The Orlando Magic have one goal in mind this season: make the playoffs.
After three years of losing game after game to try and garner the highest draft pick possible, the Magic were ready to take the next step last season under coach Scott Skiles. With Skiles calling the shots, the hope was the youth laden Magic team would be able to build an identity and start to turn the corner, possibly even making the playoffs.
A 19-13 start to the season made those playoff aspirations seem attainable, but once the calendar turned over to 2016, and the opponents started getting tougher, things went downhill and fast for the Magic.
Fast forward to May and Skiles walked out, leaving the Magic to pick up the pieces and find a new head coach for the third time in 15 months. In walks Frank Vogel, freshly removed from a successful stint with the Indiana Pacers to once again try to piece it all together for the youthful Magic bunch.
Vogel, who guided the Pacers to the playoffs in all but one of his five and a half seasons with the franchise, appeared as the best fit for the Magic to finally turn things around and make the playoffs.
A summer spending spree by general manager Rob Hennigan saw the team bring in a handful of veterans, headlined by defensive savants Serge Ibaka (via trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder) and Bismack Biyombo. Adding Ibaka and Biyombo showed the Magic’s clear intentions to become a top level defense, something Vogel’s Pacers teams were known for year in and year out.
Along with Ibaka and Biyombo, the team brought in Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks, who all bring veteran leadership and playoff experience to a roster that had combined to play in 53 playoffs games, 48 of which came from C.J. Watson. Ibaka, Biyombo, Green, Augustin and Meeks combined have appeared in nearly four times that many playoff games, tallying 198 between them.
While adding playoff experience both on the court and on the bench doesn’t guarantee the Magic will make it to the playoffs for the first time post-Dwight Howard, it certainly won’t hurt them. Add in the youth on the roster that continues to grow and the Magic have an interesting group that will be vying for a playoff spot.
The man tasked with leading the Magic back to the playoffs talked about how the team can handle the expectations of making the playoffs. “Set the bar high,” said Vogel during the Magic’s annual media day. “We’re going to be a team that has the shoot for the moon mentality, the dream big mentality. Then set that bar high and work our tails off to achieve our goals.”
Setting the bar high can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing, especially for a team that is integrating six players who could see consistent playing time, including potentially two starters.
Having goals that are high up gives the team even more motivation and drive than they already may have had. It pushes them to continue to work on their games each day, both individually and as a team. “Hunger level’s very high,” said Vogel, when asked about his teams drive to get over the hump.
Those goals can also lead to failures like last season. After their strong start to the season, the young Magic bunch seemingly froze up, not being able to keep a losing streak from snowballing and turning into a month full of disaster. They were unable to turn it around, leading to missing the playoffs once again, and Skiles unexpectedly walking out.
With the Eastern Conference continuing to get more and more competitive, the Magic will have their work cut out for them, and Vogel knows that. “Absolutely, it’s wide open,” said the Magic’s head man when asked at the conference following Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton’s hamstring injury, and Miami’s Chris Bosh fiasco.
Obviously we’re all chasing Cleveland, the Champs, and beyond that there’s a lot of teams that have a legitimate reason to believe that they can be that second or third seed. A lot of teams. I think last year was a little indicative of, maybe more of the championship contenders were in the West, but the deeper conference was, no doubt about it, the Eastern Conference. It’s going to be the same this year.”
As Vogel points out, after the Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference is pretty wide open. The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics figure to be the next two teams, with the likes of Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, Indiana, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Milwaukee, Orlando and possibly Miami fighting for the final five spots in the playoffs.
Having that much depth in the conference adds another challenging aspect to a team yearning for one of those eight spots.
Can the Magic make the playoffs this season? Absolutely. They have the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and with the right balance offensively could be a force to win any given night.
Is setting the goal for the playoffs the right thing to do? Yes, and no. Having that goal laid out is a good one to have, but continuing to grow as a unit and taking that next step is very important for the team as well. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, continuing to improve in the win column could be considered a “win” for them this season.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were most teams contending for playoff spots in any major sport. The Magic can make it, but if they don’t, and still improve, they can still consider their season successful.