Recommended Next Steps in Rob Hennigan's Epic Orlando Magic Overhaul
On the floor, it's been an exhaustive effort for the Magic faithful, who stuck with the franchise during its nightmarish one-year divorce from its former star. Orlando will need to win two of its final seven games to avoid the second-worst season in franchise history.
But this season was never one focused on wins and losses.
First-year Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan made that abundantly clear when he returned a package for Howard largely built around young, raw talent and draft picks.
Player development trumped Eastern Conference standing gains. Moral victories became a tangible goal, both for reinforcing coach Jacque Vaughn's positive message (via Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel) and for keeping the Magic well-positioned in the upcoming draft lottery.
But what's next on Hennigan's to-do list? What does he need to do put the emphasis back on the floor?
Step 1: Clear Veteran Contracts
Orlando's roster is littered with leftovers from failed efforts to surround Howard with a championship-caliber support staff.
Considering that the Magic are now years away from even contending for a playoff spot, it's time for Hennigan to start cleaning house.
Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington have more than $26 million combined owed to them for the coming seasons. But Hennigan could cut those figures in half with some necessary buyouts in the upcoming summer, if he's unable to move them via trades (according to Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel).
And while Hennigan has infused young blood throughout the roster, the Magic employ two elder statesmen at the top.
Jameer Nelson, a 31-year-old nine-year veteran, will be tough to move, with $8.6 million owed to him for next season. And there's been no indication that they would even be inclined to do so, as Nelson has enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career, averaging 14.7 points and 7.4 assists.
Beno Udrih, who landed in Orlando in the deadline deal that sent J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks, might be a different story. The 30-year-old will become a free agent after this season.
He's expressed a desire to stay with the franchise (via Steve Kyler of HoopsWorld.com), but not to the point that he'd reject more lucrative offers elsewhere.
Step 2: Ace the Draft
For the Magic, striking the draft lottery jackpot would certainly be bittersweet.
An exhaustive season of futility has afforded them the second-best chance of any team to land the top pick, at least in the current standings.
But the agonizing list of defeats doesn't appear to be have a clear-cut pot of gold at its end.
Even if Orlando lands the top pick, there's no obvious player pacing his peers. There hasn't been this much uncertainty at the top of the draft since at least 2006. The top five draft picks from that year included Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams.
A pair of freshman phenoms (Ben McLemore of Kansas and Kentucky's Nerlens Noel) have emerged as consensus picks in the world of mock drafts.
But neither player will come free of baggage.
McLemore is touted for his scoring ability, but averaged just 15.9 points per game in his lone season in Lawrence (via StatSheet.com). Noel's season came to an abrupt end when he tore his ACL on Feb. 12.
The Magic simply need to stockpile assets at this point, so Hennigan will need to remove his team's needs from the equation and draft the best player available.
Of course, he and his staff will first have to identify just which player that is.
Step 3: Find Free-Agent Bargains
In no sense will this be a quick fix for the Orlando front office.
This is the same franchise that had trouble luring talent, even when they had Howard on the roster. Having such an abysmal season has certainly made that challenge even more daunting.
And the same could be said for the new restrictions that teams are facing with a tighter collective bargaining agreement.
So Magic fans should temper their expectations on the free-agent market.
Orlando can't afford to put all its eggs in one basket. And given the increasing likelihood that neither Howard nor Chris Paul will change teams over the summer, there might not even be a player worthy of such a heavy financial commitment.
But that doesn't mean that Orlando can afford to stand idle, either.
There are players worthy of interest, particularly if Hennigan can land them at the right place.
The emergence of second-year forward Tobias Harris (16.4 points and 8.2 rebounds in 20 games with the Magic) is just the latest example that there is undiscovered talent throughout the league.
Maybe Vaughn can tap into the talent of Rodrigue Beaubois, which the Dallas Mavericks couldn't find in four years. Maybe a slow second half will greet O.J. Mayo with a lukewarm embrace on the free-agent market, assuming he opts out of his $4.2 million deal for next season.
Wesley Johnson has started showing signs of life lately. A laundry list of ailments has kept Elliot Williams from ever seeing the opportunity to be a productive player.
As I said above, tempered expectations are a must. But they're not necessarily an indictment on a player's future potential.
Step 4: Shine on the Summer League Circuit
The Magic will be faced with an unusual task in the days leading up to the Orlando Pro Summer League.
Frankly, the team is so littered with young players, it's up to the front office to decide which players should attend.
Thanks to a rule in the new CBA, teams can send no more than four veteran players to play in the summer league.
There are some stipulations as to what constitutes being labeled as a "veteran," but according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, the Magic have six players guaranteed to be considered as such: Harris, Maurice Harkless, E'Twaun Moore, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O'Quinn and Nikola Vucevic.
And Robbins notes that rookie DeQuan Jones could also draw that distinction, depending on his contract status for next season.
Harris, Harkless and Vucevic should all be locks for a summer league roster spot. Even if the front office doesn't need to be convinced of their vast potential, these three players will factor heavily in the team's long-term plans and should be playing as much basketball in Vaughn's system as humanly possible.
That last roster spot will be a much harder decision.
Nicholson has the greatest potential of the remaining players, but Hennigan might be tempted to opt for Moore. The team still needs to figure out if he's a natural point guard, a scorer off the bench or if that designation even matters.
Orlando has no shortage of youth, but its backcourt is a lot older than you'd think.
Step 5: Stay Patient
Rebuilding is a necessary evil in professional sports, with a particularly harsh affinity for small-market teams like the Magic.
But it's a process that Hennigan, his cohorts, Magic players and the fans must embrace to restore this franchise to relevance.
Hennigan got things off on the right foot by tasking Vaughn with spearheading this operation. He served under iconic Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for two seasons before joining Orlando, and his positivity has worked wonders for the Magic's young talent.
And although he was massacred for the move at the time, credit Hennigan for finding what's looking more like a respectable package, especially while being handcuffed by Howard. Vucevic is on his way to being an All-Star, and Harkless and Arron Afflalo should be key rotation players in this new chapter of Magic basketball.
Now comes the hard part.
Hennigan has to maintain his patience during what could very well be another season (at least) of ineptitude, before things start to turn around. He owes it to Vaughn, and to Orlando fans, to let the coach properly see the transition through.
I certainly don't think so, and neither should Hennigan.