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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Orlando Magic

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Victor Oladipo is trying to blow himself into the superstar stratosphere (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

Those that are used to a significant jump in a rebuilding project will not enjoy this year’s version of the Orlando Magic. Even though he easily “won” the three-team trade that shipped Dwight Howard out of Orlando, remarkable considering the abject lack of leverage he entered the offseason with, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan did not receive a high end lottery pick to begin his rebuilding turn. As a result, his Magic ended 2012-13 with the league’s worst record, and will be a step behind a team like, say, the Philadelphia 76ers – who will probably enter 2014-15 (the second year of their rebuilding) with four recent lottery selections dotting their roster.

This year’s Magic likely won’t challenge those Sixers or the Boston Celtics (also rebuilding without a high end lottery pick) for the worst record in the league, but they will be a chore to watch as the team works out the kinks with a very young roster. The Magic will struggle to score mightily in Hennigan’s second year, and a place in the lottery is all but assured.

This doesn’t mean that Hennigan is going about this improperly, it should be noted.

He had no other choice, mainly because the Orlando Magic’s ownership group and CEO dragged their feet for so long in determining what to do with Howard, and by extension former GM Otis Smith. Hennigan was brought in just before the 2012 offseason, with interest in Howard (and interest from Howard in leaving) at an all time high, but with little room to maneuver outside of the obvious “Howard for Andrew Bynum”-deal. Hennigan outsmarted us all in declining Bynum’s services, instead retaining flexibility and draft picks along with a starting center in Nikola Vucevic that finished second to Howard in rebounds per game.

Nikola doesn’t share Dwight’s aplomb for patrolling the paint defensively, but in his first year as a starter (after being just about ignored at times by Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins in his rookie year) the big man made significant strides at the league’s hardest position to competently fill. The rest of those positions will be competently filled in 2013-14 as well, but just as it was last year, competence isn’t enough. You need someone to carry things, and the Magic don’t have that deal-breaker yet.

Rookie Victor Oladipo, someday, could be that guy. It’s unfair to burden the young man with Dwyane Wade comparisons, but the Magic are hoping to turn the Indiana product into a Wade-styled hybrid guard that can both penetrate the defense with emerging ball-handling skills (as we saw, somewhat fitfully, during the Summer League) and his already stout ability to wreak havoc off the ball. Combined with Jameer Nelson, Aaron Afflalo, and Maurice Harkless (again … competent), and the Magic won’t be fielding anyone that’s going to sink the team on the perimeter.

They won’t be fielding anyone that will raise the boats, either, but it’s early. Stealing Tobias Harris for a two-month rental for J.J. Redick again shows that Hennigan is more than adept at identifying players who have been needlessly dismissed by other teams, and Jason Maxiell (signed at a fantastic rate for Orlando, just two years and $5 million total, and the second year is a team option) should pair with Glen Davis (upon his eventual return from a broken foot) to not be too awful alongside Vucevic. Second year big Andrew Nicholson is a keeper.

Still – little depth, no stars, plenty of time between the current roster’s run and a breakthrough into the playoffs.

Ownership is clearly on board with Hennigan’s vision, though, and he still has two massive trading chips in Nelson (who just about has an expiring contract, with just $2 million guaranteed for 2014-15; perfect for any team looking to enter the 2014 free agent sweepstakes while taking in a solid point guard for the playoffs) and Hedo Turkoglu, whose massive Bryan Colangelo-contract is only guaranteed for $6 million this year.

This is all for 2015 and beyond, though. For now, plenty of reps (and subsequent licks) for the young men, and nearly as many losses.

Projected record: 24-58

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Nikola Vucevic clears the boards (Getty Images)

Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Magic for … a youth movement that’s getting in motion.

Nobody expects the Magic to be good this year, as they enter Year 2 of the rebuild sparked by the love-seeking implosion of the Dwightmare, and the trade and all-phases restructuring that came along with it. Then again, nobody expected Orlando to come away from the four-way deal that shipped Dwight Howard to the West Coast with the best return, but one year later, it’s tough to claim anything else. Howard’s moved from L.A. to Houston, Andre Iguodala’s moved from Denver to Oakland and Andrew Bynum’s moved from Philadelphia to Cleveland; meanwhile, after shuffling along Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and Al Harrington, Orlando still has the key pieces of its haul.

