There is a well-established narrative in the NBA, and it is one that the Orlando Magic are all too familiar with. It is that the worst place you can be is in the middle of the pack. If you are a contender, or even one certain to make the playoffs, then you are doing something right. Ultimately this is where everybody wants to be, and with the league in such a competitive place right now, plenty are trying.
Failing that, what you want to do is sink to the bottom. Not just be bad, but like, really bad. The kind of bad that turns fans away from the franchise for a while and has a negative impact on the ability to sell tickets. This isn’t a problem for most teams right now which makes tanking an even easier sell than it usually is, despite the new draft lottery rules set up to combat rebuilds like “The Process” that the Philadelphia 76ers underwent.
Despite the best efforts of the Magic in recent seasons, they have failed to comfortably fall into either category. Back-to-back postseason appearances the last two years were great to get fans excited again, but a first-round exit, while stealing a game in the process, was as good as it was ever going to get.
Then something terrible happened. But also a series of events that could be viewed as a blessing in disguise. The Magic started to suffer from injuries. A lot of them. No, like seriously the kind of run that would make you think somebody put a curse on the franchise, although that sort of thing has happened elsewhere before. But with guys now returning, the simple fact is this;
The Orlando Magic are still too good to be truly bad
It starts, as it so often does, with center Nikola Vucevic. He should be an All-Star this year, which would be the second selection of his career. He won’t be. That hasn’t stopped him from having a career year, the kind that will single-handedly keep your fantasy team afloat when other guys are struggling. He is averaging 24.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting a ridiculous 40.5 percent from deep.
Whereas in the past Vucevic was an empty stats kind of player, somebody who could put up big numbers in losses, that just isn’t possible to the same extend anymore for a number of reasons. Vucevic is 30 and simply better. Head coach Steve Clifford is exactly that, a component head coach. He knows how to create defensive schemes to keep the roster competitive.
Sunday night’s win over the Detroit Pistons, the Magic’s third in a row, was a perfect microcosm of where they’re at right now. With Blake Griffin pretty much unmovable as a result of his contract and Dennis Smith Jr. the starting point guard, the Pistons are in disarray. At 8-22, they are bottom of the East, and they are going nowhere.
The Magic on the other hand have the kind of continuity that few other organizations have, with their core having been in place for over half a decade now. This is coach Clifford’s third year on the sidelines. There have been no major trades outside of Markelle Fultz, with draft picks each summer the only real way the roster is being changed.
As a result of this, on top of the play of Vucevic, who is their fulcrum offensively, the Orlando Magic are 13-18. This despite both Fultz and Jonathan Isaac having torn ACLs. Aaron Gordon will likely be gone for another month with a severe ankle sprain. Rookie Cole Anthony won’t be back until after the All-Star break with an altogether strange rib injury.
But other guys have returned. Al-Farouq Aminu, having suffered for the best part of a year with a meniscus injury, is almost like a new player out there. Michael Carter-Williams has been in and out of the lineup, but now that he’s back he cares too much defensively to give up easy baskets all of the time.
These are veteran players, guys who not only want to win but make fewer mistakes than young players. It has led to some wins, including over the Golden State Warriors are part of this three-game winning streak. Right now, the eighth spot is once again in sight.
But therein lies the problem. This still isn’t a rotation that could do any damage in the postseason. Those days won’t come until a healthy Fultz and Isaac return. Which leaves the Orlando Magic once again, and frustratingly so, stuck in the same familiar spot as before. This despite trying really hard not to be, although the front office isn’t helping matters at the moment either way.
The way they started the year, if fully healthy they could have aimed for the sixth seed in the East. Once injuries decimated them, it was easy to see them falling hard, which they did for a period, with the hope of another high lottery pick to add to their young core a positive for the long-term development here.
Finally, the play of Evan Fournier has not only seen to this but will lead to a tricky conversation down the road. Ranked as one of the top five most valuable trade assets by ESPN in the league right now, Fournier is an unrestricted free agent this summer. He is playing to secure a new contract, and so he should.
But he’s also doing it in such a way, as the best creator on the court for the Magic, that they might end up bringing him back. Unthinkable for some, and a conversation for another day no doubt, but right now alongside Vucevic he is playing the kind of basketball that is going to pull out some wins here and there. In other words, exactly what they don’t want right now. Despite their best efforts, the Orlando Magic find themselves stuck.