Orlando Magic’s Push for Playoffs
This was supposed to be the season in which the Orlando Magic competed for the playoffs. The days of competing for a high draft pick in Orlando were supposed to be over.
The goal of making the playoffs was instilled into the players long before the season even started. By the time media day rolled around in September, playoffs was the buzzword among all of the players on the team.
“Buzzword? That is the word,” Victor Oladipo told Basketball Insiders at the time. “In order to win, we’re going to need each other. Winning takes care of everything else.
“Now that we have that chemistry and we got guys who have been here a couple of years and have been playing with each other for a while, it’s huge. We need to just get the job done now. It’s enough about talking about what we need to do and what we should have done. It’s just time to do it.”
The team’s young core is becoming more seasoned and expectations have increased. In Scott Skiles, the team hired a head coach who has a proven track record in guiding teams to the playoffs. Skiles has a long history of performing well in the first year at each of his coaching stops.
Given the team’s development and the hiring of a new coach, they seemed poised to take that next step in their rebuild by competing for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They got off to a 19-13 record through the end of 2015 and were in fourth place. The calendar flipped to 2016 and things went sideways very quickly.
The usual problems that young teams experience began to surface. They were unsure of how to close out close games, they would go through very inconsistent stretches of play and their confidence began to wane.
The Magic finished January by posting just two wins in 14 outings. They lost several close games and were even defeated on their home court to the last-placed Philadelphia 76ers. The team’s rough month prompted the front office to make some changes.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Magic ended up being one of the most active teams in the league. They opted to bring in a couple of veterans in Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for 23-year-old Tobias Harris.
In addition to that trade, the Magic also sent Channing Frye to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the contract of Jared Cunningham and a second-round draft pick. Cunningham is expected to be waived by the team in the coming days.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see how trading Harris was surprising. This is a guy who was viewed as a key member of the young core that the team could build around. After all, the team just re-signed him to a four-year, $64 million deal last summer.
But, after being around the team, the move doesn’t seem that questionable. At the end of the day, re-signing Harris allowed the Magic to keep him as an asset. If Harris proved to be a player the Magic could count on to lead the team in scoring, then the signing looks great. If he didn’t turn out to be that player this season, then the team would look at trading him – and that’s exactly what happened.
The return the Magic received for Harris has also come into question. Jennings is coming off of an Achilles’ injury, while Ilyasova is a player who has averaged around 11 points per game during his career. It’s clear the moves the Magic made last week were part of a much bigger plan.
By moving Harris and Frye, the team can have as much as $50 million in cap space this summer with Jennings and Ilyasova both on potentially expiring contracts. The possibility of having that much money in cap space would be enough to sign two players to max deals. The team would have to renounce the rights to several players, but the possibility is there to have a lot of cap space.
The biggest name in free agency this summer is obviously Kevin Durant. There is no doubt that teams all over the league will be lining up to pitch their case to Durant. However, players like Al Horford, Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum and Kent Bazemore are more realistic options that the Magic could chase.
In order to have a chance at signing one of those players (and/or other available free agents), the Magic have to look like an appealing destination. To be taken seriously, it’s imperative that the Magic make the playoffs, or at least seriously challenge for a playoff spot this season.
Would a player like Horford or Parsons leave their current situation to be on a team headed for the lottery? Unlikely. That’s why the team opted to bring in Jennings and Ilyasova. Both players have proven themselves over the years and both can be counted on when games matter most down the stretch.
“I’m going to utilize [Jennings’ leadership] to the utmost,” Oladipo said. “He’s a great friend to be here and it’s great to have those two; they’re great additions for us. We just got to continue keep building on their energy that they brought to the team and make a run at this thing. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out.”
Orlando has struggled at times this season closing out games. Several players have had inconsistent stretches during late-game situations. The team hopes adding Jennings and Ilyasova can help solve those issues.
During the second half of Friday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks, Jennings helped get the Magic back into the contest. Entering the fourth quarter, the Magic trailed by nine points, but Jennings hit a pair of three-pointers that helped the Magic go on a run that eventually allowed them to tie the game in regulation. The Magic would go on to win in overtime after trailing by as many as 14 points.
“I’m just taking it one game at a time,” Jennings said. “[It’s] definitely good to come here and get the first win, of course. We got to be consistent. That’s the main thing, being consistent these last 30 games.
“I just pick my spots. When I was open, take shots, and find guys when they’re open. It’s pretty easy playing for Scott [Skiles] since I was playing with him for four years in Milwaukee. It felt good to be back out there in crunch time. I just felt like I didn’t have to worry about looking over my shoulder or anything – just play.”
Bringing in both Jennings and Ilyasova wasn’t a coincidence. The two are familiar with Skiles because they played for him on the Milwaukee Bucks for four seasons. Having players who have previously suited up for Skiles was a factor in acquiring them. The transition for both will likely be smooth and easy.
“I played [with him] for four years and he gave me the ball from the jump to start my career off,” Jennings said. “During that time, I really didn’t believe in a lot of the things he was saying, but when he left that’s when it really kicked in. I realize just how important he was to me. Just his approach, the way he holds guys accountable and the way he approaches the game, I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s not a lot of things you have to think about,” Ilyasova said. “With him, I knew what he expects from us and you know what to expect from him. If you play hard and bring the energy all of the time, [making] mistakes will [take care of] itself.”
It’s clear that the Magic’s front office is tired of losing and wants to return to the playoffs. They understand how important it is to win right now in order to have a chance of signing a marquee player this summer. They know that another season with a lottery pick in the draft likely won’t help their chances.
In a summer where the majority of the league will have cap space to some extent, the Magic need to do everything they can to separate themselves from the pack. A return to the playoffs could be what gets them to that point, which is why these last two months of the regular season will be critical for the Magic.
Wall Showing Maturity for Washington
Although the Washington Wizards’ record may not reflect it, John Wall is having his best season to date.
In his sixth season in the league, Wall is averaging a career-high 19.9 points while also adding 9.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds and two steals per game. He’s proven to be the leader Washington can count on night in and night out.
“The main thing is that he’s maturing,” Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s tough being a point guard in this league. Each step he’s taken of understanding what buttons to push, when to look to be more aggressive scoring and when to facilitate.
“He’s just really grown into that. It’s not easy to do. Not everybody can do that. That’s really the maturity level we’ve seen him take this year – a step that he’s really done a good job of [taking].”
While Wall has been fantastic this season, the Wizards are still out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Heading into tonight’s slate of games, the Wizards find themselves 10th in the standings and four-and-a-half games back from the last playoff spot.
They just wrapped up a tough stretch of three games in three nights after the postponed game against the Utah Jazz on January 23 was moved to Thursday. That left the Wizards playing the Jazz, Pistons and HEAT last Thursday through Saturday.
The pressure is on the Wizards to get back into the playoff picture.
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