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It’s ok to win basketball games

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The Magic lost ground in the draft race when they won their final game. That’s not the end of the world.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Today, Zach Oliver wrote about the implications of the Magic’s win versus the Pistons on Wednesday night. What could have been a feel-good story about Orlando taking a clutch win in front of a record crowd was marred by the loss of draft positioning. With their win and the Sixers’ loss, Philly secured the 4th best lottery odds entering the draft, while the Magic will be 5th. Philadelphia will have about a 38% chance of moving into the top-3, while the Magic sit at a hair over 29%.

I encourage you to check out his perspective, and then to join me on a journey through Unpopular Opinion Land as I try to explain why it’s ok that the Magic didn’t lose that game.

First, let me start of by saying that I’m firmly not a believer in things like “building momentum going into the offseason,” nor do I think this result positively affects the team’s “culture.” This game won’t make the difference between the Magic becoming a good or bad organization. I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea of “basketball karma,” or that some sort of “basketball gods” will punish teams who brazenly tank away games to pick up ping pong balls.

In that sense, I disagree with some of what Vogel said after the game when I asked him about the value of the draft pick versus the value of the win. “Karma is something that I can’t really say. But I believe in the basketball gods, and caring about the right things, and doing the right things, and that stuff gets rewarded.”

He referenced examples of how things can turn out badly for teams that tank (Boston failing to get Tim Duncan, specifically), as well as how he feels Indiana was rewarded for trying to compete by getting Paul George and Myles Turner in the 10-11 range of the draft.

Of course, there’s plenty of examples that go the other way, too. Cleveland managed to win the lottery 3 out of 4 years despite doing little to be competitive, including one year when they actually won with the Clippers’ pick. There’s a universe where they don’t trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, where LeBron James doesn’t come home to a team he perceives isn’t good enough. After two 1st-overall picks, did Cleveland really deserve a third shot, one that factored into bringing back the best player of his generation?

So no, I don’t really think that if the Magic act the right way, say the right things, and have the right attitude, they’ll be rewarded for their winning culture. I don’t think that the Magic would have been punished if they’d played Stephen Zimmerman 48 minutes against the Pistons in an effort to guarantee a loss.

In that sense, I can see why, objectively, it was better for the Magic to lose. As an engineer, I’m a fan of objectivity. I’m also process-oriented: even if the Magic do jump into the top-3 because they were 5th instead of 4th, I’m not gonna come back and say “Well clearly they did the right thing by winning that game.” That’s not how probability works, and that’s not how the NBA lottery works.

So why, then, am I not going to be upset by the win? If I agreed that the Magic worsened their chance at a brighter future, why would I accept that tradeoff? It’s complicated, so I’ll do my best to break it down into a few pieces.

For starters, I think it’s important to do right by the fans. The Magic set a record for attendance, a whopping 19,458 people crammed into the Amway Center, the most in the building’s existence. It was, by far, the best crowd of the season. They cheered when the Magic hit big shots, they jeered opponents at the free throw line, and they got hyped for the highlight dunks and blocks. It wasn’t a well-played basketball game, by any means, but the crowd was invested in the Magic’s success.

I’m not going to tell almost 20,000 people who paid to see their favorite team that they should pull for a loss, not to cheer when Elfrid Payton hits three clutch shots in a row to seal the victory, not to get excited when Aaron Gordon puts together more of those dunks that eluded him most of the season when he played out of position. If that sounds like normal basketball crowd stuff...well, it should be, but the Amway Center has not been a super-fun place to hang out this season. There’s value in having a good time at your favorite team’s basketball game, especially when it’s the last chance you’ll have to see them for a few months.

But maybe you don’t care about that. So what if 19,000 or 20,000 people had a good time? That kind of shortsighted thinking is akin to the Magic making win-now moves while sacrificing their future, quite literally in this case. Even if it came at the expense of a record sell-out crowd, and even if it hurt their public image to sabotage their chances of winning, none of that matters compared to the Magic getting better. Nobody’s going to care about tanking that game come next season if the Magic have something nice to show for it, a quality prospect of some sort to give the fans hope.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Consider the players, then. If hyped-up crowds were a rarity at home this season, then equally scarce were the times when the players looked like they really cared about the results. Part of that comes with not being involved in a lot of winnable games, but even in the middle of competitive contests the Magic never seemed to get worked up much about what was going on on the court. Only the most earth-shattering dunks from Gordon could get a rise out of the bench. Nikola Vucevic hits an important jumper with 4 minutes to go? Payton picks someone’s pocket and runs it up the court for a layup? You might get Damjan Rudez standing up and waving a towel. That’s about it.

