9 Rebuilding Steps for Orlando Magic After Dwight Howard Trade
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Replacing Howard will be as big a basketball and psychological task as recovering from Shaquille O'Neal's departure in 1996. In fact, it may even be bigger.
For all of Shaq's contributions and an NBA Finals appearance, he only played in Orlando for four seasons.
Howard was the Magic's franchise cornerstone and rebounding leader for eight seasons. He only missed 17 of 640 possible games for them, 12 of which were last year. He brought them to the playoffs six times and led them in scoring the past seven years.
Orlando can't afford to wander aimlessly for a decade like they did after Shaq left. Here's how they can step out of the rubble and move on with their lives...
Don't Try to Replace Dwight Howard
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When Shaquille O'Neal left in 1996, the Magic hoped Rony Seikaly might be their next great center. Needless to say, solid Seikaly didn't live up to the unrealistic expectations.
Orlando management and fans need to immediately accept that Howard is irreplaceable. The shoes are too big to fill from a physical and popularity standpoint. This was one of the most beloved figures in city history.
Even if they do land Andrew Bynum or another established star in return, the Magic must move forward from the "D12 Era" and never look back until nostalgia can heal a few wounds.
Trying to immediately replace Howard will be like trying to replace a beloved family pet. Moving too soon will disappoint and hurt much more than coming to terms with reality: he's gone.
Dwight has burned so many Orlando bridges, that it might be easy to think the transition will be painless. In the short term, that won't necessarily be true.
Everyone will be a lot happier if they refrain from searching for their next Magic mega-star. Instead, embrace the rebuilding process and the eventual return of a good Orlando TEAM.
If a transcendent player arrives during that journey, then that will be all the more special because it was unexpected and unforced.
Flip Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson at the Trade Deadline
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Hedo Turkoglu is set to make $11.8 million this year and $12 million in non-guaranteed money for 2014. That's horrible, but Jason Richardson's $5 million-$6 million per year deal isn't so bad, except for the fact it runs for three more seasons.
Turk and J-Rich are constantly included in Dwight Howard rumors as the Magic try to ditch their long-term deals, but it's not the end of the world if one or both of them stay.
The Magic definitely shouldn't buy out or release either of them just yet. They're not going to use any new cap space to immediately sign a major free agent while in rebuilding mode, and they might still get some value for Turk's expiring contract at the trade deadline or next offseason.
Both of these guys are veterans who may hold some value for a playoff team willing to go all-in on a final push. Plus, they're going to need at least a few accomplished players still on the roster.
You see it every trade deadline: teams are willing to pony up a draft pick, asset or expiring contract if they can snag one more "lost-on-a-bad-team" weapon for the playoffs.
If Stephen Jackson could find his way onto the San Antonio Spurs this past year, then the Magic can be confident there will still be a market for Turkoglu and Richardson when the time comes.
There's no sense in wasting a card this early in the rebuilding game.
No New Long-Term Contracts!
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Orlando clearly wanted at least one stable face on their roster, and Jameer Nelson has been a loyal Magic lifer. Still, it was strange to see a rebuilding team hold onto a declining player when they didn't have to.
Terms of Nelson's new three-year deal have yet to be disclosed, but the Magic need to make sure they don't hand out any additional long-term pacts at this point.
They need as much cap space as possible to facilitate salary-dumps for other teams and snag draft picks in the process. They'll also want that money if/when a true game-changing free agent becomes available.
There's no need to lock up any other pieces on this roster, including J.J. Redick. Everyone has to be viewed as a developmental piece or a movable asset.
One-Year Evaluations of Glen Davis and Gustavo Ayon
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The Orlando Magic's new frontcourt might not be as bad as you think.
However, not a single one of those guys is a sure thing yet.
Nicholson will get some developmental time and leeway because he was a first-round pick. However, Davis and Ayon need to be the starters this year.
Davis is already 26, and Ayon was a long-shot to even be in the league last year. Did they just overachieve or are they the real deal?
They both need time to make mistakes, grow and prove whether they're building blocks or just movable parts. This is their audition, and the Magic need to be sure of what they have before deciding their fates.
Re-Sign Daniel Orton
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Daniel Orton didn't do much with the Orlando Magic during his rookie year. He literally never got off the bench until the season's last month, winding up with a paltry 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds average.
