As the Magic-less playoffs approach, the biggest surprise of the season is likely the success of the New York Knicks. For the first time since 2013, the Knicks have reached the postseason and they did so without a true superstar leading the team.
In place of a transcendent talent, the team is led on the court by Julius Randle and from the bench by head coach Tom Thibodeau, both of whom fans believe will finish the season with an individual award. 69 percent of fans around the league believe Randle should win the 2020-21 Most Improved Player award. The next closest player, Michael Porter Jr., received 11 percent of the vote.
In terms of the clipboard, 50 percent of national fans believe Thibodeau has earned the Coach of the Year award this season. Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams took 23 percent. Evidently the Knicks, having already secured home court advantage through the first round of the playoffs, are well positioned for further acknowledgement of a successful season when awards season hits.
The question now for fans of the Magic is whether a similar surprise will materialize in Orlando’s future.
Honestly, the likelihood of any such scenario is so slim as to be non-existent. When the Magic’s front office made the decision to blow it up at the trade deadline they did so knowing they were embarking on a multi-year rebuild. There will undoubtedly be some feel good moments along the way, but picking the Magic to make it back to the postseason next year — as a top four seed, no less! — would be wide-eyed optimism at its most fanciful.
Instead, Orlando will be hoping to experience success first at the NBA’s Draft Lottery on June 22, and then at the Draft itself on July 29. The former was a possibility improved by the combination of their season-ending loss to the 76ers with the surprising win that the Thunder secured in their own finale. In locking up sole claim to the league’s third-worst record the Magic gave themselves the equal-best odds of snagging the first overall selection (14.00%), and a 52.14% chance of falling somewhere in the top four. The late season tank job means that the odds now genuinely are in their favor.
Success on Draft night, however, is a more complex conundrum. Regardless of where they pick, the team must nail the talent evaluation component. They’ll need to get the player development opportunities right. They’ll have to hope that the circumstances outside of their control coalesce favorably. Even then, there are no guarantees.
If you’re looking for a lucky omen, though, consider this: on three occasions now the Magic have finished a season with exactly 21 wins. The last two times it happened they exited the drafts that followed with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, respectively. Let’s hope that this is indeed a case of omne trium perfectum.
Still, even should Orlando cash in on the sort of draft luck they’ve enjoyed before, a Knicks-like ascension back to the postseason remains incredibly unlikely. The roster is too talent-poor, inexperienced and injury-affected to facilitate an immediate bounce-back. Improvement will eventually come, but expect the trajectory to be gradual.
That being said, it is possible to envision a world in which Orlando secures some individual silverware as early as next season. With the genuine possibility of two significant bites of the lottery apple, it stands to reason that the team could have a player on the roster who dishes up a Rookie of the Year level campaign. Head Coach Steve Clifford has a habit of squeezing every drop of juice out of talent-poor squads, a feat that often gets noticed by voters. And couldn’t you talk yourself into a sophomore surge from Chuma Okeke that elevates the young forward’s name into the Most Improved discussion?
The smart bet in each of those scenarios would still be the field. But collectively they speak to the injection of hope that has the potential to reinvigorate both the Magic franchise and its fanbase.
Just be willing to extend this rebuilding process the healthy dose of patience it will require.
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