The Magic are just two years into the process but have already dramatically remade their roster and addressed their financial situation.
They had the lowest payroll in the league this season and have considerably less money committed for the following one. Of the 12 players they have under contract for next season, just four are over the age of 25. In addition, they've picked up four extra draft picks spread out over the next four drafts, three of which are first-rounders.
But even with much of that difficult work accomplished, the Magic don't have much to show for it on the court and may already be staring down another franchise turning point—a fork in the road where things could begin to quickly improve or cycle back and necessitate beginning the rebuilding process anew.
In relatively short order the Magic have worked their way into financial flexibility, a smattering of extra draft picks and a collection of young, promising talent. But those assets haven't been enough to help them win even 30 percent of their games this season.
This team looks almost entirely different than it did two years ago. However, they're still a long way from where they want to be, and it remains to be seen what that hypothetically successful team of the future will look like. The task that faces the Magic right now is turning the collection of players, draft picks and cap space into a competitive basketball team.
The biggest barrier to that goal is the apparent stagnation of their young players.
Nikola Vucevic, originally thought to be nothing more than an extra piece in the Howard deal, turned out to be a revelation for the Magic last season. Just 23 years old, he proved to be an efficient finisher at the rim and a phenomenally effective rebounder. Last year he finished fourth in the league in total rebound percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com. This season his numbers are down just slightly, but he still ranks eighth among players who've played at least 1,000 minutes.
However, Vucevic's offensive game continues to be complementary in nature. Although he's a solid post-up defender, his still gets caught napping off the ball a little too often and doesn't do much to deter opposing ball-handlers at the rim.
According to the player tracking statistics at NBA.com/stats, opponents are shooting 53.1 percent on shots at the rim defended by Vucevic. That's a reasonable number, but the quantity of shots coming at the rim against Vucevic is more troubling—7.5 per game. Only Al Jefferson and Pau Gasol are contesting that many interior shots per game and allowing a higher opponent field-goal percentage.
Great rebounders who can contribute in a supporting role offensively are pieces that any good team can use. But Vucevic is not the kind of big man who can act as a defensive anchor, which means the Magic would still need to find the right partner for him.
Tobias Harris is as talented offensively as anyone on the Magic's roster and has a really intriguing combination of skills, in particular his ability to score on the low block. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Harris is the 19th-most-efficient post scorer in the league this season, averaging 0.99 points per possession.
The problem is that he's a little undersized as a power forward and is most effective in the post when he's backing down a smaller player. Often that means taking advantage of a lineup mismatch or trying to force the opposition to switch on a pick-and-roll.
The end result from a rotation standpoint is that Harris is often better suited to playing small forward. Unfortunately he's a disaster defensively at that position, and his range peters out at the three-point line. This year Harris has made just 21.8 percent of his three-point shots, a huge step backwards from his 31.5 percent last year.
His strengths and weaknesses essentially cancel each other out. Until he can score against bigger players in the post or begin knocking down outside shots consistently, his offensive talent is limited in application.
While Harris has struggled to hit from the outside, Mo Harkless appears to have finally found his stroke. After making just 27.4 percent of his three-pointers last season he's become respectable from the left corner and downright dangerous from above the break.
But Harkless is still extremely limited with the ball in his hands, while his offensive game at this point is essentially just cuts and spot-ups. There is nothing explicitly wrong with that, but it does seem like a frustrating level of play for someone who was billed as a versatile wing in the Andre Iguodala mold when he came into the draft.
Meanwhile Andrew Nicholson's attempt to expand his range to the three-point line has been a disaster, and his overall shooting percentage has cratered this year, dropping from 52.7 percent to 41.8 percent as he struggles to find his place in the Magic offense.
On the player-development side, Victor Oladipo is the most important piece for the Magic, and the most confusing.
Oladipo has been playing a lot of point guard this season, a role in which he has been wildly inconsistent. Although he's come a long way in terms of creating good shots for himself and others out of the pick-and-roll, he still often misses some easy opportunities.
The good news is that the Magic probably don't have long-term designs on making Oladipo into a point guard. However, the experiment gave him plenty of opportunities to develop his off-the-dribble game this season, something that will serve him well when he makes his theoretical slide over to shooting guard.
The issue is that it's very hard to judge exactly where Oladipo's developmental path is headed because what he's been asked to do this year could be very different from what he'll be asked to do down the road.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn hinted at this murky positional designation for Oladipo a few weeks ago (h/t Orlando Pinstriped Post):
I think when we talked about what Victor was, we said he was a guard, and I don't think we've changed from that. We've seen him bring the ball up at the one position and play off the ball and we've seen some good things both ways. I don't think we're at a position where we're forced to say, 'you're only going to do this in the course of the game.' I don't think as an organization that's where we want to be.
While there is plenty of young talent on this roster, no one seems to be on the exact trajectory the Magic envisioned heading into the season. All of these questions regarding player development drastically change the value equation for the rest of their assets.
As we've seen from situations like that of Stephen Curry and the Warriors, Kevin Durant and the Thunder, James Harden and the Rockets and Blake Griffin and the Clippers, a rebuild begins in earnest when a team has secured the star player to build around.
The Magic don't appear to have that player on their roster, and their path to finding one seems unclear. The lack of explosive growth we've already seen makes it unlikely that anyone currently on the roster will develop into a player of that caliber. The fact that their young prospects continue to look more like question marks than concrete answers also makes them much less appealing as pieces to be packaged in a trade.
The biggest salary on the books for next season—Jameer Nelson's $8 million—is only guaranteed for $2 million, according to ShamSports. If the Magic were willing to part ways with him they could head into the summer with as much as $20 million or more in cap space, more than enough to chase top-tier free agents like Greg Monroe, Lance Stephenson, Pau Gasol or even LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony, should any of them choose to opt out.
The problem is that all of those players will likely be looking for winning situations. The young talent the Magic have acquired may not be enough to entice a player of the caliber they need to build around.
Zach Lowe pointed out this issue in a column at Grantland:
Executives and agents view it as a strong enough draw to attract a second star-level player, provided the Magic somehow land a first star — sort of how Houston used the lure of James Harden to bait Howard.
But landing that first star is going to be an enormous challenge if Rob Hennigan, the team’s sharp young GM, can’t find one in the draft.
Over the next two seasons the Magic will either need to trade or make long-term salary commitments to Arron Afflalo, Vucevic, Harris, Nicholson and Harkless. As it currently stands those players don't seem quite good enough to justify the Magic paying what it may take to keep them, while they also don't seem quite tantalizing enough to the rest of the league.
This is a situation that could rapidly become dangerous. A few miscalculations could lead to suffocating contracts chaining the Magic to the mediocrity treadmill; on the other hand, the Magic could fall prey to missed opportunities and allow assets to walk in exchange for pennies on the dollar, trying to avoid that treadmill.
All of this makes the pair of draft picks the Magic hold in this year's lottery so important. The draft lottery is always a high-risk proposition but represents the clearest opportunity for the Magic to grab that fundamental piece to push their rebuild forward. This is widely regarded as one of the most potential-laden drafts in recent memory, and a big piece of the Orlando Magic rebuild could be riding on the outcome.