The Orlando Magic play a basketball game tonight.
It is one of 36 remaining in what is a second-half schedule more challenging than that of any other team in the league — beginning with a back-to-back at Miami on Thursday and at San Antonio on Friday.
It’s going to be a grueling stretch of games for a shorthanded team that currently sits four games out of the eighth spot, 3.5 games out of the final play-in spot, and 3 games ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the Eastern Conference’s worst record. Add it all up, and when those 36 games are completed, the Magic very well could be back in a position they haven’t been since 2018: depending on the lucky bounce of a bunch of lottery balls.
On Thursday night they face a Heat team that is getting healthier and regaining the form of the squad that made an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, having won seven of their last 8 games prior to the All-Star break to reach the .500 mark. With a win over the Magic, they’ll go over .500 for the first time this season. The Heat will have to do it without Bam Adebayo and Avery Bradley, who are both out due to injury.
The Magic lost five straight games before the break, capped by what was their ugliest loss of the season against the Hawks where they dropped a 16-point fourth quarter lead. Who will be in the starting lineup for the Magic to start the second half of the season remains as much of a mystery as it was for much of the first half. Evan Fournier (groin), James Ennis (calf) and Cole Anthony rib) are listed as out and Aaron Gordon (ankle) is questionable.
But the bigger picture obviously is more important than whether the Magic get a W in Miami tonight. So here are 10 rapid fire questions for the second half of the Orlando Magic season:
1. Will the Magic trade Nikola Vucevic?
No. He’s become too good to trade. Here is the hope for Vucevic and for every other member of the team.
2. Will the Magic trade anyone else?
I’d guess yes on Evan Fournier and Khem Birch before losing them for nothing in free agency. No on the perpetually-rumored Aaron Gordon, who the Magic can delay their decision-making on at an affordable rate of $16 million next season in the final year of AG’s contract.
3. When will Cole Anthony return?
The rookie point guard is losing out on a valuable learning experience while missing time in Markelle Fultz’s absence. But Steve Clifford said on Wednesday that Anthony, who was slated to return sometime after the All-Star break after a rib fracture, remains “a ways away.”
4. Will the defense improve?
It started to prior to their losing streak, which contributed to the Magic dropping to 20h in the NBA in defensive rating at 112.3 points per 100 possessions, this after finishing 11th last season at 109.2 and eighth the season prior to that at 107.6. Playing aggressive and smart defensive is the one thing this undermanned team can control so it should improve over the second half, especially if the team gets players like Gordon and Ennis at full strength.
5. Will Chuma Okeke be a starter before the end of the season?
Yes, please. Focus in the second half should revolve entirely around the development of Okeke, Anthony and...
6. Will Mo Bamba get regular playing time before the end of the season?
Yes, please. Steve Clifford seems to have split personalities when it comes to Bamba’s playing time. But trading Birch and/or falling out of postseason contention should force his hand.
7. Are Steve Clifford, Jeff Weltman and John Hammond on the hot seat?
Clifford is secure. He’s done an admirable job during an injury-ravaged season, outside of some curious rotational decisions like the aforementioned Bamba contradiction and giving a struggling Gary Clark more than zero minutes a game. As for Weltman and Hammond, they get a pass this season with injuries denying us the chance of what the team could be at full strength. Have to credit them for re-signing Vooch and trading for Fultz and unconventionally drafting Okeke. But their 2018 draft is looking real bad, the Al-Farouq Aminu signing has been a disaster ad their failure to address clear needs is apparent. The trade deadline through the NBA Draft and free agency could be make or break for them.
8. How many wins do you think the Magic will get over their final 36 games?
The Magic face teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs for the remainder of March. That means there is a realistic chance Orlando can lose each and every single one of those 11 games. April, which starts with the team in the middle of a five-game Western trip, doesn’t get much easier. Late season matchups with the Cavs, Pistons and T-Wolves help, as could their regular season-ending two-game set with a Sixers team if they aren’t playing for anything by then and start resting their players. Based on strength of schedule and injury and possible trades/tanking, I honestly don’t see the Magic getting more than 12 wins over their final 36 games.
9. Will the Magic make the playoffs?
See above. No.
10. Will the Magic get lucky in the lottery?
They are due to catch a break. They need to put themselves back in position to finally catch that break. Every loss helps.
Who: Orlando Magic (13-23) at Miami Heat (18-18)
When: Thursday at 8 p.m.
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena — Miami, Florida
TV: Fox Sports Florida