In Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film ‘In Bruges’, Ken, a hitman, attempts to explain the concept of purgatory to his companion Ray. Who is also a hitman. In Bruges. Where they are hiding out. Which is also a metaphor for purgatory. It’s good, I promise.
Ken: Purgatory... what's that?
Ray: Purgatory's kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that great either. Like Tottenham.
Ray: Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?
Tottenham, however, are dangerously close to shedding their also-ran status, currently second in the Barclays Premier League and with a serious chance of claiming the title should Claudio Ranieri’s hypnosis wear off and Jamie Vardy realizes his name isn’t actually Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima. (Disclaimer: You may need to look up everyone in that previous sentence).
Like the Tottenham of old the Orlando Magic exist in a kind of sporting stasis between outright success and failure, never awful enough to face nationwide scrutiny (hello Lakers, 76ers) yet rarely good enough to ever demand the media spotlight. It feels as though it has always been like this. When the Magic did reach the NBA finals, for only the second time in franchise history back in 2009, they were treated as though they weren't supposed to be there. As though they were rudely interfering with the preordained fairytale of MVP Lebron James, destined to carry several questionable basketball players and the entire city of Cleveland on his back to a championship. Sure, there have been superstars, but it never ended well. Some of the biggest names of the last two decades have touched down in Orlando before either: sulking and leaving (O’Neal, Howard), having their knees and ankles literally (not literally) fall off (Hardaway, Hill) or sulking and leaving (McGrady, Carter). Has any franchise, bar the Portland Trailblazers, been simultaneously so gifted and so unfortunate with its talent?
Even the current crop of young players (including several high first-round picks but none first overall) all come with their own unique drawbacks. Elfrid Payton has the Rondubio curse; a gifted floor general who’s shooting makes grown men cry. Sometimes Victor Oladipo looks like an ungodly Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook hybrid; sometimes he just looks like he doesn’t know what day it is, where he is or what he is supposed to be doing. Aaron Gordon’s two favourite things are jumping through the ceiling of the Amway Center to dunk on entire teams and constantly getting into foul trouble. I can’t work out what Evan Fournier is trying to do with his hair.
The undisputed best player on the roster and perennial All-Star snub, Nikola Vucevic, can’t move laterally due to the large blocks of cement he has for feet. Mario Hezonja is Mario Hezonja. Scott Skiles trusts him about as much as I trust the before and after photos on hair loss remedy advertisements and it shows. Inconsistent playing time has plagued his rookie season and like Aaron Gordon he is benched for small lapses in concentration. Why can't we have nice things, Scott?
This group of players, flaws included, is enviable when you look at some of the other roster situations around the league. There is an awful lot of talent here to believe in. I still do. Despite this they haven’t been able to put it together consistently on the court due in part to the significant positional overlap between Oladipo, Fournier and Hezonja, making it difficult to work out exactly what Orlando’s best lineup is and this was even more troublesome when Tobias Harris was on the roster, clogging up minutes at both the 3 and 4 position. After a promising start to the season the Magic capitulated in January, dropping from a 19-13 record and potential playoff contention to 21-25 in a single month. This included a brutal eight game losing streak, three of which were in overtime. Having now been eliminated from playoff contention, the Magic are back to doing what they do best. Just, well, existing.
Many people, myself included, were expecting the young core of the Magic to make a leap this year; a playoff appearance and some noise in the first round weren’t of the question. Is this, however, unfair to expect of a team whose six leading players in minutes played have an average age of under 23? Is it unfair to expect of a head coach in his first year in charge, having replaced the consistently horrendous Jacques Vaughn? This has been a disappointing season for the Magic, nothing changes that, but the fact remains that this group of players still has enormous potential for growth. Furthermore, the Magic boast one of the more competent GMs in the league in Rob Hennigan, who is armed to the teeth with cap space heading into a free agency period this summer. Surely now it is time to swing for the fences, and no, I don't mean bringing Dwight Howard back.
Do I believe in that stuff about the Orlando Magic, forever remaining a non-factor in the league?
Not one bit.
But it is firmly in the hands of these young players to change the course of this franchise. In twelve months’ time they could still be proving every naysayer and doubter right, or they could be exactly where you have always hoped they’d be: fighting for significance in this overcrowded, hyper-competitive NBA landscape… and winning.
After all, Tottenham and Leicester are turning the tide over here in England. You never know in sports.