However, this was a guy the Magic spent a first-round draft pick on last season. He's a big, athletic center who may never turn out to be Dwight Howard, but could at least clog the paint like him.
Orton didn't get a fair shot to shine last year, and it's way too early for the Magic to give up on him.
There are going to be plenty of minutes available on this season's young front line, and it makes sense to give Orton one more look instead of just filling the spot with a washed-up veteran's minimum signing.
He hasn't had any tangible interest from outside teams, so a one-year deal makes sense. If he can't get off the bench with this squad, THEN the Magic will know they're done with him.
However, he might take the opportunity and run with it.
Hire the Perfect Coach
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The Magic need a coach who's a teacher, salesman and accessible figure.
They need someone with credibility as a coach, but who's also patient and willing to learn as much as he teaches. He needs to be confident, humble and able to deal with the media.
Having past experience as a head coach or within the Magic organization is also a plus.
Impatient, established guys like Nate McMillan, Jerry Sloan or Mike D'Antoni might be attractive thoughts, but they're not the right fit at this point in the Magic's early development stages.
However, a guy like Jacque Vaughn is the real deal.
He's a former NBA champion, a former Magic player and he comes out of the Greg Popovich coaching tree with the San Antonio Spurs. If there's one thing that organization knows how to do, it's teach.
Vaughn isn't going to break the bank, and he's not going to steal the spotlight either. He's going to get his feet wet with the same professionalism and wiles he showed during his 11-year NBA career.
If he can coach with "Pop" and the Spurs, he can coach just about anywhere.
Sell Three Years of Patience
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In the years after Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando, the Magic gamely tried to stay competitive.
With Chuck Daly as their new coach, plus Anfernee Hardaway, Rony Seikaly, Nick Anderson and Horace Grant as players, they merely remained a relevant also-ran.
This current Magic roster is at the end of its line, with or without Dwight Howard. Hanging around in the middle of the pack will just net crummy draft picks and disappointing playoff ousters.
Management needs to set forth a clear plan for the public, stressing:
1. This is a full rebuilding effort. Expect early growing pains.
2. Embrace our rookies and young players. There will be a lot of them, and it will be fun to watch them grow!
3. We will stick to our plan patiently and with discipline. Our plan ensures we'll be a hugely relevant up-and-comer within three years or less.
Like the Oklahoma City Thunder before them, the Magic need to bottom out, hope they land some high picks and then skyrocket back.
They need to stay watchable, but there's no sense in hanging onto just-competent mediocrity any longer.
Rent out Cap Space to Acquire Picks
Photo used courtesy of NBA.com.
New GM Rob Hennigan got dumped into the worst situation imaginable, yet he might be the perfect man for the job.
He's held onto Dwight Howard in hopes of receiving a franchise player in return and/or a precise mixture of draft picks and cap relief.
He's from the Oklahoma City Thunder crew which turned that franchise from a laughingstock into a powerhouse over the course of three seasons.
There's no doubt he'll follow Thunder GM and mentor Sam Presti's example in cleaning out the contract balance sheet.
However, once he's got all that money, he needs to put it to use. Rather than simply waiting for free agents in the coming years, the Magic must allow OTHER people to "borrow" their cap space during the season(s).
By acquiring bad expiring or two-year contracts, the Magic should be able to snag quite a few additional draft picks as payment. Adding these picks to the haul they get in the Howard trade should allow them a nice jumping-off point for a 2-3 year drafting spree.
This will keep them above the league's salary minimum, but will also be timed perfectly. As those deals expire, the Magic will be reloaded with rookies and ready to spring for a big, meaningful free-agent purchase.
Nail the Draft Picks!
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Depending on where Dwight Howard lands, the Orlando Magic could be receiving three or more first-round draft picks. Following the previously detailed asset trade and cap-space rental strategies should net just as many more over the next few years.
If the Magic play their cards right, they could be holding at least half a dozen first-round picks in the next 2-3 seasons. Loading up on second-round picks through the same process would also be helpful.
They just might get lucky along the way, landing a talent similar to that kid they nabbed in 2004. Yet, Orlando also needs to draft safe during the first few seasons.
Sure-thing picks are a complete misnomer, but the Magic need a solid foundation of players who can win roster spots and eventual starting jobs. Once they're in place, the team can risk finding diamonds in the rough.
Until then, don't get fancy. Just nail the picks.