This is what happens when a rebuilding process is forced on you, and you fail to recognize as much.
The Orlando Magic walked away from the Dwight Howard trade as the clear winners, but that’s not saying a whole heck of a lot. Worse, because the Magic’s previous front office convinced itself (and, for a time, Dwight Howard) that the center would be staying past the end of his contract, the team missed out on early chances to blow it all up in more progressive ways. It’s true that the squad would have probably been saddled with Andrew Bynum just as the NBA washout began dogging it, but that only would have made this attempt at reshaping go much faster.
As a result the Magic played a very bad year in 2012-13 with no rookie lottery pick to give minutes to. They played a very bad season in 2013-14 while handing minutes to a very raw rookie pick taken near the top of the weakest draft in decades. They’ll play a very bad year this season with a mish-mosh of a roster, this time handing minutes to two lottery-bred rookies that may have been a reach at their selection point.
They’ll also, sooner rather than later, have to give up some of their earned salary cap flexibility in order to extend the deals of two players – Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris – that it smartly acquired prior to and then during its first post-Dwight season. There are no fast tracks, here, and we’re still waiting for a star to emerge.
This was the hand and very bad timing forced on new’ish Magic general manager Rob Hennigan in the wake of the end of the fitful Otis Smith regime. He can stress patience and a slow culture-creating all he wants, but the raw truth is that the Magic are likely ready to hit the lottery once again after 2014-15, turning in three terrible seasons and no guarantee that a future All-Star will emerge from its cadre of draft selections and acquisitions.
Of course, this pessimism is hitting its stride before rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton even have a chance to suit up, with second-year guard Victor Oladipo potentially about to love life while placed alongside a floor-spacer in Channing Frye. Young big men Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson may not be stars (and Nicholson, in particular, struggled last season), but they could use 2014-15 to confirm their clear rotation-level talent.
Oladipo and Frye will be starting the campaign on the pine with an MCL sprain, scary injuries that could have turned out far worse, but injuries that can still linger throughout a season and hinder a player’s training camp attempts to get into game shape. Payton and veteran pickup Luke Ridnour will have to take on a significant early-season burden.
The Magic hired a young coach, they haven’t splurged on any high end free agents, and they’ve embraced the long rebuild that they were forced into. Even amongst all the losses, though, the team has to show some signs in 2014-15. It has to.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Arron Afflalo is our best player. Then we traded him.
Did the summer help at all?
Not to a degree that the Magic could develop postseason hopes, but anything helps after a 23-win season.
As complained about above, the Magic dealt leading scorer Afflalo (who probably wasn’t their best player, Vucevic wears that crown) to Denver for former first rounder Evan Fournier, an intriguing scorer/passer that has yet to find his NBA footing. Afflalo’s age and contract didn’t factor into the Magic’s long-term plans, so it makes sense to at least find an approximation of an asset in return, but in the interim this is a loss. Hennigan took a flyer on a potential bounce-back season for Ben Gordon, only committing less than the league’s average salary to him for one guaranteed season. Luke Ridnour brings a reliable pick and roll touch that will help the youngsters.
This is all about those youngsters, though, and what they can bring during their rookie season. Forward Aaron Gordon has absolutely killer hops and he showcased an ability to play well off the ball in Arizona, something that will bode well for a rookie learning on the job. Elfrid Payton is a quiet leader that intrigues as a replacement for the dearly departed Jameer Nelson.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
In the long run this will always be looked upon as the Summer of Gordon and Payton, but in the current grown-up world Channing Frye is your man here.
Veteran players have a tendency of sort of falling back a bit once they’re removed from the daily presence of the Phoenix Suns medical staff, and though stretch shooting is to be coveted, four years and $32 million for a 31-year old who doesn’t do much besides set screens and shoot still seems like a bit much. It’s true that two of those seasons take place in the post-2016 world of boffo NBA profits, and the Magic can afford it, but it still feels like a lot.
Frye’s skill set tends to age well, so we can only hope he stays healthy as the Magic search for someone to put the ball in the hole.
For a team working with one of the better offensive and defensive rebounders in the game in Nikola Vucevic, the squad’s work on the glass leaves plenty to be desired. The problem here is that the front office was not able to address this as much as it would have liked to over the summer, as Channing Frye is a poor rebounder for a small forward, much less a stretch four. Aaron Gordon may eventually turn into a killer board man, but that’s a tough thing to establish as a 19-year old rookie.
Starting Kyle O’Quinn down the stretch of games last year helped, but while the Magic like him he’ll most certainly lose minutes to the established Frye and the developing Gordon.
Contributor with something to prove:
Ben Gordon doesn’t exactly have much to prove, he just has to give us an answer as to what the hell happened to the guy’s game.
In 75 games with Charlotte in 2012-13, Gordon shot 38.7 percent from long range. Not exactly a killer mark, especially for someone whose only job is to take three-pointers, but respectable enough. Gordon appeared to sulk through a listless 2013-14, though, making just over a quarter of his treys (he had shot over 40 percent from long range in all but two of his previous nine seasons), and infuriating the former Bobcats so much that they decided to release Gordon at a point that wouldn’t allow him to latch on with a contender.
Even at just two years and for $9 million (with just half of that total and one year guaranteed) Gordon’s salary seems like a reach, which is saying something for one of the prizes (not a shot, many coveted him) of the 2009 free agency season. If he can contribute as a long range shooting specialist, he’ll have a chance to have what should have been a better year go out on a good note.
Potential breakout stud:
Tobias Harris struggled initially in his first full season with the Magic, but he eventually righted his particular ship and turned in a solid enough overall campaign. Even with the presence of Frye and Gordon clouding up the forward position, Harris has enough versatility at either position to continue to enhance his scoring and possibly improve his rebounding.
Especially if the Magic decline to meet his contract demands by Oct. 31, which would then make this a contract year for Harris as he enters restricted free agency next summer.
Luke Ridnour runs a respectable show, Aaron Gordon slams his way toward the Rookie of the Year, Frye lets it fly, Vucevic does well with help, Elfrid Payton makes your father happy with his dogged play, and Victor Oladipo finally finds his niche with his burden lessened during his second season.
If everything falls apart:
The Magic work through another lottery bound year without anyone breaking out, hitting springtime with nothing to do but wonder where that franchise player is coming from.
Kelly Dwyer’s best guess at a record:
Last in the division, 12th in the Conference, 25-57.
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