The Orlando Magic will make the playoffs for the second straight season after six years out of the money. In some realms, that’s nice. That’s positive. That’s progress. The Magic slipped into the No. 7 seed over the injury-ridden Brooklyn Nets late last week and have five games on the No. 9 Washington Wizards with 23 games to go. FiveThirtyEight gives Orlando a better than 99 percent probability of making the playoffs.
The Magic will assuredly get violently ejected from the playoffs by the Bucks, Celtics, or Raptors — whichever Orlando has the terrible luck of facing. Toronto did it in five last season; it won’t be that close this time around. There’s no chance Orlando catches up to the No. 6 Indiana Pacers, and that would be small comfort anyways since you’d still run up against one of those elite teams. So Orlando is doomed to another first-round exit that looks something like their last, with the edge of promise they showed this time last year have dulled in the face of scrutiny.
Can it keep on going like this? Can the Magic just keep running it back with most of the same actors?
Orlando’s defense is still its strength, but it hasn’t been as good this season as it had a year ago. The Magic sit No. 8 in the NBA in defensive rating, but still give up more points than they score because the offense is so mediocre. Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon. Even when you add in Markelle Fultz, it’s still not happening.
Here are the annual finishes for Orlando’s team offense, including this season to date at the end, starting from 2012-13: No. 27, No. 29, No. 27, No. 22, No. 28, No. 25, No. 22, No. 26.
Eight years, four head coaches, bottom-10 offenses (usually bottom-five) every year. Vucevic has been there literally the entire time. Gordon and Fournier showed up in the third year. Nothing has changed. And this franchise had, at times, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo but also Jacque Vaughn and Scott Skiles.
It’s not working. The offense, with this mix of scorers, is not working. It is not ever going to work.
As Gordon himself might say, “what are we doin’, man?”
Fultz has had a nice season by the standards of how far expectations for Fultz fell amid the nightmare mysteries of Philadelphia. Fultz is awesomely young still, but he’s not a shooter at this point and his best skills are on defense. How much longer can the people of Central Florida wait for a modern offense that doesn’t stink? Can they wait for Fultz to figure out the Kyle Lowry formula, if ever?
Gordon has been turning a corner every year since he’s been the league. How wide is this corner? Vucevic turned a corner long ago; he is who he will be, and now he’s expensive. Fournier is in the same boat: a good player who isn’t changing year to year. Maybe one of them makes another jump at some point. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Orlando has to be done with maybes with this group.
Then we come to Jonathan Isaac, the supposed Rosetta Stone of this legend. I totally believe in Isaac, who has been out since the beginning of January — he should be back soon. The theory has been, based on some evidence from the sizzling second half of last season, that Isaac brings this all together. That his drool-demanding defense and funky, high-potential offense will sort the other puzzle pieces into place. That the Magic will be great around Isaac, so just hang on for a minute and let it happen.
I don’t know. Maybe? When? With this group? I don’t know. It “happened” for a couple months last year; it ends with a 4-1 playoff loss in the first round.
Tearing down what has failed repeatedly doesn’t mean starting over. But Vooch and Fournier are the offensive tentpoles of this team, and this team’s offense continues to be dreadful, so what’s lost in trying something different there? You may regret trading Gordon right before his breakout, but you should be regretting giving fans the same old mediocre schlock every winter. Regrets are easy to come by on the treadmill of mediocrity.
It’s been time for something new. Eventually, the Magic need to pull the trigger and put this era of bad basketball to bed.