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Into the Dark: A Recap of the 2017-18 Orlando Magic

You probably didn’t watch much of the Magic this season. You didn’t miss anything.

 Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Khem Birch Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am, I assure you, just like you. I am months behind on my pile of New Yorkers, and by months I mean years. I, like you, have no idea how everyone else has enough time to watch all of these TV shows. I am afraid to admit I didn’t enjoy Phantom Thread that much. Just like you.

The thing that differentiates me from you is that I watch Orlando Magic basketball, and often. This is a very big difference. You, for instance, probably view basketball as fun and oftentimes beautiful. You probably view it as entertainment. I, on the other hand, have the version of League Pass that lets you watch only Magic games, and thusly have not been entertained by a basketball game in years. You have likely never seen this:

And you’ve likely never seen a Frank Vogel press conference where you wonder if you should check on Frank Vogel:

You have likely never seen a team decrease its win total in the final two seasons of its six-season rebuild.

You probably still believe in the law of averages. You probably still think, for instance, that a team that has drafted seven times in the first round since 2013, with six of those coming in the lottery, would have found a player to build a franchise around by now or, at the very least, a player who looks worthy of an All-Star appearance. Or that if you hire three coaches, one of them would be able to effectively develop players or run plays. You probably wouldn’t understand that over a six-year period, there are only a handful of things that have been highlights—a few buzzer-beating wins and the time Shaq called Jacque Vaughn “jock Vaugh” on Twitter. You have never played 2K with—I guarantee you—the worst roster in the history of video game sports (more on that in a second).

You’ve never seen a crowd so dead that you do not understand why they came to watch a basketball game. You’ve never seen a team so thoroughly lack any identity, any skill, or any hope at all. Or seen players like Victor Oladipo, who looked thoroughly above average with you, become All-NBA overnight. You have never, in short, watched much of the Orlando Magic. And I do not blame you.

If you haven’t checked in on the Magic lately—and you have not—things have somehow gotten worse. Vogel was fired Thursday morning, and now another coach—perhaps Jerry Stackhouse—will get a crack. They won their regular-season finale, and thus lost important lottery odds, despite their best efforts. What I want to avoid here is saying that the Magic are at a low. The notion that the Magic have hit rock bottom—passed around every year since about 2014—has never ever been proved true. Nor has the notion that it has to get worse before it gets better, because there is absolutely no guarantee it ever gets better. I recently described to a friend that the Orlando Magic are the most painful part of my existence. The friend reminded me I’ve been hit by two cars at near-full speed in the past 18 months. My answer stood.

The modern Orlando Magic are going to be the test case in how damaged a roster can be. The now-departed GM Rob Hennigan created a team without much thought of fit or whether they could shoot the basketball. The roster is so flawed that it cannot be fixed in a year or two and you wonder if, somehow, in Year 6 of the rebuild, the overhaul is just beginning. To be clear, this season was for taking stock, for the new front office to see what it had with Vogel and with the army of lottery picks who were still on the roster. The answer is not much.

The remarkable thing about this current crop of Magic players is that nearly every combination or possibility has ended in doom. One Magic lineup combination—D.J. Augustin, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Wesley Iwundu, and Nikola Vucevic—was, among lineups that have played more than 90 minutes together, dead last in offensive rating, third-worst in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, second-to-last in effective field goal percentage, and last in true shooting percentage. Now, the 91 minutes they played together isn’t statistically significant. But this is not an isolated failure. One lineup from earlier this season—Bismack Biyombo, Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, Elfrid Payton, and Jonathon Simmons—was dead last among 90-plus-minute lineups in defensive rebounding percentage.

Poor Vucevic was the central part of two lineups in the bottom six in offensive rebounding percentage. I could go on like this.

If there’s any silver lining to the season, it’s the development of Gordon, who, despite some streaky shooting (the 59 percent 3-point shooting in his five October games and the 40 percent mark in November was … not sustainable), has the makings of a real contributor. He was the key when the Magic looked, for about a month, to be playoff contenders in late fall. The problem here is what to pay him. He is too good, especially compared with the rest of the roster, to let walk in free agency but slightly less valuable than a max contract demands. Even when a Magic player looks good, he causes problems. This is why we can’t have nice things. No development can be a simple win for the Magic.

There are other issues. Lottery pick Jonathan Isaac—who has one of the worst true shooting percentages in the league—looks to be a promising athlete but is still raw and was too banged up this season to get a read on. Vucevic perhaps led the league in “he is who he is.” Biyombo is two years away from his first Magic contribution: as an expiring $17 million contract in a trade. Fournier hasn’t improved on offense over the past three seasons, and his defense is still bad. The Magic were not the worst team in the NBA; they do not have the most seasons without a playoff berth (hi, Sacramento!); they probably don’t even have the the least talent on their roster. But there is no way any team has less hope.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever done? I used to not have an answer until a few months ago, when I began to play NBA2K with this year’s Orlando Magic team. When you play, they cannot score, for one. They cannot shoot 3-pointers, certainly, and they also cannot shoot 2-pointers. They cannot rebound or steal the ball. It is remarkable how bad they can be, clanging open 3s, lacking speed on defense, losing in the low post on offense. The more you play, however, the more you realize they are not only poorly built for a video game, they are poorly built for the modern NBA. In 2K, whenever I get frustrated with the lack of 3s or dunks, I settle for Vucevic’s long 2s, which are reliable. Then I remember: This is what happens in actual Magic games.

One of the more interesting developments in recent times is how closely a team or player’s success shooting 3s correlates to success overall. In nearly every sport, “box score” stats are worthless, and a near-infinite number of advanced stats have taken their place. However, you can get a good read on who the worst teams are by simply looking at the worst 3-point squads in the league. The Suns, Lakers, and, of course, the Magic are the three worst teams in the NBA at shooting the 3; all have been eliminated from the playoffs for some time. The Magic finished third-worst from 3 in the NBA, at 35.1 percent. This is the problem they’ve had for five years and will continue to have; they are building for an era the NBA is not in. Hennigan is gone, and a new, smarter brain trust with Jeff Weltman and John Hammond is in place. But the shooting isn’t. Nothing is, really.

Vogel was fired. Weltman and Hammond will now try to undo some of the roster damage Hennigan did, and they’ll find it takes longer than anyone expects. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to keep watching the Orlando Magic. That is the difference between you and me. You probably enjoy good basketball. I enjoy something very different. I enjoy the Orlando Magic.

This story was updated soon after publishing to reflect the firing of Magic coach Frank Vogel.