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It’s not time for the Magic to give up on their playoff goals (yet)

The Magic find themselves at the ultimate crossroads of their season. Should they continue to push for a playoff berth, or start to set themselves up for the future?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to be the bearer of bad news Orlando fans, but this needs to be said nonetheless.

The Magic do not have a chance to draft Zion Williamson. Not now, not ever - it’s not going to happen.

I realize that after games like last night, when Williamson produced highlight after highlight as his team took down an undefeated national powerhouse, the thought of bringing in such a franchise altering megastar is almost too much to ignore.

But the top pick in this June’s NBA Draft is not in the cards for the Magic. Honestly, a top-four pick is probably already out of reach at this point. There are just too many teams (Cleveland, Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, New York) behind the Magic in the standings that positioned themselves to be players in the Zion sweepstakes months ago.

Last weekend saw Orlando sweep a home and home back-to-back against two of the better teams in the league in the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. Mentioning the “p-word (playoffs)” wouldn’t have been that uncommon or extraordinary, the Magic were rolling.

Well, a lot can change in the NBA in one week. The Magic dropped three straight games this week in Detroit, and then at home to Brooklyn and Milwaukee on back-to-back nights. This week, Orlando’s defensive efforts were a cause for major concern. The Magic averaged just under 113 points per game against Detroit, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee; for them, that should be enough to win. Unfortunately, they gave up over 118 points per game over that same stretch.

“We’ve got to get our defense going again if we’re going to have a chance,” Coach Clifford said during his post-game conference. “If we don’t, we have no shot. We can’t keep playing defense like we have these last few games. The first twenty games, I think we were 17th in defense. The next (20 games) we were 9th. But this stretch of games, I don’t know where we would be, but I would think it would be at the bottom seven or eight teams - it just hasn’t been good enough.”

Hence the lottery talk among many Magic fans is back and louder than at any point so far this season. I get it, I understand what’s happened to this franchise in January over the last five years. In the last half decade, the Magic have gone a collective 14-61 in the calendar’s first month.

January has been the time when Orlando’s season has officially ended as of late, so why should this season be any different? It’s time to start bookmarking on our browsers, recording college basketball games, and reading endless mock drafts.

Not just yet.

To “tank” or not to “tank” is not really a question Orlando’s management has the luxury of deciding for themselves. The decision has already been made for them. The Magic can’t get into a realistic position at this point of the season where a Williamson or an R.J. Barrett is within reach. All they can do now is keep moving forward.

Orlando’s season is not over quite yet, the Magic are still alive. But the losing has to now.

“Next game against Atlanta is a big one for us, and the one after that,” Nikola Vucevic said in the locker room after the game. “We can’t keep digging ourselves into a hole. This is it for us, every game for us going forward is like a Game 7. We don’t have any margin for error, this is our season.”

The team’s goal this season was always to find a way to compete for a playoff berth. If the team was successful in reaching their goal, great. If the Magic were to fall short, at least they would have taken the next step of playing in meaningful games past January. After dropping three games this week, the Magic are still easily within reach of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Magic currently sit three games out of the eighth seed in the East, and a mere four games back of the Southeast Division leading Miami Heat. Even mixing in a modest winning streak would get the Magic right back in the middle of the playoff conversation. It won’t take much, just an avoidance of the regularly scheduled January swoon (Magic are currently 3-7 in January).

“Absolutely, we’re seven or eight games under .500,” Vucevic said when asked about feeling the urgency right now. “It’s still not over, we’re three (or four) games out. Things can turn around very quickly, but it has to be done. If we keep losing and keep sliding and there’s too much of a gap, the teams in front of us aren’t going to lose that many games. It’ll be hard for us to go on like a 10 or 11 game winning streak. We have to do it right now; every game, we have to bring it for 48 minutes and try to win as many games as we can until the (All-Star) break.”

“Just (have to) come together and try to change things before our next game,” Terrence Ross added in front of his locker after the game. “We’ve got to keep pushing, we have a couple opportunities in the next couple days. We need to take it day-by-day and just keep playing.”

A lot of Magic fans question whether trying to make the playoffs is the correct path for this team. Vucevic and Ross are set to become unrestricted free agents at season’s end. Franchise cornerstones Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac could arguably benefit if some veterans were moved to free up playing time, increased roles in the offense, etc. for Orlando’s core. Shouldn’t the Magic cash in on Vucevic and Ross, collect future assets, and focus on next year?

I’m sure Jeff Weltman and John Hammond are listening to offers from executives around the league regarding their two veterans, but I bet they are just as active (if not more) out there looking to add to what they have this season. Steve Clifford was not brought in to “tank” seasons away.

Orlando’s young roster experiencing playoff basketball, even if that means getting swept in the first round, would be worth more than any marginal asset(s) the Magic could accrue at this year’s trade deadline.

It’s still okay to think the team has a chance to make the playoffs, because they do. But they can’t drop much further (the Magic are a season-low eight games below .500).

For now, hope is not completely lost Magic fans. But ask me again next weekend, the NBA Trade Deadline is coming.