Orlando Magic

What are the Orlando Magic building toward?

The Magic finally made their way back to the NBA playoffs. But, as the dust settles on the offseason, is it clear what they’re building toward?

After a seven-year absence, the Orlando Magic returned to the playoffs this past season and, before their first home game, the man on stilts hadn’t yet been brought down to earth. It was a cause for celebration at the Amway Center. The noise was louder, the pyrotechnics were brighter and there were free t-shirts adorning every seat. The stilted man walked tall before each game, chanting “Blue! White!” The Magic faced the Toronto Raptors, and there was hope, especially inflated after a Game 1 win in Toronto.

The Raptors outperformed the Magic convincingly and would take both games in Orlando to close the series. They kept winning, too, eventually securing the franchise’s first championship. In the months since, with players switching teams and power shifting — or, perhaps more accurately, being evenly distributed — a first-round matchup with the Magic hardly seems memorable. But there had been hope once, even if it has since faded like a dream, the details as hazy as the smoke in the Amway Center rafters.

It’s late-April and the Magic are conducting exit interviews, after the stilts had been put away and the t-shirts precariously hung somewhere between memorabilia and dustcloth. Traces of postseason optimism linger but doubts about the team’s future loom large. In Amway, the mood hangs heavy and wet, like the bog from which the city itself was once built.

If he’s aware of the swamp around him, head coach Steve Clifford doesn’t quite show it, walking a fine line between upbeat and hangdog, an immunity built in after four decades of coaching experience. His words are delivered in equal parts careful and animated, a hint of Mainer accent when it’s the latter. Sentences frequently use the phrase, “in this league..,” the catchall for Clifford’s generalized view of a universal trait. With stops in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Charlotte and Orlando (twice), he’s likely seen the pattern before.

“What I told them was, ‘You never wanna be over reactionary,’” says Clifford. To the players in the locker room, many of whom tasted the postseason for the first time, the past few weeks had been all highs (reaching the playoffs, Game 1) and lows (Games 2-5). Clifford was the voice of balance as well as experience. He speaks of the postseason being a great step for the franchise and the fan base, lowered expectations having cobwebbed their way across their collective psyche for more than half a decade. But steps are meant to take you somewhere and so Clifford is tasked with both smothering disappointment while stoking the competitive fires for the future. “Yet, ultimately, in this league it’s all about winning in the playoffs.”

Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The season’s corpse has barely gone cold but Clifford knows better than to mourn for long. The future, nebulous as it might be, is the focus. The past seven seasons have been marked by inconsistency and no discernible identity. Five coaches over that same span. Trading away players, both franchise and role, for little in return. Haphazardly assembled rosters. The future, for Orlando, has often been impossible to define.

Clifford adds how difficult it is to keep a team together “with the nature of salary caps and all that.” While oversimplified, you can’t blame him if being fired at multiple stops leads to a bit of bet-hedging. The optimism is real, qualified as it might be. The past season was all about setting up the next, he says, making his job easier because he doesn’t have to start at “ground zero,” explaining the rudiments of defending a pick-and-roll or a catch-and-shoot. Here, the voice cools, a Maine lobster rolling through each word. “To me,” he says, “there’s three things you need in the offseason.” Clifford begins to give his world view and there’s a sense that this is familiar ground for the 57-year-old. Not rehearsed, exactly, but one can almost picture the evolving outline written down among Clifford’s notes. None of it is complicated — external development, internal development and continuity are the three tenets — and the details (subheadings) add weight. It feels like common sense but Clifford’s earnest delivery sells it well.

As plans go, though, this one seems solid enough and Orlando’s front office has executed it well this summer. Their external development, consisting of the draft, free agency and the trade market per Clifford, was a success. They re-signed their top two free agents, Nikola Vučević and Terrence Ross. They lured a reliable veteran, Al-Farouq Aminu, away from the Portland Trail Blazers. Even their draft selection, Chuma Okeke, is viewed as a future contributor once he heals from a knee injury that might keep him out for the year.

Things get dicier with their internal development. It’s long been seen as the Achilles’ heel for the Magic, especially as All-Star-caliber players like Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris found their groove after escaping Orlando. But even those moves were somewhat justifiable, victims of positional glut and overall bad fit, as well as a coaching carousel that would have stunted most growth. Clifford’s return is the first step toward reversing the team’s formerly aimless trajectory.

The rest of the journey relies on a young core that many are unaware of. It exists, slowly assembled in recent years to include Aaron Gordon (age 23), Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz (all 21 years old). Of course, the doubts about this group are mostly why its existence is largely unrecognized. Gordon and Isaac are capable but need to grow, particularly offensively. Bamba is still a 7-foot-long mystery box after a rookie season marred by injury. Fultz is an All-Star but, depending on who you ask, it could be in the NBA or at the local YMCA. Still, the notion itself — of a core to build off of — seems incongruous given Orlando’s heretofore lack of success. Maybe the bar has been set low but even this is an accomplishment.

Clifford’s third principle for a successful offseason, continuity, is inherently built on the strength of the other two. The roster that made the playoffs remains virtually intact. Aminu’s addition might be lackluster, but his defense and postseason experience fit seamlessly with the team’s goals. Young players will likely grow with their roles more clearly defined. Fultz could be the point guard of the future. If not, D.J. Augustin remains, constant and unremarkable, a Waffle House of a floor general. There was no superstar acquisition, no immediate upgrade, but during a summer where much could go wrong, nothing did.

