‘They all felt that 5-20 start’: Orlando’s early run was a year in the making

NBA

Paolo Banchero quickly learned how harsh life in the NBA can be.

The 2022 draft’s No. 1 pick, Banchero immediately produced on an individual basis, putting up points in bunches and setting himself on a path that eventually led to him to the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

As a team, though, the Magic struggled. They lost their first five games, then had a nine-game losing streak that left them with the NBA’s worst record — 5-20 — on this day one year ago.

“The losses we took early kind of killed the rest of our season,” Banchero told ESPN.

Orlando finished 34-48 thanks to a 29-28 record over the final two-thirds of last season. But that vast improvement was overshadowed by the dreadful start and left the Magic with the league’s sixth-worst record at season’s end.

The combination of Orlando’s youth, and where the Magic finished, left them off the radar when this season began. But that isn’t the case anymore.

As Orlando visits Cleveland Wednesday to take on the Cavaliers, the Magic sit at 14-6 — third in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall — behind a franchise record-tying nine-game win streak that was snapped Saturday by the Brooklyn Nets.

And while a number of factors have contributed to the hot start — evolving into one of the league’s best defenses; the growth of young players like Banchero (21 years old), Franz Wagner (22) and Jalen Suggs (22); and the guidance of third-year coach Jamahl Mosley — Banchero said conversations in the summer about how important a good start would be have been pivotal in Orlando’s surge.

“I remember clearly, in the summertime having dinners with [Mosley] and other players and talking about this exact situation,” Banchero said.

“Start off well and try and get as many wins as you can in the first month or two just because you know how important those are later in the year.”

As a result, Orlando finds itself in a vastly different situation than it was last Dec. 6.

Since that day, the Magic are 43-34 — a better record than, among others, the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors over that time frame.

And while the way Orlando played after its dismal start was mostly overlooked nationally, internally it showed Mosley his team was capable of being a playoff contender as soon as this season — assuming, that is, it could avoid digging itself into another hole.

“They all felt that 5-20 start,” Mosley told ESPN. “[But] how we played on the back end of that, it was good basketball. And so I think the guys registered that and recognized, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ve got to jump out to a good start because this is the way in which we know we can play. But we’ve got to prove it.’ …

“[Players] took ownership of it. That was a big, key piece.”

The Magic’s elite defense is leading their run.

Orlando currently sits fourth in the league in defense, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions despite missing starters Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter Jr. for long stretches of the season with injuries, with rookie Anthony Black and Indiana Pacers castoff Goga Bitadze admirably filling in for both.

“The last couple games we’ve been slipping, but [defense] is how we set the tone during the game,” Wagner said Saturday in Brooklyn. “We get out and run and get easy points in transition. We got to make sure we get back to that.”

Orlando’s formula — a top-tier defense picking up the slack for a middling offense (Orlando is 15th this season) — has proved successful.

The Magic have already secured impressive wins over the defending champion Denver Nuggets and the two favorites to claim the East, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, over the opening six weeks of the season. (Despite beating Boston in group play, the Magic narrowly missed the in-season tournament quarterfinals due to a three-way, point-differential tiebreaker.)

But the Magic’s upcoming stretch of games will determine whether their hot start has staying power. Over the next month, the Magic will face the Cavaliers and Celtics twice each, as well as single games against East contenders in the Bucks, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers before embarking on a Western Conference road trip against the Suns, Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Nuggets.

“I think it’s good for this group,” Mosley said. “I think it’s good to embrace the expectations. It’s good for this group to face all challenges. … With these teams that are coming up [on our schedule], you’re going to find different experiences, different types [of] style to play, going to be guarded in different ways. So it’s going to continue to help us learn and grow as a group.”

Banchero, for his part, isn’t running away from the challenge the upcoming schedule presents. Those summer dinner conversations were grounded in the belief that Orlando’s play over the final two-thirds of last season was the true indication of this group’s place in the league — not the 5-20 start that submarined it.

And while many NBA fans and pundits might be surprised to see the Magic sitting near the top of the East, Banchero and his teammates see their start as a natural and sustainable step forward despite the grueling few weeks that lie ahead.

“I think we’ve known internally how good we can be,” Banchero said. “Going back to last year, once we got healthy we started to really compete and win a lot of games. And even though we were short of the postseason, we kind of felt the change starting to happen. …

“The start that we’ve had, it has obviously shocked a lot of people, but I wouldn’t say it shocked anybody in the building.”

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