By: David Bernauer
Heading into the season some fans had play-in expectations. At 8-20, the Magic are not very close and have the second worst record in the NBA. The Magic’s recent efforts against Milwaukee, the L.A. Clippers and the Raptors (twice) provide some hope, things were a bit bleak recently. So, uh… what was happening in Orlando?
The Orlando Magic simply lacked zest. The majority of the roster looked a bit sluggish. Heck, even Moe Wagner, who’s known for his relentless energy, had been a bit out of sorts at times. But we know from seeing them last year and earlier on this season they’re capable of playing to a higher degree. Countless times there were occasions where Orlando looked out of the game only for them to mount an effort in the second half and make it close, if not win the game entirely. Take a look at our second win from this season over Golden State. Trailing 65-53 at halftime to a team infamous for its third quarter runs, the Magic turned the tables and scraped out a 130-129 victory. Or the Magic’s win on Wednesday against the Clippers. Trailing 32-14 after the first quarter, the Magic came back to win in OT. In their most recent win against Toronto, they were able to move the ball efficiently, and for the most part, played solid defense and kept the Raptors off the glass.
Aside from taking L’s night after night, I think the biggest reason for the dejection we saw on Magic players’ faces is the injury bug. Fans are constantly reminding themselves how incredibly high this team can climb when fully healthy. The past few seasons have indicated this is more of an if they are ever healthy than a when. I did some digging on Basketball Reference, and to the best of my knowledge, the Magic last had a fully healthy roster on Wednesday November 13, 2019, in a 112-97 win over an Embiid-less Sixers squad. The first case of Covid-19 would not be detected until four days later. That’s how long ago this was. Surely this is “anything.” In this game, Nikola Vucevic led the way with 25 points, while our lord and savior Al-Farouq Aminu contributed a missed field goal in 1:32 of action.
The majority of this time has seen Jonathan Isaac listed on the injury report. On Jan. 1, 2020, Isaac fell victim to a posterior corner injury and a medial bone contusion in his left knee. He returned for a few games in the bubble before tearing his ACL and meniscus, but Isaac has been missing from the hardwood since the Trump administration. Isaac has only recently been assigned to the G-League after undergoing hamstring surgery during his rehab process.
It has to be mentally draining seeing your teammates drop like flies. Markelle Fultz is back one day, and the next Gary Harris is down with his second injury of the season. This year Fultz has missed time with a broken toe; Gary Harris has been hampered by multiple hamstring issues; Paolo Banchero got burned by a sprained ankle; Cole Anthony was taken out of action from a torn oblique; Terrence Ross has been absent due to illness; Suggs has had to sit in street clothes due to multiple ankle injuries; Moe Wagner was maligned by an ankle sprain from preseason; Wendell Carter Jr. is on the mend with a strained right plantar fascia; Mo Bamba is bogged down by back spasms; Okeke hasn’t been feeling ok since suffering a knee injury; Isaac is still ill-equipped to play. Please congratulate me on finding ten different ways to “he has a boo boo.”
Another reason the Magic have looked fatigued is a grueling schedule. Excluding a recent break during Thanksgiving week, the Magic have never had more than one day between games all season. Orlando will only have breaks of longer than one day seven more times all year. Three of those are for Christmas, New Year’s and the All-Star break. I played pickup basketball three days last week and was cooked. Going through full 48-minute NBA games four to five times a week plus traveling and whatever practices might be scheduled is going to take a toll on a young roster who haven’t played much more than a college schedule. For most guys, their bodies are likely still adjusting to the rigors of a full NBA season.
During a recent interview with Jeff Turner on the Sixth Man Show, Turner shared an anecdote about an exchange between he and young stud Franz Wagner. Turner asked Wagner how he was feeling, and in turn Wagner said he was feeling fine. Knowing Wagner was banged up (how can you miss all the scratches or his right hand being taped?), Turner responded with, “Franz, I’ve played the game. Twenty two games in, everybody hurts. You’re not feeling great, but what you’re doing is great.” Wagner appreciated the compliment, but acknowledged the difficulties of playing through the demanding schedule after a summer with the German men’s national team at EuroBasket where he won a bronze medal.
What once were high expectations held for the Magic by fans have fell like sand castles during a rising tide. The present may look bleak as the roster more closely resembles a fluorescent hospital waiting room than it does anything else (please don't steal the magazines, they’re hospital property). Yes, the Magic are 5.5 games out of a play-in spot. But the New Orleans Pelicans, now one of the West’s top teams, started last year a measly 7-20, the same as Orlando’s current record. Not only did New Orleans make it to the play-in, but the playoffs as well without the help of Zion Williamson. So while things looked dark and dreary, the rest of the season might just look eventful and exciting if the Magic turn a corner soon.
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