The Orlando Magic set out on the road hoping to save their Playoff hopes. Coming home 1-5, the team needs to prepare for its future.
When the Orlando Magic left Florida for a six-game, 11-day road trip on Jan. 6, the team was 16-22 and three games out of the final playoff spot.
The Magic had suffered some losses and could sense the season was at a tipping point. The Magic had banded together for their best basketball of the season on their last road trip. They hoped they could do it again.
A poor road trip would certainly mean they would fall further out of the Playoff race and make the road uphill to stay in the race all the more difficult.
This road trip was the decision point for the Magic. This was the chance to do another hard evaluation of this team.
And with the trade deadline coming up, it would be the time to make a decision about the Magic.
Would they push further in for the Playoffs or would they forge a new strategy? Would they stand pat and let the team continue to grow on its own or would they make a deal? And would that deal come immediately or could the team afford to wait until the trade deadline?
The Magic first needed to get through this road trip before the team could seriously answer those questions.
So here the Magic are. Having gone 1-5 on the road trip following a 118-98 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on Wednesday, the team sits at 17-27 and 4.5 games out of the Playoffs.
The road to the eighth spot is not impossible. But now it seems highly improbable. Not with a team whose effort is a question every night and has not shown a commitment to their defensive identity for nearly a month.
The road trip proved, in all likelihood, this team is not rounding the corner and making a push for the Playoffs.
Not only that, the 1-5 road trip also put the team squarely fading out of the Playoff race. Just to get back to .500 will take going 24-14 the rest of the way.
That seems like a tall task for a team that for the entire season is 27th in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating. More alarmingly and tellingly, the team is 27th in net rating. That is the sign of a team better suited to be thinking about the top of the Lottery than the Playoffs.
Seeing all these metrics and trends turn around suddenly with more than half a season behind them is a big ask. It feels at this point, it is not a matter of if a trade should be made, but when.
And, perhaps more pressingly and agonizingly, the question then is whether to make a deal to try and save a quickly fading Playoff hope or to begin planning the future — whether it is just the 2018 season or beyond that.
The Magic should have at least broached those subjects before. But after this road trip, those conversations and that plan should get put into overdrive and start moving into action. Any small talks should become serious. All options should be explored.
Orlando did not look salvageable on this road trip.
It started with a lifeless effort against the Los Angeles Lakers. It continued with three decent efforts against the LA Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz. The Magic ran out of gas against the Clippers, had their one shining moment against the Trail Blazers and then froze in the final minutes with a five-point lead against the Jazz.
Going 1-2 with those three teams was nothing to be ashamed of. It is another thing to finish the road trip much like the team began it.
Orlando struggled to stop anyone defensively against the Denver Nuggets and then again against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.
That is hardly inspiring confidence they will suddenly come together.
It seems the only way for the Magic to move forward is to concede the Playoffs will not happen this year and begin plans either to make a run in 2018. Or to reinvest in the youth they have or acquire more youth to build for the future beyond 2018.
The bigger question is whether ownership will accept this reality or try to save whatever flickering hope there is for success this year. And, of course, what that means for general manager Rob Hennigan.
The time to make a decision on this franchise’s immediate and long-term future has come. This road trip was a chance to do some final evaluations on the team and decide the path forward.
The evaluation is simple: This team as currently constructed is not a Playoff team. There is no trade out there that would keep this team’s best players intact to save things and make that crazy push to the postseason. Not unless there is some crazy internal improvement or some unknown cancer is excised.
The way forward is now the focus. How do the Magic build for next year and the year after? What path do they cut to recoup lost assets and regain some hope for the future?
Do they even do that or do they put all their eggs back into the basket of selling out for the Playoffs in 2018?
Perhaps those decisions will depend on what opportunities come about and what the Magic’s power structure determines is in the organization’s best interests.
Orlando is not likely to sit veterans for young players quite yet. There are still assets to showcase and that little bit of glimmering hope to hang onto. On the court, the Magic should remain business as usual.
In the front office high above the Amway Center practice court, the team needs to make decisions about its future. The time is now.
The team may wait to make that deal closer to the deadline. But the implications seem clear after this road trip.