Slam Dunk Sesame: Why rooting for the Magic, the East’s worst team, was a ton of fun in 2021-22

Rooting for the Orlando Magic has its downsides. The irrelevance. The lack of household names and All-Stars. The losing. But as an impassioned Magic fan for the past 15 years or so, there’s a lot I’ve come to love about this team, even when they aren’t the best. And they certainly weren’t the best in 2021-22; in fact, they were the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

With this week’s season finale win over the in-state rival Heat a couple days in the books and the season now over, I want to commemorate all the good times from this season, to gauge what I like about this squad after my overly rosy column after the Jalen Suggs draft pick and just talk Magic basketball for one last time pre-lottery. So let’s start it off, with the seven highlights of the Orlando Magic in the 2021-22 season!

1) Ping-Pong Ball Time

I’m no advocate for purposely losing games, but if, in some world, the Magic were aiming to maximize their lottery odds (to a measly 14 percent, but oh well), then this season was a great success. At 22-60, Orlando was the worst team in the Eastern Conference, better than only the Houston Rockets and one game behind the lousy Pistons. As a result, the Magic have as good a chance as anyone of landing the top pick in June’s draft, and pretty good odds overall of getting a top-three pick. Of course, I say this every year and they always draft one slot below Trae Young or Kristaps Porzingis or DeAaron Fox or Joel Embiid. But there are four home run prospects in this draft — Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Purdue’s Jaden Ivy — that could realistically be on the board when the Magic pick. One of those guys could be the franchise cornerstone that the Magic covet, and that they haven’t had since prime Dwight in the late 2000s. 

Again, being bad doesn’t win titles in the NBA. But Orlando has a brighter future now that they know that they’re in position for a prime pick in the draft. The sad part about this franchise is that they are more invested in another sport (ping pong) than the one they literally play (basketball), but we can always wish for some “Magic” in June (there sure won’t be any in the NBA Finals soon, that’s for sure).

2) Franz Wagner for ROY

The early shocker of the season was the breakout performance of Orlando’s second pick from the NBA Draft’s first round, Michigan product Franz Wagner. While I expected former Gonzaga point guard and No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs to be a Day 1 starter (and even bought a replica jersey to wear in anticipation), it was Wagner who surpassed expectations. Wagner held down the small forward position for the Magic — one that has been in flux for years with all sorts of out-of-position “solutions” over the years — and was a storyline to watch in the first half of the season. In 14 December games, Wagner averaged 19.5 points per game on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and over 40 percent from three, while also chipping in over five rebounds and three assists per contest. His playmaking ability and athleticism impressed on both ends of the floor, and I can see him being a part of this team for a long time. The impressive numbers didn’t exactly translate into wins for Orlando, but the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month winner in December proved he was a steal at the No. 8 pick. He also got to play with his brother, Mo, which is pretty awesome.

3) Markelle Fultz is back in the mix

Wagner cooled off slightly in the second half, as rookies tend to do, but fans had guard Markelle Fultz’s return to celebrate. Fultz, who missed most of the past two seasons with an ACL injury, came back in February and eased his way back into the rotation. Incredibly, he looked at full speed and made a case as the Magic’s best player the rest of the way. By April, he was averaging a remarkable eight assists with 12.2 points per game while making exactly half of his field goal attempts — in just over 23 minutes per game! With Jonathan Isaac still out for the foreseeable future, the return of at least one of the core guys from long-term injury is an encouraging development that, at the very least, helps the Magic evaluate who their long-term pieces may be when they make the turn to contender status.

4) Cole Anthony and Co.

The Magic are never going to top a League Pass ranking, but they were my most-watched team on the Northwestern Xfinity service, hype or no hype. A major reason why this team was so fun to watch was Cole Anthony’s red-hot start and limitless confidence, and he blossomed into a major contributor for my fantasy basketball team, the Evanston Freeze, as well. From the joyous bench to the social media team that never missed a beat to the bold anthracite-and-orange Mixtape uniforms, the Magic were an enjoyable team to share a stratosphere with and made rampant losing bearable. Plus, we had the thrill of seeing Anthony dunk in Timbs in the Slam Dunk Contest on All-Star Weekend!

5) Discovering the Magic Theme Song

The Ringer’s Kevin Clark made one giant leap for mankind when he unearthed the OG Orlando Magic theme song from the 1980s, one so over-the-top and glorious that it uses the word “razzmatazz” in its chorus. The song went viral online, prompting the Magic to restore its status and use it at home games and on social media after wins. Does using a cheesy song from the 80s make sense? Maybe not. Does having fun rooting for the least in the East make sense? No, it doesn’t either. What a great song.

6) Vibes at the Five

Center Wendell Carter, acquired in the trade that sent Nik Vucevic away but also brought over the pick that became Franz Wagner, was a force to be reckoned with in fantasy basketball, which I know because I didn’t roster him, sadly. He also got an extension a couple weeks in the season for a reasonable price, and while I don’t know if he will be the starting center long-term, 15 points and 10.5 rebounds a game doesn’t sound half-bad to me. On the other side of the coin, Mo Bamba, entering a prove-it year, averaged double-digit points for the first time in his career and boosted his career-highs in nearly every category (rebounds, blocks, assists). Most notably, he shined from behind the arc, almost doubling his three-point makes per game to 1.5 and upping his percentage from 34 to 38 percent. Bamba has a rare skill set, and though I doubt the Magic would pick him again in a redraft of 2018 based on how his career has turned out, 2021-22 was a positive year. I’m not fired up about either Carter or Bamba and don’t think their elevated numbers correlated a ton with actual winning basketball, but I was happy to have both along for the ride.

7) The Lakers Disintegrated!

From poaching Shaq O’Neal and Dwight Howard to swiping the NBA title in 2009 to winning a championship in the Orlando bubble with the Magic’s old coach, the Los Angeles Lakers have earned the title of worst enemy of the Orlando Magic in my eyes, even though they play on another coast and in the other conference. This year, the Lakers imploded. They had both LeBron James and Anthony Davis and didn’t make the play-in. Not even the playoffs — the play-in tournament! A lot of the turbulence has to do with injuries, a lot has to do with Russell Westbrook’s sloppy play and friction with other members of the organization, but at the end of the day, it was a better year to be a Magic fan than a Lakers fan. There’s not many years I can say that, but this year was one of them.

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