Thank goodness for the Brooklyn Nets. If not for them, the Orlando Magic would be in a full throttle nose dive.
As it is, Orlando has lost six straight games, including one at home to the Philadelphia 76ers, dropping to 20-23. The Sixers, at 6-39, are clearly the worst team in the NBA.
The Magic ended 2015 with a victory over the Nets on December at the Amway Center to end the year at 19-13. First-year Coach Scott Skiles promised a new-and-improved Magic. They would defend better, rebound better and take better shots.
As Americans sang “Auld Lang Syne,” Orlando was whistling the happy tune of a playoff contender. They were playing the type of basketball Skiles had pledged.
He was no stranger to turning teams around. His previous stops in Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee saw Skiles take young teams to the playoffs. If the NBA season was the same length as a college season, Orlando would have been in.
But as 2015 turned into 2016, more than three months still remained in the regular season. As of Jan. 26, the Magic have won the grand total of one game this calendar year. On Jan. 8, Orlando escaped the Barclays Center with a 6-point win over the Nets.
In the month of December, when Orlando went 10-5, Nikola Vucevic was playing outstanding basketball.
In 12 of those 15 games, he led the team in scoring 12 times and in rebounding nine times. In January, where the Magic are 1-10, Vucevic has been the leading scorer just three times. One of those came in Orlando’s only victory.
Point guard Elfrid Payton has been nursing nagging injuries since December, limiting his effectiveness. C.J. Watson has missed significant time because of injury.
Others have tried to step up. Guard Victor Oladipo has put together some outstanding games. He has led the team in scoring five times in January, but all were losses.
After the debacle against the 76ers, the Magic have taken two good teams, Charlotte at home and Memphis on the road to overtime. Those games could be just as deflating since the Magic had multiple opportunities to win both.
They coughed up an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead against Charlotte, and a 4-point lead with 17 seconds remaining on Monday against Memphis.
The players have said Skiles continues to stay positive and encourage them. Part of the job is trying to keep an even keel. He was quoted recently in the Orlando Sentinel succinctly putting his role into perspective in the current context.
“If I flew off the handle every time we played poorly, recently that’s all I’d be doing,” he said.
Some are questioning whether the Magic simply lack the talent to right the ship and get back in contention. Skiles has a track record of developing competitive teams. Not championship caliber (yet), but competitive.
Orlando has the talent, when mixed with confidence and a winning attitude, to at least make the playoffs. That does not mean they will, but they demonstrated in December they can beat almost anyone when they are playing hard and smart at both ends of the court.
The schedule did them no favors. No fewer than nine of their 14 games this month are on the road.
They try to break their current six-game losing streak on Tuesday night against the Bucks in Milwaukee before returning home on Sunday against the Boston Celtics. Orlando plays at Boston on Friday.
It is hard to imagine that more than one month will pass in between home victories. They hope to return home with the losing streak a recent memory, and then break their four-game losing streak at Amway Center.