After a rough start, Magic fans are left wondering "What If" as another season comes to a close.
5-20. That is a number that has haunted the Orlando Magic all season. A start to the season that left fans frustrated and coaches searching for answers early on. A team that was expected, at least locally, to compete for the play-in games, was suddenly competing with the L.A. Lakers for worst start in the league.
But the Magic find themselves 4 GB of the play-in, after starting this final 20 game stretch with a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last night 139-117. So how can this team still make the play-in and do we really think they can?
I mean, you can't honestly think they can do you?
Of course I do! This Magic team has finally started to find it's rotation, including seeing Cole Anthony starting to return to form off the bench as a needed scoring guard. And as far as wins, since the beginning of December through February the Magic are playing plus basketball at 2 games over .500. The three teams in front of them in the standings during that same time frame are all under .500 (Wizards -3, Bulls -3, Pacers -10). But it is going to take more than relying on the teams in front of you to lose. The Magic need to win games against those teams too. Losses like they recently had at home against Indiana are what will really hurt them down the stretch, not losses to the class of the league Bucks.
Alright, but how do they win those games?
They will need continued development from their top guys, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. Banchero is nearly a lock for Rookie of the Year at this point with a 19.7/6.6/3.6 splits on the season, but he is the focal point of the offense and if this team expects to make the playoffs, he'll need to take it to the next level here in the last month of the season. Even after a Rookie of the Month award for February (his 3rd this season), that isn't enough at this point for this Magic roster. And that statement goes for Franz Wagner too, who this season has improved on his stat line from a year ago where he himself made a darkhorse run at the Rookie of the Year. But his 18.8 points per game on 36.9% from 3 shows me there is still more that the Magic can get out of this duo.
You can't just expect to make the playoffs off of those 2
You are absolutely right! There is room to grow into expectations up and down the lineup. But the guy who I think that could have the biggest impact down the stretch, if he can turn it on, is Jalen Suggs. Now I know Suggs hasn't exactly had the start to his career that many envisioned when the Magic drafted him last season, and part of that is due to injury which always seems to be the story around this team. But the biggest problem with Suggs has been his consistency when he is on the court. No one can doubt his defensive tenacity, but when the ball comes back up the court you never know which Jalen you will get. Overall this season he isn't being asked to do as much as last year, and you can see that in the drop in minutes per game, but it also shows in the uptick in his Player Efficiency rating which is up from 8.6 to 12 this season to last. And while that is still below average ( avg is 15) is is an improvement in a players that needs to rebuild his confidence. There is a reason he was so high regarded coming out of Gonzaga, and while the team has seen glimpses, like 24 points against Toronto on Valentine's Day in a loss, they will need more consistent performances out of last years 5th overall pick.
Now where it might sound like I am putting a lot of expectations on guys in their first and second years in the league, that's because I am. And that is why the expectation is so low, to make the play in game. Not to win a series, not to make the conference championship. To be the 10 seed in the East isn't expecting a world beater. But it is the start. And that is where this team can get it's most growth. Experience. And the faster the better for a franchise that has a history of moving on from talent quickly and try to rebuild time and time again.
But what do you think? Are the Magic equipped to make a run at the play-in or is this just another building block year where they hope for another high draft pick? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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