Through their first 18 games in the 2018-19 season, the Orlando Magic are 9-9. A team that’s seen little success over the last five seasons is currently playing .500 ball as it finishes out the month of November.
That may not seem like much on the outside, considering the team’s recent history, but the Magic have been playing some inspired basketball lately, beating teams like the Celtics, Spurs, Sixers and Lakers to get to this point in the season.
Nikola Vucevic is posting career numbers this season, averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, Aaron Gordon is playing a great overall game on both ends of the court, D.J. Augustin has somehow been able to break out and become a decent starting point guard again and Terrence Ross is making his claim for Comeback Player of the Year and 6th Man of the Year with his performances off the bench.
On the surface, it seems Coach Steve Clifford has found some special formula to help a Magic organization that has been mired in mediocrity for over a half-decade, find some semblance of success.
This is a story Magic fans have heard before. At this point in the season last year, the team was 8-8 before the wheels completely fell off and the team rode the hubcaps all the way to a 25-57 finish. It was a season that literally took years off of former Head Coach Frank Vogel’s life, who visibly aged through the season before being fired at the end it.
Even the season before last, the Magic struggled to win games or even have decent performances after they traded away Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka, which turned out to be a complete disaster from Rob Hennigan’s front office. A disaster that spelled the beginning of the end for the former Magic General Manager.
So, with all that being the case, just what are the 2018 Orlando Magic? Are they contenders that can fight for a playoff spot in a very weak Eastern Conference? Or are they just once again getting fans hopes up in the early season, just for another dismal, destructive season that ends in yet another lottery pick?
Only time will tell if the team are contenders or pretenders, but there is one thing that can be said about this team that’s different from years past: they’re keeping games close and contending for wins. Early in the season, their losses were a bit skewed, but since the start of November, Steve Clifford has had time to implement his system into the roster and the team has played better basketball since. They’ve won seven of their last ten games, culminating with their most recent game, a 93-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. But even in that loss, it took a last second shot from Danny Green for the best team in the East to get the win. That says a bit about the growth of the team, even if they did end up dropping the game.
Another difference making factor so far this season has been Clifford himself. A coach that has a winning history with the Magic, something very rare these days, that holds players accountable and does not take any nonsense from anyone. Hearing some of his postgame press conferences are a treat, since unlike his predecessors, Clifford doesn’t hold anything back from the cameras or the media.
The bench played bad? He’ll tell you about it. Team couldn’t rebound the ball and got killed on the glass? He’ll share his disappointment and then some. He’s never one to sugarcoat a situation, and that’s something that the Magic organization has lacked since the Stan Van Gundy era ended back in 2012.
The Magic’s former number five overall pick back in 2015, Mario Hezonja, had a great quote during his exit interview after Frank Vogel was fired. It’s a perfect representation of what Vogel lacked during his tenure and what Clifford has brought to the table to this point: “I think we need a guy that is going to really ask us to be on top of our stuff on the court and off the court have the authority with us and not care about our players’ feelings — just be really strict with us.”
So, to bring this full circle: the Magic have the building blocks for success and are seemingly taking a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if they can break tradition and continue finding consistency on the court. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, enjoy the good start Orlando has gotten off to. You never know how long it’ll last.