Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Through the first six games of the season, the Magic have shown themselves to be a team of poles and contrasts. There have been stretches, like the comeback win over the Raptors or the second quarter in the loss against Detroit, when the Magic seem to have rediscovered the discipline, positional flexibility, and cunning that have been the hallmarks of their most successful recent teams.
At other times, though, the Magic have seemed content to allow games to be dictated to them stylistically, joylessly drifting from one contested twenty-footer to another. Watching the team struggle — both to win games and to forge an identity — it’s impossible not to notice the looming presence of fatigue.
You’re going to hear the “f” word a lot this season, which is a natural function of the compressed season and the media’s inability to use a thesaurus (see: Republican candidates’ “surges,” etc.). Of course, it’s not wrong to point out the effect that this marathon of a sprint of a season will have on players’ physically and emotionally. But in the case of the Magic, the fatigue imposed by the schedule is dwarfed by the fatigue that will come from playing through the Howard media maelstrom, as the franchise faces the risk of buckling under the tremendous weight of scrutiny they will face every night.
As other fan bases have found out all too recently, every win or loss is filtered through the context of the “will he or won’t he” game that will drive the season narrative. In a league like the NBA, where fans spend as much time cataloguing draft picks, trades and pipe dreams as they do box scores, that constant speculation has the potential to render the actual game results meaningless. The Magic are thus confronting fatigue on two different fronts, and their first games have shown how they might combat or succumb to it.
In many instances, the Magic have seemed like a team designed to weather the doldrums and valleys of a season under the microscope. They have emerging players like Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick providing both scoring and the sort of savvy spacing the team used to thrive on, and they are built around one of the most durable and energetic players in the league. Frankly, the good moments I’ve seen so far from the Magic are not ones I expected to before the season began.
It seems like the Magic have manufactured upside from a roster that seemingly had none, and could coalesce into an efficient squad that features the contributions from its youngest players while veterans fill in the gaps. These seem like mundane observations, but when you consider the players who are giving the Magic a spark right now, you realize the organizational rift that will have to be repaired if the Magic want a shot at contending now or keeping Dwight Howard in pinstripes.
Put simply: the players giving the Magic a prayer right now are players developed by Stan Van Gundy and the Magic organization, while the players who seem stuck in molasses are endemic of the strategy the team has pursued the past two seasons and has said it will pursue in the future. If the Magic continue to devote resources to veteran retreads who don’t fit their team, then the fresh legs and minds which might otherwise have weathered the upcoming fatigue will fail just the same.
It isn’t simply that the team has been most effective when showcasing its homegrown players, it’s that the manner in which it’s succeeding shows that there are some players on this roster who show an IQ and an identity that has been wanting. I hate to overuse the term “identity,” but the difference between Redick’s game and Jason Richardson’s is night and day, and it’s the difference between a player who has grown into a role and system and a player imported to bring a perceived skill set to the table. Redick was brought along to play for the Magic; Richardson was acquired to bring Jason Richardson TO the Magic. It’s a subtle but important difference, and it’s why the Magic have recently strayed from their success. Even the players who weren’t drafted by the Magic, like Jameer Nelson or Hedo, are players that have been in Van Gundy’s system for years and have learned to maximize their strengths within a recognizable context.
What this means is that the best way for the Magic to fight the physical fatigue of the season and the emotional fatigue that will surely come from the media attention is to reverse course and rededicate itself to its own organization and development. We’ve been saying this for a while now, that the front office has been butchering the team and that the players being acquired are poor fits, but it’s no longer conjectural. When the Magic have played their best this year, it has been the product of players schooled in Orlando’s system filling their roles. It has led to a 4-2 record, and while the Magic haven’t played any worldbeaters, if Hedo creates like he did down the stretch in Charlotte, and if Jameer can pinball around the lane like he did in Oklahoma City, then the new contributions from system players like Anderson and Redick will restore some shine to this team while having the added benefit of getting young legs on the floor.
The alternative, of course, is for the team to stay its present course and to allow the aging, less disciplined members of the roster dictate the future. I know that the DeVos family have stated time and again their desire to bring in players who will win right now, but the team is simultaneously showing the dangers of that approach and the benefits of patience. Paradoxically, by constantly acquiring mediocre veterans, the Magic have put themselves at far greater risk of organizational fatigue than if they had displayed the patience necessary to develop players that could keep a contender fresh.
Truly good teams sustain themselves by finding pieces that fit the needs of their stars and coaches, and the Magic have shown that the best way to do that is to groom those players themselves. The present roster may have saddled the team with some square pegs, but if the Magic refocus their efforts on featuring the players who best fit the team and using offseasons to find more of them, they have demonstrated so far this season that they can have a future. They have demonstrated that they can find a way to find glimpses of freshness despite having every reason to be fatigued.
The question remains whether they will have the discipline to do it.
Danny Nowell is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.