at the start of the December. After a slow start to the season, they won four out of five games on the road, including a win over the San Antonio Spurs. Since that stretch, they have fallen apart.
After defeating the Washington Wizards on December 6, the team’s record stood at 10-12. Since that point, they have gone 7-15 and have posted the third-worst defense in the NBA. It seems like for every step forward the team may take, they then take two steps back. Last season, the team was playing well heading into 2016 after posting a 19-14 record. They went just 2-12 during the month of January and subsequently began a downward spiral that saw them go 16-34 the rest of the season. This season looks to have the same outcome – they’re just 2-8 this month.
“We just don’t play the right way,” Vucevic said. “We can play as hard as we want, [but] as long as we keep playing like this, this is how it’s going to be. … We take bad shots, we play selfish. It’s embarrassing. We’ve been losing to everybody by 20. It’s bad. Last year, we were losing but we had 35 wins and 10-15 games we lost by less than three points. This year, we haven’t lost a game by less than 10 points.”
Vucevic may have exaggerated a bit to reporters: The Magic have lost a few games by less than 10 points, but there are a lot of losses by more than 10 points mixed in as well.
Perhaps even more troubling for the Magic is key injuries to Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks. Fournier leads the team in scoring, but has missed three consecutive games with a sore right foot. Meeks suffered a dislocated right thumb on Wednesday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
The injuries to Fournier and Meeks leave the Magic rather thin at the shooting guard position. Fournier also missed five games a few weeks back with the same foot injury. Mario Hezonja and C.J. Watson figure to see additional playing time with Fournier and Meeks out at the moment. Hezonja has been used sparingly this season by Vogel and has played inconsistently when he’s been on the court, and Watson is averaging 2.6 points in 32 outings this season.
With the trade deadline just over a month away, the Magic could be a team to keep an eye on. The team is said to be open to acquiring additional scoring help but it remains unclear who they might consider adding. Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay had been mentioned previously as a potential target, but he’ll likely not be traded this season after rupturing his Achilles on Wednesday night.
The recent struggles have further put the team’s past moves under the microscope. Most would point to the decision to trade a promising young player in Tobias Harris just before the trade deadline last year for what essentially ended up being open cap space as the first questionable move. They followed that up by trading Victor Oladipo, the rights to the 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova for Ibaka on draft night. Ibaka could leave this summer in free agency.
It’s clear the front office has a decision to make on the future of the team this season. Do they attempt to make a trade to bring in more scoring or do they start looking ahead? The worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. Teams in the middle are just good enough to make the playoffs and not quite bad enough to earn a high draft pick. While the team is clearly built to win now, they may have to start considering all of their options at this point.
After investing over $100 million into the roster, the expectations for the Magic this season were understandably high. But with a roster that is underperforming, it might be time for the franchise to look itself in the mirror and realize that this group may not be the answer moving forward.
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