What good is a bad team? You can (and I do) make the argument that there’s merit in the franchises that have long been hanging around the bottom standings like forlorn ghosts. After all, there’s stories there as much as there are flashes of bright to desperate basketball and, if you squint hard enough, progress. In the title-or-bust framing of the NBA though, there’s less room for teams that don’t, or can’t, put up a competitive fight. Most teams in the league are so good now that they don’t need to rely on the cushion of a Tuesday night win against a lower tiered team to pad out their own stats. I mean, I’m sure they don’t mind, but they also don’t need it.

The real good in a technically “bad” team, I’d more urgently argue, is as a crystal ball. 

What do I mean? Well, take the Cavaliers. Rewind back to when they just landed Jarrett Allen in the three-team deal that saw James Harden go to Brooklyn and new president, Koby Altman, put the wheels in motion for a really big team. Already up Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, that summer they drafted Evan Mobley and picked up Lauri Markkanen. In another season of tinkering, they landed Donovan Mitchell and added in Robin Lopez (after trading Markkanen to get Mitchell). What had seemed, initially, like a wild idea that might win some games but mostly be a really fun team to watch play (the Cavs finished 13th in the East in 2021, 8th last season), has turned into a legitimate, 4th-seed-locked contender that could come out of the East.

Another example of the “they’re bad but I like watching them” metric (a very serious metric), is the Grizzlies. Memphis, if you’re willing to remember, was a gangly, tripping up, lightning fast, explosive mess in the early years of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. Dillion Brooks was a wrecking ball — still is, though more honed. Under young coach Taylor Jenkins the goal was, at first, just trying to figure out other gears that weren’t full throttle. In 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, Memphis finished ninth in the West. By 2021-2022, they’d vaulted to second. This season, they’ve clinched the same. 

At their outsets, neither of these teams were what we’d consider collectively, completely good. Nor would we call them serious. They had great stretches of play, players had individual spotlight nights, and they all seemed to be having a lot of fun just trying things out, playing free. That last part, when looking around the league to futurecast a team’s success, is one of the most important indicators, because franchises that have all the other parts on paper except for the latter — think Wizards, Hawks, Timberwolves — haven’t shown much progress this season. One of the team’s that ticks all those boxes has been the Orlando Magic.

The Magic, at the time I’m writing this, are down big to the Cavs in their third last game of the season. It doesn’t matter. The Magic were predicted to finish with 26 wins at the start of this year, and are currently sitting at 34 (I don’t think they’re winning this Cavs game). By a “good” team’s standards, this would barely be an anomaly. By the Magic’s it’s an incredible overshot. 

All season long, the Magic have played up. Technically, when ranked 11th, most teams are going to be ahead, but playing up in this case meant beating teams they had no business winning against, and not completely folding to the worse or more equally matched franchises. 

"I think we put ourselves in position to learn this year and see what it’s like to play against playoff [teams],” Markelle Fultz said after the Magic lost to the Cavs earlier this week, “[play] meaningful basketball and understanding what it takes to win those games.”

It took the Magic getting to their 79th game this season to be officially jettisoned from playoff contention. The East, this season, is stacked. The West looks like a child’s game of rodeo by comparison. That means it was all that much harder for a team like Orlando to hang on and hang in and continue playing as well and consistently as they did. Especially when considering how many other teams were running neck and neck, and for how long, just for a shot at the play-in.

Fultz, who played some of the quietest basketball of his career and was oft-thought of in terms of a career trajectory that paled next to Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, has flourished in Orlando. With career-high scoring and assists he’s getting to step out as a leader, and what’s better is he has the clear support of coach, Jamahl Mosley. Another player who is seeing a similar revitalization with the Magic under Mosley has been center Wendell Carter Jr. These two, folded into a roster young as it is, don’t just become leaders by virtue of being there. They’ve stepped into those roles.

The greenness of the roster has been obvious in some of the Magic’s more befuddling losses this season, but Paolo Banchero is floated in Rookie of the Year conversations for a reason. Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, Wagner’s injury aside, have stayed steady — perhaps one of the hardest things for second-year players. Nothing about the Magic is utilitarian or reliable, nor is it set, but looking at those things a different way and considering where they’ve ended up this season just means the ceiling is that much higher. Watching them play, listening to them talk about playing, or winning, especially about losing, there’s an undeniable feeling that the future in Orlando is starting to take shape. 

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