That’s why it was nice to see the players invested in their success on Wednesday, even in a game that didn’t get them anything, even playing against a bad team playing deep into its own bench. When Payton hit the third of his three consecutive shots at the end of the fourth quarter, the bench flooded out to meet him halfway on the court when the Pistons called timeout. The Magic’s mercurial point guard successfully took over at the end of a close game, and his teammates were excited about it. They were having fun.

Again, this sounds like normal basketball stuff, but it’s been so fleeting for the Magic this season. There’s value in having fun, even in a meaningless game. That’s the difference between the Magic and a team like the Phoenix Suns, who appear to legitimately enjoy the small victories, even if they’re getting shellacked every night.

To reiterate, I’m not suggesting that this one game has taught the Magic how to have fun, or that their hearts grew three sizes that day, or whatever. What I’m saying is that this is an important quality for a good basketball team, being invested in each others’ success, or more fundamentally, each other’s happiness. Team chemistry is difficult to measure, but it’s important regardless, and signs that this team can coexist serve as valuable data points.

After the game, in the locker room, the media gathered around Payton, famously reserved in front of the cameras and recorders. This time, there was a twist: Mario Hezonja came up with his own camera (presumably borrowed from some other media member) and posed like one of the reporters, chiming in to ask questions, playfully chiding Payton for his quiet, stunted responses. Payton got into it a little as well, and everyone had a good laugh about it. It was a refreshing change of pace after dozens of glum receptions, hundreds of times the players repeated variations on “We have to do better” or “It’s disappointing, for sure” or “We need to bring the same energy every night.” That’s important.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

...but maybe you don’t care about that either. This team’s problems go way past just getting along. So what if they have to suffer one more miserable night? What’s one more depressing loss on top of 53 others? It’s not like the future lies with these players anyway.

In that case, I can offer one more reason not to get worked up about a win. I disagreed with Vogel’s perceptions about the cosmic forces that decide draft orders, but there was one part of his statement that made sense to me. “You have to compete to win. That’s what you have to do, I believe in that...I believe in trying to build a winning culture, that’s the most important thing for us.”

I’ll say it again, I don’t think that the Magic really leveled up their culture stat tonight. However, having a consistent attitude about competing in every game is, I believe, an important quality to instill in the long term. That’s part of why the losses to the Pacers and Bulls were so crushing: more than being bad, the disappointment was that the Magic had no will to win.

If your immediate response to those games was “FIRE EVERYONE,” but you had the same reaction after winning on Wednesday, you should reassess your priorities. Losing by 47 is the tankiest of tank jobs, but it hurt all the same. Clearly, there’s value in trying to win.


I fully expect that this argument doesn’t sway most of you, and I understand where you’re coming from. This franchise is in such a bad position that they need every advantage they can scrape together as they rebuild the rebuild, and winning the last game of the season feels like sabotaging the future.

In that case, I’d offer two perspectives. First, as long as we’re talking about “process,” I’d remind you that the Magic had 28 other opportunities to lose one more game this season. Much like how the last shot of a game carries more weight, not tanking when the implications were so obvious feels especially crushing, but the Magic got here because of what they did over the course of six months. If you want to get mad because they didn’t play Gordon as a power forward, because they signed Bismack Biyombo, or because Jeff Green played 22 minutes a game, that makes more sense to me.

Secondly, even if you’d preferred the Magic take the L, I invite you to find at least a little joy in the victory, especially a victory that was carried by exactly the players you’d hope would step up, Payton and Gordon. Isn’t that what we’ve wanted all along, for Gordon to dunk all over everyone and for Payton to find a way to be impactful at the end of a close game?

It’s ok to win.