The root of disappointment is expectation. Perhaps that’s why last season stung so bad for the Orlando Magic faithful.
The years of post-Dwightmare losing were expected. Fans waited patiently and squirreled away small victories in the form of single game performances by their core – primarily those of mercurial guard Victor Oladipo.
When the switch was flipped and it was time to win last offseason, few saw a six-game regression coming instead. That is why in the NBA, as well as in life, managing expectation is the key to happiness.
For too long, the Magic have been peddling hope. This year presents an opportunity to finally find tangible truth.
It’s time to stop banking on a big-name free agent falling in love with Orlando and swooping in to save the team. The Magic need to stop overpaying mediocre talent, ride out the bad deals they have, and empower the youth to mold this organization into an eventual winner.
Last season, the front office made bets based on what players like Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and at the time, Serge Ibaka could be.
Each of those players underperformed their lofty expectations, but that happens all the time in the NBA. For Orlando, the greater loss may be that a year has gone by and we still don’t know who those players actually are or how they fit together.
An unintended consequence of the Magic’s unstable leadership since 2012 has been the truest example of the old adage “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Players have had countless voices in their ear from a team perspective, and that’s without factoring in their friends, advisors, and the former coaches that they trust.
These players want to win, and they want to be coached, but years of losing combined with inept leadership from the top down have taken a toll on the locker room. Every player is different, and it has affected each one in their own unique way. Despite their best efforts to remain focused and unified, it’s only human to look over one’s shoulder and begin to look out for yourself as a fight-or-flight response to an organization in disarray.
That’s why this year should be about player development and making basketball fun again.
When I asked Frank Vogel about the fit of rookies Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu, who the Magic selected at Nos. 6 and 33 respectively in last week’s NBA Draft, he gave this response:
In short, that means that the Magic basically have a big bag of LEGO blocks with no blueprint as to how they all fit together — and that’s just on the wing.
On paper, having six do-it-all wings that can be plugged into that lineup at will would be fantastic. It works for the Golden State Warriors, who have set the tone for the NBA.
The Magic, however, are not the Golden State Warriors.
While they do have a cast of athletic players on the wing, their skillsets have shown to be much more limited and less consistent than that ensemble of All-Stars.
What they do have are streaky players like Terrence Ross, Fournier, Gordon, Hezonja, and even the less known commodities like Patricio Garino and Marcus Georges-Hunt. Tack on two positionless rookies in Isaac and Iwundu who have never dribbled a basketball for the Magic in any meaningful way, and you have many more questions than answers.
To date, those players have also shown limited versatility. Gordon at small forward was a failed experiment last season on offense, just as Fournier has been on defense throughout his career.
While it would be nice to hope everyone can play everything, or to hope that Fournier and Gordon learn the fusion dance from Dragon Ball Z and become the perfect small forward...
...neither of those things is very likely to happen. This team needs a clear direction, and they need to give their youth a chance to develop in an environment with reachable goals, not lofty expectations.
Entering his fourth NBA season, Payton’s shot has not developed. His defense, which was thought to be his biggest asset, has regressed each season, and he has spent the past two years battling the likes of Brandon Jennings, C.J. Watson, and D.J. Augustin for minutes, and even a starting role as the team’s point guard.
The Magic showed confidence in Payton by passing on prospects like N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. or high-risk French phenom Frank Ntilikina, and this season should be used to prove once and for all if he is the point guard of the future.
Even at the center spot, where the Magic will be dumping $29,250,000 into the contracts of Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, there is little clarity. Again, the fusion dance would be nice, but one of these players has to be the team’s starting center and one has to come off the bench.
One is an undersized and athletic defensive specialist with very little offensive polish. The other is a legitimate seven-footer who has one of the smoothest offensive games in the league when he’s rolling. There probably aren't two more different centers on the same roster across the NBA, and the Magic need to clearly define how they will play that situation before it wastes more precious time that could be spent developing a young core.
As rumors tick across social media from accounts across the credibility spectrum, it’s pretty clear that the Magic are more than one piece away from being a playoff contender. While everyone wants to win the offseason, the Magic can ill afford to have another Jeff Green eating away at the minutes of players that will be there for the long haul.
For this newly-young Magic team, progress, not results, should be the goal of 2017.