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Magic vs. Thunder preview: In a losing season, what does winning look like?

The Magic battle the Thunder in a game that neither team likely wants to win

Brooklyn Nets v Orlando Magic Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

How do you ensure a losing season is a long-term success?

Orlando’s Sunday night matchup with the Thunder presents an interesting point of reflection regarding this very question. As we know, the Magic made the decision at the trade deadline last year to blow things up, shipping out their veteran core and sinking to the bottom of the standings in a bid to rise again with the luck of the lottery. It’s a process that has now endured through at least a second season, with the team again among the league’s very worst with a record of 18-53.

By way of comparison, Oklahoma City is only incrementally better in this current moment. At 20-50 they currently possess the league’s fourth-worst record, and like the Magic, it’s a pace basically in line with their performance last year. Any improvement can only really be seen in the slightly more competitive nature of their respective differentials; each side has nudged this marginally in the right direction, rising from the ranks of 29th and 30th to 27th and 28th.

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The parallels between the Magic and the Thunder don’t end with their current misery. Both teams were playoff participants as recently as 2020, the Magic limping their way to the postseason in a weak Eastern Conference while the Thunder arrived courtesy of an unexpectedly rejuvenated Chris Paul. The two sides have also been major players in the trade market in recent times, with Orlando dealing away an All-Star in Vooch and multiple starters to kickstart the teardown, while Oklahoma City have managed to say goodbye to Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Paul in an eighteen month span.

For the Thunder, these deals returned a bevy of draft capital that they’ll continue to cash in over the remainder of this decade. It also secured them the jewel of the current roster, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a budding star who looks to be on his way to eventually extricating the team from their current rebuilding mess.

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Orlando’s deals were a little more subdued, although it’s basically impossible to be displeased with the haul from Chicago. Wendell Carter Jr. might not be projected for stardom in the same way that SGA is, but he’s been a wonderfully effective and reliable contributor for the Magic since arriving, signed to a team-friendly extension for years to come yet. The front office has also already been able to hit some home runs with the draft picks that came their way, turning the Bulls’ eighth overall selection into the exciting Franz Wagner.

None of this, however, answers the question of what constitutes a successful losing season. If not telling, it’s at least interesting to note that none of the players yet mentioned have ended up on their respective rosters as a result of the team’s own record. Last season the Magic and the Thunder were the third and fourth worst teams in the league; they ended up selecting fifth and sixth, respectively.

This was the return for a Thunder team that lost 23 of their final 5 games, including a gruesome 14 straight at one point. The Magic, for their part, dropped their final 7 contests to go along with two other 6-game skids across their final 24. Outside of a stretch in which Orlando weirdly won three of four, it was clear that the final two months of the season were a full-on tank job for both sides.

To this point it hasn’t been quite as brazen for either the Magic or the Thunder, but we’re starting to hit that point. Sure OKC are mired in an 8-game slide, but they’ve largely been playing their best lineups, the quality of opponents more responsible for the defeats than anything as audacious as a tank job. Before the recent blowouts, Orlando had been pretty competitive, hence the reason they are favored (-6) on Sunday against OKC.

However, it appears that Oklahoma City will be rolling out a more concerted tanking effort across their final ten, starting with tonight’s tilt. Their injury report is swelling, with a list nearing double-figures starting to conspicuously fill up with some of their more important names. No Giddey. No Dort. No Favors. A questionable SGA.

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

In contrast the Magic’s own injury report is relatively clean, with Jalen Suggs as questionable the only active player to be identified. Still, there have been some … interesting decisions by the brains trust in Orlando recently that speaks to a concerted effort to dilute the team’s chances of winning. Minor ailments leading to DNPs. Veteran rest. Awkward rotations. The team isn’t rolling over, but they’re certainly not prepping for their greatest tricks.

And so, once again, we arrive at the opening question: what constitutes a successful losing season? The Magic can’t afford to be as inept defensively as they have been in the last three games, with opposition players seemingly lining up for a chance to show out against a paper-thin resistance. If that’s how the last month plays out it’s going to be difficult to maintain an environment of steady development. However, the team also isn’t compelled to rattle off anything even remotely resembling a winning streak. Instead, the aim is the competitiveness of a ‘moral victory’ defeat.

1993 NBA Draft Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Knowing the cruelty of lottery odds – remember, the Magic haven’t picked above their standings-based rank since 1993! – can the Magic really afford to claim a win (or two) over a similarly positioned side? It’s already hard enough to move up the board on draft night, so adding any unnecessary wins to the mix just seems like a recipe for disaster.

Tonight’s matchup is a tale of two teams largely incentivized to lose at this point of the regular season. Although it’s highly unlikely that either will stumble into enough wins to remove themselves from the league’s bottom four (which, remember, is the grouping with noticeably juicier odds), the oft-overlooked difference in the reverse standings is just how far one can fall in the unfortunate circumstance of bad luck.

Finish with the worst record and the absolute furthest the team can tumble on draft night is to the fifth slot. Win a few more games and finish fourth-last? Well, now pick number 8 is in play.

Both Orlando and OKC have experienced such a lottery-order slide during this very rebuild. How the two teams approach the season’s home stretch, including the tilt tonight, will tell us something about how they view the conundrum that is establishing a winning foundation via a draft system built around losing.

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