Magic Looking to Finish Season Strong
It’s been quite a disappointing season for the Orlando Magic. The team was supposed to end its playoff drought and return to the postseason in 2016.
Instead, the Magic now find themselves out of the playoffs for a fourth-straight season, tying a franchise-high for consecutive seasons without a trip to the postseason.
It was a 104-101 win by the Indiana Pacers over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night that officially eliminated the Magic from playoff contention. Although they were officially eliminated last night, the team seemed all but out of the race long ago.
The team’s struggles this season have long been covered previously on Basketball Insiders. The team was 19-13 at the end of December and were sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
They were competing in games against some of the best teams in the league, and they were winning the games they were supposed to win. It seemed as though they were going to be alive in the playoff race until the end of the season.
The Magic were getting it done on the defensive end, and the offense appeared to be improving as well. Last season, the Magic had the league’s fourth-worst offense and the sixth-worst defensive rating. They improved the offense to 13th, and the defense was tied for ninth-best in the league by allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions.
The calendar flipped to 2016 and an entirely different team showed up to play basketball. Since January 1, the Magic have gone just 11-30, which is the fourth-worst record in the league during that time frame. The offense sputtered, and the defense began to allow seven more points per game compared to 2015.
Head coach Scott Skiles made a comment to reporters in the beginning of the season that he’ll know more about his team around the halfway mark of the season. With such a young group of players, Skiles said the team will either show they’re a legitimate contender or they’ll begin to show bouts of consistencies.
We now know it’s the latter part of that statement that has plagued the team. The biggest area of concern with the team is how they’ve managed to close games. When opponents went on runs, the Magic couldn’t find ways to stop them.
So far, they’ve played in 18 games this season that were decided by three or fewer points, which ranked inside the top five in the league — they won just six of those contests. Being able to win close games separates the good teams from the bad, and can be the difference between a playoff berth and a lottery pick.
Despite being officially eliminated from playoff contention, the team will now attempt to finish on a strong note and continue to make progress.
“It’s going to help us for the future so we got to keep playing great like we do now; don’t stop at all,” Mario Hezonja told Basketball Insiders. “No negativity at all or whatever it is. Just keep working and get us better individually and as a team.
“In our approach there is no, ‘Today this. Tomorrow something else.’ So, we really have the same mindset in [improving].”
Although it’s been a season of disappointment, the Magic have already posted more wins than they did last season. Saturday night’s 111-89 win over the Chicago Bulls snapped a six-game losing streak, and was the team’s 30th victory of the season.
“Everyone on this team loves the game of basketball,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “We’re playing for the joy of it. More than anything, we’re playing for the joy of it. Obviously, we want to compete and we’re all very competitive people. [We need to] just go out there, try to win and have fun.”
So, what’s next for the Magic?
Orlando has nine games remaining on the season and will try to gain some momentum going into what figures to be an important summer. Of the nine games remaining, they’ll play five at home and four on the road. They’ll almost certainly attempt to finish with a winning record over that nine-game stretch.
While the players will look to finish off the season strong, it’s likely the front office has already started looking ahead to this upcoming offseason. They already started to look ahead awhile back at the trade deadline when they opted to trade Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.
Both players could come off of the books this summer, as Jennings will be an unrestricted free agent and Ilyasova is on a non-guaranteed contract for next season. The move to trade Harris was said to add a couple of veteran players in Jennings and Ilyasova to help in the team’s push for the playoffs and to create cap space this summer.
In addition to those two players, Evan Fournier (restricted), Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson (restricted), Dewayne Dedmon (restricted) and Devyn Marble (non-guaranteed), could all become free agents this summer. By renouncing the rights to those players, the Magic could have up to $50 million in cap space.
The problem for the Magic is over half of the league will be in contention for this summer’s top free agents. As things stand currently, there could be as many as 17 teams that have enough cap space to sign at least one max-deal player, with five teams having enough space to sign two max players.
With players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons, DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah (among others) having the option to become free agents, the fight for these guys will be extremely competitive.
If the Magic are interested in making a big splash this summer (and all indications are that they will be), they’re going to have to hope that one of those top players is interested in coming to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four seasons.
The team has been linked previously to Horford and Parsons, but the chances of either player leaving their current team are unknown at this point. A source has indicated Parsons would be open to the idea of signing with the Magic since he grew up in the Central Florida area, but things in the NBA can change quickly.
Bringing Howard back to Orlando has been an idea that has gained traction in recent days, but given the way things ended previously with Howard and the Magic, it seems unlikely that the team would welcome him back.
Depending on how things play out over the last few weeks of the season, Orlando could have a draft pick within the 8-12 range. Does the team want to draft another player that would likely take another couple of seasons to develop when they’re trying to make a return to the playoffs? Would the Magic want to trade that pick?
It’s clear that it’s going to be a busy summer for the Magic. There are questions all over the roster that will need to be answered before next season. It’s very possible that by the start of training camp this Magic roster will be completely different.
Regardless of which players will suit up for the Magic on opening night next season, the team still has a lot to improve upon before making the jump to becoming a playoff team.
Nowitzki Could Play Two More Seasons
Dallas Mavericks forward Nowitzki is currently playing in his 18th season in the NBA and his current deal runs through the end of next season. Nowiztki currently holds a $8,682,184 player option for the 2016-17 campaign, and it sounds as though he will opt to pick up that option.
“My goal was when I signed this three-year deal to fulfill that contract,” Nowitzki told ESPN Radio on Sunday. “If I play next year through, by that point I’ll be 39. To be honest, 20 years [in the NBA] would sound really, really great. And next year would obviously be my 19th year, so maybe after this next year I could sign on one more. But I’ll just have to wait and see, I think, at this point.”
Nowitzki has proven this season that he can still remain productive for the Mavericks. He’s only missed seven games, and currently leads the Mavericks with 18.7 points per game while also shooting 46 percent from the field. His 20.04 PER ranks 10th-best among all power forwards.
“This season I felt good,” Nowitzki said. “Next year we’ll see how it goes and then I can make that decision with my family, with [longtime shooting coach and mentor] Holger Geschwindner and all my guys that have been working with me for so long … I can make that decision if I play one more season.”
Dallas is still fighting for their playoff lives. Entering tonight’s game against the Denver Nuggets, the Mavericks are a game and a half out of the eighth-placed Rockets with just nine games remaining. Of those nine games that remain, only four of them are against teams above .500.
They’ll play the Rockets on April 6, which could be a huge game for both teams with the season drawing to a close.
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