Despite this, it remains uncharted territory for both head coach and team. The Magic hasn’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since 2012, Dwight Howard’s last season with Orlando. Clifford, in six years as a head coach, has guided a team to the playoffs three times but never in consecutive years.

Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

A city is often defined by its roads. The ease with which you can traverse them. The culture that gives them flair. Its twists and turns, and its beckoning lights. Architecture and music and food and rush hour traffic, all baked together into a unique asphalt pie, any way you slice it. Define Orlando this way, and you can look to two streets in particular.

The first gets the designation based on an outsider’s perspective. Buena Vista Drive is what people who don’t live in Orlando think of when they picture “The City Beautiful.” It’s just as well, for Buena Vista Drive, technically, is in the city of Kissimmee. But Buena Vista, the road that connects a significant part of Walt Disney World, translates directly into “beautiful sight” and it doesn’t disappoint. From the moment you see the sign that reads Where Dreams Come True, the whole of Buena Vista Drive seems as real as the theme park attractions on either side. Manicured grassy shoulders, neat and perfectly free of litter. A rainbow of colors and lyrical fonts welcome you to turn any way you like: there are no wrong choices here. Blizzard Beach. Riviera Resort. Rounded ears on street signs that guide you gently between pastel fantasies.

The second is the long stretch of the Orange Blossom Trail that carves its way through central Orlando. There are more charge-by-the-hour motels than castles along the OBT, and the only princesses here twitch nervously while they work the street’s dusty corners. While the corridor’s name hints at an idyllic communion with nature, nothing seems to grow out of the cracked asphalt landscape mere minutes away from downtown and the location of the Amway Center. The road is perpetually under construction, and everything, from the decaying strip malls to the listless strip clubs, melts into a bleary gray under an unforgiving sun.

There are streets that fit better, perhaps, but no two represent perception versus reality as well as Buena Vista and the OBT. One road, an artificial means of escape. The other, genuine, dull, and practical. The dichotomy can be applied to the city, as well as its basketball team.

NBA purgatory has lasted seven years for the Magic. They haven’t been good enough to warrant your attention, but they aren’t universally inept enough to have earned your scorn. Their rebuilding effort lasted too long (mostly due to their own poor choices) but not as long as others. They have had one All-Star (Vučević) that’s largely overlooked. Seven years, and it might last even longer, despite their recent playoff appearance. The league released complete schedules on Aug. 12 and Orlando, with only one game on national television, seems poised to remain in the abyss.

Even the team’s history has become a casualty. Two trips to the Finals, 15 total playoff appearances, all obscured by a prolonged limbo. Their past success is a checklist of fantasies left unrealized. A perennial contender derailed by Shaquille O’Neal’s Hollywood aspirations. Tim Duncan’s last-minute change of heart to remain in San Antonio. Grant Hill’s ankles. The Dwightmare that went on for too long.

How long the Magic remain on the pastel-colored road to perdition is as difficult to pin down as the team itself. There are holes in the roster likely to remain unfilled. The young core — it still exists — may not show signs of immediate growth. Their best player last season was on a contract year, and a regression to the mean seems more feasible than another All-Star selection.

The alternative is that Clifford’s plan will work. Players develop. Cohesion builds, just as it did last season when the Magic slunk to a familiar sub-.500 record before ending the season with an 11-2 burst that cemented their playoff berth. There’s a culture that’s starting to build in Orlando, at least as they see it. Players spoke of grit and tenacity, of a commitment to defense that hadn’t been there in years. To break free of the stagnant purgatory.

As they completed their interviews, some bristled when asked about how league-wide opinion about the Magic might be changing. Only Augustin, smothered-and-covered veteran that he is, was forthcoming. “People didn’t look at Orlando as a competitor,” he said. “Guys used to come here and play us and they thought it would be easy. It’s a automatic win. Even when I played for other teams, guys felt that same way.” Now? It’s a team that is resilient, self-assured. A team with more than a hint of Orange Blossom grit. “Bein’ on this side of it, changing the style we play, we go into cities and places feelin’ we gon’ win, you know what I am sayin’? It’s a great feelin’, a great thing to see change.”

Next: Building the perfect NBA roster: 2019-20 edition

For all the “beautiful sight” on the way to Disney World, you won’t find any mention of the Magic. It isn’t really in Orlando, after all, and their patronage is global. They can’t afford to cater to one fan base while excluding hundreds more. Along the OBT, if you squint through the dust and glare, you’ll see the occasional signs of encouragement. A restaurant offering a playoff dinner plate. A furniture store with a sign that reads, “GO MAGIC!” Even the marquee that reads “Come Join the Magic Party,” just below the female silhouettes that tout the club’s world-class lunch buffet. No one knows what’s in the Salisbury steak but the team support, at least, is real.

These roads may not ultimately define Orlando but they add to it, are parts of a snarling network that connects fans that grew up on Shaq and on Penny, with T-Mac and even Dwight. With Vooch and wherever this team goes next. They drive past castles and the midnight junkies, as well as quiet neighborhoods nestling rooms spotted with banners and jerseys of blue and of white.

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