Ex-Nugget (no Owen Hart) Arron Afflalo will get another crack at starting at the two, and Magic fans hope the 3-point touch that all but disappeared last season will bounce back, especially with two years and $15 million left on his deal after this year. While that’d be nice, Orlando’s future relies less on the 28-year-old Afflalo than on the continued development of 23-year-old center Nikola Vucevic and rangy 20-year-old swingman Maurice Harkless, both of whom showed strong signs when given regular run last season.

Former 76er Vucevic rebounded more than 20 percent of all missed shots while on the court, the fourth-best rebounding rate in the NBA last year, and was farther along as both a pick-and-roll big man (1.03 points per play finished as the roll man, the 52nd-best mark in the league, according to Synergy Sports Technology) and a midrange shooter (41.9 percent between the paint and the arc, with even sharper numbers from prime pick-and-pop areas like the top of the key and the elbows) than many thought. While St. John’s product Harkless struggled early in transitioning to the pro game, he averaged just under 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 combined blocks/steals in 36 minutes per game after the All-Star Break, all while defending the opposition’s best perimeter scorer, at just 19 years of age. More is needed -- Vucevic must improve in the low post on both ends, Harkless must take a step forward as a jump-shooter, and both must become more reliable at the free-throw line -- but there’s much more innate talent and potential for growth, and much more reason for Magic fans to be excited, than many believed at the time of the trade.

Orlando added another reason for excitement in June, selecting Indiana University star Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft. While he’s likely to begin the season as the first guard off the Magic bench behind Afflalo and point guard Jameer Nelson, a comparative greybeard on the league’s fifth-youngest roster at age 31, the 6-foot-4 ballhawk and explosive finisher should see plenty of playing time and opportunity at multiple positions as second-year coach Jacque Vaughn figures out just what he’s got in the rookie. (Eric’s got more on Oladipo coming.)

Ditto for Tobias Harris, the 21-year-old forward Hennigan imported at last year’s trade deadline, who saw more minutes in 27 games with Orlando than he had in 70 spread over two seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. The 2011 first-rounder stepped in for injured power forward Glen Davis to average 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.3 combined blocks/steals and 2.1 assists down the stretch, and turned in a couple of performances (most notably a 30-19-5 against his old club) that sparked visions of All-Star berths ahead. Despite that finish, Harris might not be the team’s starting four come the regular season as Vaughn looks to balance his rotations; either way, if he augments his individual offense with increased interest in team defense and a keener playmaking eye, he’ll get minutes, whether from the opening tip or as a second-unit threat.

These pieces -- plus potential stretch four Andrew Nicholson, hard-working reserve Kyle O’Quinn, second-year guard Doron Lamb (if he can get healthy) and rookie forward Romero Osby (if he can make the team) -- give the team a stockpile of young talent worth monitoring. That cache should only grow this summer, as Orlando makes both its own and Denver’s 2014 first-round picks in the Howard deal that keeps on giving. It could expand even further if Hennigan can find a taker for Big Baby, who’s still working his way back from a broken left foot and remains on the books for $13 million over the next two seasons.

Youth, inexperience and the jettisoning of known-quantity veterans don’t often translate into wins, and this year’s Magic should post another high-lottery record. But the rebuild’s much further along this October than it was last, the light at the end of the tunnel now looks less like an oncoming freight train than the prospect of a new day dawning, and the roster now boasts some pieces worth a few minutes of your weeknight free time. Considering how this process started, that ain’t nothing.

Honorable mentions: The exorcism of the ghost of Hedo Turkoglu; Oladipo working on the ball, off it and way off it; Jason Maxiell: Fashion (Power) Forward.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Projecting players from college to the pros is notoriously difficult, a process akin to judging what someone looks via their image in a funhouse mirror. A player may be a top scorer in college, only to find limited opportunities in the pros; he may struggle to adjust to the speed or pressure of the pro game; he may develop entirely new skills and reform his identity; etc. Whatever we think a rookie will be is an educated guess, at best.

At Indiana, Magic rookie Victor Oladipo was a lockdown defender; highlight reel dunker; and efficient, though not especially prolific, scorer. In the preseason, Oladipo has looked like the same player, just amplified. It looks as if, in the more open style of the pros and without any major perimeter threats in Orlando, he could develop into the sort of ball-dominating lead guard that’s become increasingly more common in the contemporary NBA. He could have more than a little in common with Russell Westbrook, who entered the league in 2008 presumed to be a potential lockdown defender with developing offensive skills. Then, of course, Westbrook turned into one of the most dynamic players in the league.

This comparison is premature, of course, and could be proven stupid within a few weeks. But it speaks to the potential of Oladipo and the positivity currently winning the day in Orlando. The player and team both contain many possibilities.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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