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Off-Day Debate: What would be a successful season for the Magic?

A strong start to the season was followed by an extended losing streak. So what are the Magic really capable of?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Measure of Success

Having just passed the quarter point of the NBA season it seems appropriate to ask precisely what we should expect from the Orlando Magic when it’s all said and done. Wildly divergent results across the first six weeks have made it difficult to pin down the exact nature of this team; there’s seemingly no way of knowing whether the Magic will show up as Jekyll or Hyde on any given night. So, when we combine the early season projections, what we know now, and our best guesses for the games to come, the question remains: what outcome is necessary for us to deem Orlando’s season a success?

What we thought we knew then...

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s fair to say that there weren’t huge expectations for the Magic coming into the season. Most analysts had the team pegged for somewhere between 30 to 35 wins, with the sportsbooks being in agreement when they set their over/under lines. Discussion here on the OPP boards tended to skew a little more favourably (understandably!), but still only a few brave souls confidently talked about basketball beyond game 82. In my own season preview I settled at 37 wins and a fringe playoff chance.

The reasons for such projections seemed obvious. The Magic had cratered the season before, stalling in terms of on-court development and regressing in the standings. The talent added over the course of the offseason was more about depth than starpower, so any improvement was largely going to come from within. The team still projected as a poor shooting outfit that would find it difficult to score in halfcourt sets, and there wasn’t really any reason to be confident that the previous season’s defensive woes would turn around. Orlando figured to be much like the last Oladipo-centric team we had seen two seasons earlier; 35 wins seemed to fit the bill.

Most would have been happy to see the team rack up wins somewhere in the region of the low-thirties. If one of the young pieces -- likely Aaron Gordon or Elfrid Payton -- started to make good on potential and provided clear evidence of their value to the franchise moving forward, that would appease many. Cohesive game planning and a purposeful front office direction would have left fans feeling like the franchise was back on track. Success was largely going to be measured in incremental growth.

What we think we know now...

NBA: Orlando Magic at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In what seems a distant memory, Orlando came out in blistering fashion as they raced to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference standings by compiling an 8-4 record. This was achieved largely as a result of numerous players deciding to shoot molten lava when unloading from downtown. Evan Fournier bounced back in a big way from the previous season’s down shooting percentages, while Gordon and Nikola Vucevic both had apparently transformed into deadly marksmen from deep in the blink of an eye. Throw in a career-best performance from beyond the arc by Mo Speights and some other timely offensive contributions and the Magic had managed to place themselves near the top of nearly every metric used to measure offensive efficiency.

Of course, Orlando soon suffered the inevitable crash. A West Coast swing saw the team’s hot shooting turn frigidly cold, and defensively they committed previously common sins -- poor pick and roll management, ineffective rebounding, terrible rim protection -- in allowing opponents to rack up insurmountable totals. The bottom seemingly fell out of things entirely when the team returned home and coughed up a record-equalling defeat to a Utah team without their best player. That loss brought the Magic’s record back to 8-8, and suddenly playoff contention looked like a tough hill to climb. The team’s shooting was flattening out, bench players were being forced into bigger roles, and individual performances had become a little more erratic. Maybe Orlando were more like the team that the pessimists predicted.

At this point, things quickly turned from bad to worse. The Magic went on to lose the next five after the Utah game, including an 0-4 road trip that featured 3 double-digit losses. The frustration was apparent both on the court and in interviews with players and staff, and it wasn’t easy to see when the pressure would be alleviated. With the team in perhaps their most difficult stretch of the season in terms of quality of opponent the hot start was a thing of the past. Thankfully, the team was able to halt the slide with a nice home win over the Thunder, a game during which many of the season’s early storylines -- hot shooting, grit and determination, big individual performances -- again played out.

The shape of ‘ball to come...

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Reflecting on the games we’ve seen to this point sets the stage for a fresh evaluation of what we should expect from the Magic. It would be easy to just say that the initial preseason projections are the stick against which the team should be measured, but that’s not how any organisation committed to growth should approach a situation. If the projections were wrong, they should be revised rather than held onto. Success demands the shifting of goalposts.

This team has shown that they are capable of crafting excellent performances, as wins over Cleveland and San Antonio demonstrate. In the season’s opening weeks they defended leads, chased down deficits, and generally displayed a level of resilience that was lacking in seasons past. They managed to win ugly when things weren’t clicking (a sign of a good team!), while also demonstrating a capacity to bounce back from poor performances. These are the types of things done by a squad ready to talk playoffs, and it shouldn’t be any different for Orlando.

However, there is also the ‘Hyde’ part of this equation. No one should ever have looked at the first two weeks of the season and concluded that the Magic were on a 60-win pace and therefore needed to start thinking about a deep playoff run. The shooting numbers were always going to come back down to earth, injuries would expose the limited nature of the roster’s depth, and some of the team’s defensive problems were sure to catch them out at some point. These warts were exposed in the ugliest of manners during the 9-game skid, and it surely tempered expectations regarding the team’s potential; a fact perhaps best reflected in their calamitous drop in online power rankings.

However, much like Orlando weren’t the Eastern Conference conquering juggernaut their early record implied, so too are they not a team with designs on maximising their collection of ping pong balls. The reality can undoubtedly be found somewhere in the middle.

The Magic have proven that their ceiling is higher than most predicted at the start of the season. They’ve also shown us that the floor is uncomfortably low when everything goes wrong. But after five years of the post-Dwight rebuild it’s time for this team to set their sights accordingly, and find ways to consistently deliver an on-court product that at least comes closer to the heights of which we know they are capable.

For mine, anything less than a meaningful run at one of the final playoff spots will make it hard to define this season as a success. The potential was always there, and the team’s performance across the first two weeks just solidified the more optimistic of expectations. The schedule is about to get a little more inviting, and with the shackles of the losing streak now broken the Magic have an opportunity to bounce back quickly. Individual evaluations will certainly make it possible for specific players to shine even if the team falls short, but with a core that has now largely been in place for multiple seasons it’s time to see the collective return if we’re to deem this season a success.

What do the Magic need to do for you to consider the season a success? Finish about .500? Make the playoffs? Advance to the second round? Finish with a top-three draft pick? Join the debate below….