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Column: One day you’ll learn not to believe

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A curmudgeon’s take on the Orlando Magic’s season so far

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As I sit down to type this, the Orlando Magic are putting the finishing touches on a beatdown of the Toronto Raptors, the Eastern Conference’s top team, and maybe the best overall team through the 2018 portion of the season. Nikola Vucevic is putting together yet another monster performance to add to his potential All-Star candidacy. Jonathan Isaac is bombing from deep. D.J. Augustin continues to look like a starting-caliber point guard, somehow.

The win is a refreshing change of pace after a 4-game losing streak that had fans ready to throw the season away. Such is life living on the edge of the playoffs...you’re praying for the 8-seed or pushing to be as far away as possible, because being 9th is worse than anything. It’s the sort of win that helps you buy back in, that confirms there’s a real basketball team hiding beneath the struggles.

I don’t buy it at all. Not even a little bit. I do not believe in Magic.

The timing of this post is important to me, because I don’t want this to look like an overreaction to the losing streak, topped off by a loss to the incompetent Phoenix Suns (albeit on something of a run lately). I want to make it clear that one of the Magic’s best wins of the season is not enough to sway me on this point. In fact, here’s a small peak behind the curtain into the OPP group chat, before the losing streak:

A lot of this comes as a reaction to my perceptions of, well, everyone else’s perceptions, from OPP, Twitter, Reddit, and prominent writers. If I build any unintended strawmen, I apologize. Plenty of folks have plenty of different thoughts about how good this team really is and what the team should be doing, so this is my best effort at capturing that broad spectrum. I normally focus on the stats, so this will be a bit of a different take than normal.

The overwhelming sentiment of the season, I think, has been a desire to label this team as “different.” That makes sense. The last half-decade hasn’t exactly been a ton of fun, just a bunch of different flavors of bad. Sometimes it’s been “Bad but at least we have these young players,” sometimes it’s “Bad and oh my god we traded away our young players,” and sometimes it’s “Bad but look how long their arms are!”

A lot of that comes from Steve Clifford’s “tough guy” approach. His grouchy attitude answering questions about losses and his vigorous dismissal of excuses stands in contrast to Frank Vogel’s general nice-guy demeanor. It’s not that Vogel didn’t care about losing, but he went way out of his way to avoid throwing players under the bus. If someone struggled, it was always written off as an abnormality or based on circumstances like injuries or matchups. Schedule difficulties were a go-to excuse, especially when the team took its annual trip to the bottom of the standings in December.

Clifford gets angry. He snipes at reporters who question his strategy and rotations. He goes out of his way to show he won’t take losses laying down. Surely this is the kick in the ass this team needs! What the Magic have lacked was toughness! Yeah, things start out great, but they take a couple punches to the mouth and the season goes down the tubes.

This has been a common theme writing about this team, especially when things look like they’re going well. Following the back-to-back wins in Mexico, Josh Robbins of The Athletic wrote that “The Magic are starting to adopt the personality of their coach.” Preston Ellis, for Bball Index, wrote that the Magic “rediscovered their mojo.” John Denton at NBA.com said, “Clifford has brought a distinct toughness to the team by holding players accountable and holding them to high standards.”

When the Orlando Magic take those close, brutal wins, “gritty” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. “A win is a win” is another common expression. Sure, the games were ugly, but the Magic’s newfound attitude willed the team to victory! This team is different.

*record scratch*

To me, “gritty” is just a synonym for “offensively inept.” Scoring 90 points doesn’t seem so good when the other team almost drops 130. The pair of Mexico wins weren’t cause for celebration; they were cause for concern, a sign that if they continued to play at that level, they were going to get burned when their opposition actually came to play.

The thing is, this shouldn’t have been that surprising. Yes, if you’d asked me ahead of time, I probably would have predicted a 2-2 record in this stretch, if only because the Bulls and Suns are among the very worst teams in the league, but losing all four games was well within reason. You may want to believe this team is different, but they’re really just the same:

The Magic had to travel to Mexico for two games, they took a big trip out west, and they had to deal with things like Vucevic’s injury absence. Clifford is probably right! He also sounds an awful lot like every other Magic head coach from the past five years when the Winter swoon kicks in. It’s just another flavor of bad.

One could argue that it’s a slightly more palatable flavor of bad, and that’d probably be fair. As of this date last year, the Magic had a 12-24 record and a net rating of -5.1 per 100 possessions, compared to their current 15-19 record and -3.8 net rating. This year’s team has also trended in a positive direction from the start of the season. I warned back in October that Orlando needed to beware the blowout losses, and at the time they sported a miserable -6.8 point differential.

At the same time, we have to question whether any of this is sustainable. Last year’s hot start was fueled by insane 3-point shooting from Aaron Gordon, and when he came back to Earth, so too did the Magic. Can Nikola Vucevic maintain All-Star caliber play throughout the rest of the season?

My gut says no. His shooting stats in particular are so far outside his norms that reversion to the mean feels inevitable. His defense has long been underrated, and statistics like DRPM and DBPM place him among the best in the league right now, but that too could easily regress. Even if Vucevic’s inherent play doesn’t decline, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine an injury sidelining him, and by extension the Magic’s entire season. That risk may increase if Clifford increasingly decides that Mo Bamba is a detriment to winning basketball, leading to prolonged court time for Vuc.

Speaking of the Magic rookie, I’m absolutely not out on Bamba, and I love his potential, but there’s also little doubt that he’s incredibly destructive to the Magic’s chances of winning right now. It’s not fair to put all the bench struggles on him, but he may be the biggest contributor to the problems.

(It’s also depressing that he’s a symbol of the Magic’s continued lottery misfortunes. Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, and DeAndre Ayton all look great, and I’m still a believer in Trae Young, but the Magic never had a chance to draft any of them. It’s reminiscent of when Joel Embiid was selected just before Gordon in 2014, and Kristaps Porzingis just before Mario Hezonja in 2015. I firmly believe the Magic would have taken either of those players if they had the chance.)

I really, really want all of this to work out. I want Vucevic to make an All-Star game. I want him to sign an extension so he stay in Florida and avoid disrupting his family, including his newborn child, and I want to believe he can keep this up for years to come. I want the dream of Orlando’s long-armed defensive nightmare to become a reality. I want to believe they’re gonna find a long-term answer at point guard, even while Augustin continues to prove he belongs.

Unfortunately, history suggests we should not believe. I can’t believe the Magic will make the playoffs until it’s a mathematical certainty. I can’t believe they’re gonna produce an All-Star when they’ve consistently ranked among the least interesting, least competitive teams for years.

To me, any fleeting success they may be experiencing is an illusion.