If there’s one clear thing about the Orlando Magic, it’s that they don’t really belong in the playoffs. They’re a beneficiary of the NBA’s conference imbalance, a half-game behind the mediocre Miami Heat for the Eastern eight seed when they would be six games adrift of the San Antonio Spurs if they were in the West. This is nothing to get bent out of shape about—you’ll hear no huffy conference abolition or realignment arguments from me—but it does frame the Magic’s season accurately: for the first time since trading away Dwight Howard in 2012, they’re not abysmal, but they’re not exactly soaring either.
Tell me if this any of this sounds encouraging. D.J. Augustin has started all but one game at point guard this season, and had been backed up by Jerian Grant and Isaiah Briscoe until the team signed Michael Carter-Williams a couple weeks ago. Terrence Ross attempts nearly seven three-pointers per night. Sometimes, when the offense gets bogged down, the only solution is to give the ball to Evan Fournier and hope he can figure it out. The Magic are the worst team in the league at getting to the free throw line. Lottery pick Mo Bamba hasn’t played since late January due to a stress fracture in his left leg. Before that, he was averaging 6.2 points per game.
Some of these (admittedly cherrypicked) facts have silver linings—Augustin has been surprisingly solid; Ross is shooting 37.4 percent from deep—and others point to obstacles that simply need to be overcome. Every NBA team has deficiencies, but the Magic also cannot be said to have many inherent strengths. Nik Vucevic is having a pretty great season, but he’s not a franchise-anchoring star, nor is Aaron Gordon. The Magic are a league-average shooting team, and they rack up assists more through overall ball and player movement than the work of a single playmaker. The highest compliment you can pay the squad also speaks to their abiding unspectacularity: they work for everything they get, and the areas in which they excel—their team defense is taut; they don’t turn the ball over—are the kinds of the things that don’t come easy. That’s a credit to the players as a collective for focusing on what they can control rather than what they lack, and it’s further proof that Steve Clifford is an expert optimizer with a gift for getting hoopties across the finish line.
That’s the inventory on the Orlando Magic; that is what they are if you hold them up to a ruler: overachievers who aren’t achieving anything too grand. If they don’t qualify for the postseason, that’s fair enough, and if they do, Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to end their world.
This is not, by itself, a remarkable thing, except for the fact that the Magic are way more entertaining now than they have been in a long while. The numbers do not describe particularly well what’s happening in Orlando. Where Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets teams were actually everything they seemed to be—namely, Kemba Walker plus nine other guys doofily and dutifully not screwing up—the Magic are always barely keeping it together. Clifford provides a framework within which his asymmetrically skilled weirdos can succeed. And they have been lately, winning 18 of their last 26 contests entering Monday, owning the league’s finest defensive rating over that span. It just hasn’t been straightforward, because the Magic don’t have many normal players.
This is not totally a compliment, but watching Jonathan Isaac is an unnerving experience. He’s all spark and lank and seven decisions at once, and he wants to play faster than he’s able to, wants to shoot more threes than he probably should. A lot of young players like this—Collin Sexton, for instance—seem possessed of a certain arrogance, but when Isaac drives the lane as if he’s giving himself a shove from behind, it scans as an eagerness to please. You’re not sure if he’s sure he can pull of the necessary maneuvers to score, but his desire to do so feels pure enough. Bless his heart, he is just trying to help.
The Blake Griffin comparison doesn’t flatter Aaron Gordon in part because Gordon’s athleticism doesn’t solve problems by itself like it did for a 23-year-old Blake. Gordon’s slightly smaller, and quick power forwards are much more common now than they were circa 2012. Young Blake was a force; Gordon is a problem-solver who can defend multiple positions and catch a few lobs. This makes for some interesting variance in his performances. Some nights he’s a point forward, others a scorer. He can disappear. There’s been so much ink spilled about what Gordon might one day become in part because the Magic have been a mess, but also because it’s hard to describe his game definitively. Perhaps his one true style is simply dynamism.
There’s other fun and engrossing stuff going in Orlando. Vucevic, who had spent the last six years flashing touch and footwork as an empty calories all-star, suddenly has a bit of a mean streak. Wesley Iwundu has a curious knack for looking like he should be a useful player, but he’s shooting a tick under 39 percent from the field. Augustin is bucking the six-foot-nothing point guard trend and assembling the best season of his career at 31.
Whether they make the playoffs or not, after spending most of the decade in the NBA gutter, it’s heartening to see that the Magic have finally built something. A squad far from both flawlessness and abject futility, and one that in its particulars is worthy of study. You can have a good time watching a Magic game, and you can talk about what they are, rather than what they might be three years down the road. That’s a small victory, one for which long-thirsting Orlando fans are likely grateful. The Magic are strange and busted, and on their night, not half-bad. That is, at least, something you don’t have to take on faith. It’s right there on the court several times a week. Wherever they’re headed, look at them go.