As the Orlando Magic begin the tedious process of rebuilding, it's hard not to wonder what things will look like three years from now.
Since most people don't have a 1981 DeLorean, the assistance of Doc Brown and 1.21 gigawatts, predicting the future is impossible. That doesn't mean mapping it should be, though.
General manager Rob Hennigan has already begun the process of molding a group of young talent into a playoff contender. In order for that process to evolve, the Magic must build around their young core, make smart draft picks, shed bad contracts and nab free-agent talent.
Harkless, Harris and Vucevic
This young trio of players make up the foundation for the Magic moving forward, and in three seasons from now they should be entering the primes of their careers.
Harkless (19), Harris (20) and Vucevic (22) are all very young and raw. However, barring any drastic changes, they should all see plenty of minutes moving forward and continue to grow at a rapid pace.
If there's one thing that Magic fans will be able to take away from this season, it's that Harkless and Vucevic—both obtained in the Dwight Howard trade—have logged important court time and it's already beginning to pay off.
Most impressive of the three has been Vucevic, who has been consistent and proven himself over the course of the season.
The second year player has dominated the glass, ranking fifth in rebounds per game with 11.4.
In addition to that, Vucevic has been a reliable scorer in the post and has a mid-range jumper to round out his offensive repertoire. With further development, he should turn into an even better scorer.
Make no mistake, though; all three are vital to future success in Orlando.
According to the Charlotte Observer, several scouts believe that this summer's draft doesn't contain a must-have talent:
If two NBA scouts who travel the country each college basketball season are right, the 2013 draft won’t come close to that.
The Observer consulted with two long-time scouts (neither connected to the Charlotte Bobcats) as conference seasons commence in the college game. Each works for a team likely to have a top-10 pick. Each spoke on condition of anonymity because neither is authorized by his employer to speak publicly on draft prospects.
While the two conversations were separate, each conveyed the same conclusion: This isn’t the year a franchise-changer will emerge from the draft process
“I don’t think this is a good draft,” said one scout. “This is the year you should consider trading your draft pick – no matter where it is.”
While that may or may not end up being true, it's still a crucial draft for the Magic.
In a recent mock draft, HoopsWorld has Orlando selecting second overall and taking 19-year-old point guard Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. Assuming he declares and is available when the Magic pick, it's critical that they draft him.
Just looking at Smart, it's clear that his body is ready for the NBA. His listed height and weight confirm that. At 6'4", 200 pounds, he has excellent size for a point guard.
It's his size, along with apparent strength, that Walker Beeken of DraftExpress says are Smart's best utilized traits:
While not necessarily the fastest or quickest player at his position, Smart still brings a nice set of physical tools to the table with his combination of size, power, and solid explosiveness. He enhances those tools by playing with tremendous intensity on both ends of the floor.
The freshman showcased his talents this season, averaging 15.1 points, 4.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 41 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from three-point range.
Those numbers are impressive for a first-year player, and as he gains experience, his consistency and efficiency should climb as well.
With Jameer Nelson turning 31 last month, a young point guard moving forward is a must if the franchise is to succeed. Nelson's three-year, $25.2 million contract that he signed prior to the season keeps him in Orlando through the 2014-15 season.
Pursuing a trade for Nelson in the next few years probably isn't something that's out of the question, but keeping him around has more value. A veteran presence playing the same position as Smart could greatly boost the rate at which he develops.
Smart isn't the only option the Magic have in the draft, but he's without question the best one.
The Magic don't have a great deal of cap space to pursue a major free agent this summer.
Bleacher Report's Jason Henry recently highlighted some potential candidates, and several of them—most notably Chandler Parsons—are worth a look.
But while luring in a free agent or two is an appealing idea, the Magic are at least a few years away from worrying about it.
There's no rush, and turning a team around doesn't happen overnight. Management and fans alike need to have patience throughout the process. Making impulse moves and throwing money at free agents is not the solution at this point.
Focus this summer should be aimed at shedding the bad deals of Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington.
Turkoglu is signed through next season and is scheduled to make $12 million. However, only half of that is guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Harrington is signed through the 2014-15 season. Like Turkoglu, only half of the money owed to him over the next two seasons is guaranteed—$3.5 million next season and $3.8 million in 2013-14.
Unless other teams are interested in a trade, simply buying the remainder of their contracts out would be Orlando's best move.
With the Magic not having a whole lot of cap space next summer either, they should look at 2015 as the time to really begin looking for free agents.
A lot can change in three years, but one player that potentially could be available that offseason is shooting guard Eric Gordon. Gordon has a player option of $15.5 million for 2015-16 with the New Orleans Hornets. The likeliness that he'll opt-out of that deal, however, and become an unrestricted free agent seems high.
Arron Afflalo is a nice player, but he's not starting material and would be more suited for a sixth man role. Gordon would give the Magic a top scorer that can create with the best of them.
When healthy, Gordon is one of the league's elite scorers. With a field-goal percentage of 44.6 percent and a 36.8 three-point percentage for his career, he scores with efficiency. He's also averaging 5.1 free throws per game. Not getting to the line has hurt the Magic this season.
Obviously the major concern with Gordon is his health. However, if he can stay healthy over the next few years, he's worth a look. And with the Magic currently only owing $22.8 million in guaranteed money for 2014-15, it's a realistic option.
Outside of Gordon, there really aren't too many big names that would make a lot of sense. With any luck the Magic will be set at most positions by then.
The Rebuilt Lineup
Three years from now, Orlando's lineup shouldn't look much different than it does today if everything goes as planned.
The core of Harkless, Harris and Vucevic will be intact. All three have the potential to be very good players. Nelson will likely play out his contract with the team, hopefully grooming Marcus Smart in the process. Afflalo's future is uncertain, but pursuing a trade in a couple of years would be wise.
There's the question of role players as well, but those can always be shuffled in and out as needed.
And what about Glen Davis? He can't be forgotten.
No worries, though—Hennigan seems to know exactly what he wants to do.
If the recent tweet from Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel is any indication, Magic fans should be even more encouraged with the rebuilding process. On March 3, he posted the following:
If that report is true, it's another step in the right direction. Getting rid of veteran talent that impedes the process of youth is imperative.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, the opening night lineup for the 2015-16 will look like this:
PG - Marcus Smart
SG - Eric Gordon
SF - Moe Harkless
PF - Tobias Harris
C - Nik Vucevic
At the end of the day, there's no crystal ball and nothing is ever guaranteed. Not every move that is made will be the correct one. Not every player will pan out as expected.
What matters though is that Hennigan has a vision and seems to know what he wants to do with the franchise. It might seem trivial, but it's nothing to scoff it. He comes from a pedigree of winning having spent a combined eight years working with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Bringing a winning environment back to Orlando won't be easy, but if anyone can do it, Hennigan should be trusted with that task.
If the pieces fit like they should, the Magic might be looking at a return to the postseason in 2016.