Following the Dwight Howard fiasco and his forced trade to the Lakers, the Orlando Magic were seemingly destined to be cellar dwellers for years to come. But the rebuilding process could be over sooner than most fans expect.
General Manager Rob Hennigan has put together a team of promising young assets, and along with a potentially historic draft class to choose from in June, the Magic could be a force to be reckoned with by 2015.
When Hennigan executed the Howard trade, it seemed like a devastating moment for the franchise. They lost their anchor in the middle, received a number of protected and low draft picks, established veterans like Aaron Afflalo (useless on a rebuilding team) and two young players with intriguing potential.
Now Hennigan looks like a genius. Howard didn’t resign with Los Angeles and the two players he acquired, Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless, look like they could develop into contributors on a good NBA team.
Vucevic did his best Howard impersonation last week against the Clippers, recording his second career 30-point, 20-rebound performance. He started 77 games for the Magic last season, averaging 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per contest. So far this season he’s already shown signs of improvement, averaging 15.8 points per game and ranking eighth among centers in the league in PER (John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating) with 21.38, ahead of established big men like David Lee, Greg Monroe and Kenneth Faried.
Harkless had a promising rookie season, shooting 46.1 percent from the field while playing significant minutes. This season Harkless has exhibited signs of an improving perimeter game, as he has already made a quarter of the three-pointers as he made last year total (32 last year, eight this year) while shooting 47.1% from beyond the arc.
With Vucevic being 23 and Harkless just 20, they have yet to maximize their talent. Alone, these two are nice players, but not the foundation of a contending team.
But Hennigan continued collecting assets in remarkable fashion at the trade deadline last year. He again turned one of his veterans into a high-potential player, trading J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks for Tobias Harris and others. Harris averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds a game for Orlando. He shot 49.4 percent from within the arc, can play both forward positions and is still just 21.
He has yet to play this season due to a sprained ankle, and on Tuesday said he plans to take his return to the court slow. While Harris’ development is key, this could be a blessing in disguise for the Magic as having one of their most talented players sitting should help their draft position.
The draft is where the Magic have the ability to take the leap out of the NBA’s dregs and become a consistent contender. It’s too early to tell how Victor Oladipo’s career will turn out, but based on his performance so far this season, averaging 11.9 points per game and playing stout defense, fans have reason to be optimistic.
Based on his consistent improvement from year-to-year and his elite athleticism, Oladipo’s floor as a basketball player is a high-level defender off the bench. And, despite a 4-5 record, this Magic team could potentially end up with a high pick in the draft. If they can get a superstar from next year’s loaded talent pool, they will be in great shape moving forward.
The 2014 draft class is considered to have a number of potential superstars in Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, who were on display Tuesday night in Chicago. While all three are forwards, each would fit seamlessly into the Magic’s rotation.
Harris’ ability to play both forward positions would allow any of them to slide into the starting lineup. This would also allow Harkless to come off the bench and provide depth. Considering the talent Hennigan has hoarded in Orlando, and the inability of the team to sign a superstar free agent, adding a potential superstar to this team could vault the Magic into contention
Alternatively, if the Magic fail to land in the top three of the draft this year, drafting a point guard like Marcus Smart or Andrew Harrison would be a huge step toward becoming a complete team. The point guard position is their biggest need as an aging Jameer Nelson isn’t the long-term answer.
Even if the Magic fail to get a game-changing superstar, drafting a young facilitator and leader to manage the Magic’s talented wings and big men on the court would both increase the team’s talent and help the Magic become more complete and closer to contention.
The job Hennigan has done is outstanding. In a market where building a team is only possible through the draft and smaller free agent deals, he has turned the Magic, a team destined to fail after the loss of Dwight Howard, to a team that is ready to take a leap forward if it can successfully identify a star in the draft.
With the assets discussed above, along with solid players like Andrew Nicholson and Arron Afflalo, all the Magic need is a little bit of misfortune this season and luck in the draft lottery to elevate to NBA relevancy once again.