How Long Before Orlando Magic Catch Eastern Conference by Surprise?

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How Long Before Orlando Magic Catch Eastern Conference by Surprise?
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It’s around this time each summer when NBA prognosticators posit a handful of teams worth keeping half an eye on—not contenders, not guaranteed bottom-dwellers, but the purgatory-bound upstarts with the potential to shake things up a bit.

The New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks: You’re liable to hear these names bandied about quite a bit in the days and weeks ahead.

The Orlando Magic? They haven’t registered quite as high on the sneaky-sexy scale.

Ignore them while you can, though, because this might be the last summer you’ll be able to.

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From the outside looking in, any team that finishes with the third worst record in the NBA—playing in a historically weak East, no less—wouldn’t seem the stuff of upstart promise.

The fact that Orlando recently jettisoned starting point guard and long-standing veteran Jameer Nelson, forcing it to rely on the steady but hardly spectacular Luke Ridnour, doesn’t exactly help the cause.

What the Magic have, however, is a youth-imbued core capable, with the right care and coaching, of catching its conference superiors asleep at the wheel.

Had it not been for Michael Carter-Williams’ incendiary start to last season, Orlando’s own sophomore sensation, Victor Oladipo, might’ve stolen Rookie of the Year right out from under him.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Despite the slight, Oladipo is a star in waiting—a two-way force with the athleticism of Dwyane Wade, the defensive tenacity of Tony Allen and the work ethic of young Kobe Bryant.

"He never takes a day off," Oladipo's collegiate coach, Tom Crean, said of his former charge in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins.

"He really worked as hard as he possibly could, and if the gym was going to be open, you knew you could count on Victor being there," added Oladipo’s high school coach, Mike Jones. "He kind of became like the Pied Piper. When Victor worked out, other guys wanted to work out, too. His outlook and his approach are definitely contagious."

After averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 42 percent shooting during his rookie campaign, Oladipo stands as one of the upcoming season’s biggest breakout candidates. More encouraging still for Orlando fans, he’s by no means alone in this regard.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Oladipo may well be the Magic’s star of the future. But it’s in the frontcourt trio of Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and the newly acquired Channing Frye that Orlando may find its steadiest, sturdiest anchor.

Entering his fourth year, Vucevic is already a double-double machine, and has improved almost across the statistical board in each of his three seasons. With another mini leap, we could be talking about an All-Star caliber center by January. At that point, Orlando has to start thinking about how much it's willing to spend beyond the burly center’s $4.1 million qualifying offer next summer.

And while Harris’ first three seasons have been beset by minor injuries, his steadily developing offensive versatility is poised to be a focal point of Jacque Vaughn’s Spurs-inspired offense this season. That the 22-year-old Long Island native carved out some summer free time to work out with Carmelo Anthony at the New York Knicks star’s Midtown Manhattan gym (via the New York Post’s Marc Berman) only adds to the intrigue.

Frye, meanwhile, gives the Magic something they haven’t had since Stan Van Gundy left town: consistent outside shooting. The four-year, $32 million tender might seem steep now, but Frye’s veteran leadership is a necessary quantity for any team with grander designs on the horizon.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

And that’s before we even get to Aaron Gordon, the 6’9” athletic specimen out of Arizona and the fourth overall pick of June’s draft. Gordon’s offense remains very much a work in progress, but the defense—think Shawn Marion in terms of positional versatility—is nothing if not NBA-ready.

Round it out with the 21-year-old Moe Harkless, the savvy-skilled Andrew Nicholson and the bruising Kyle O’Quinn, Orlando’s frontcourt depth will be an indispensable part of the team’s rotational strategy.

The backcourt, on the other hand—particularly in the wake of Arron Afflalo’s departure—presents question marks aplenty.

If rookie Elfrid Payton’s summer league showing is any kind of harbinger, the Rajon Rondo comparisons might not sound so hyperbolic. Still, Payton’s sheer rawness—particularly in terms of scoring—is bound to be a short-term hindrance to Orlando’s offense. Even if Payton earns the opening-night starting nod, expect a heavy dose of Ridnour as the season progresses.

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Make no mistake, the Magic offense is nowhere near a top-tier attack. In fact, given their next-to-last finish in efficiency a season ago, it’d be a minor miracle for them to claw into the top half.

Still, the rudiments of an upstart are there, in the youth-laden talent, considerable cap space and a coach in Vaughn who, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe highlighted back in February, appears to have the confidence of board room and locker room alike:

The Magic locker room is a strikingly harmonious place — a rare thing for a team featuring veterans who want the minutes they’re accustomed to and young guys chasing numbers and money. The organization credits the positive vibes to Vaughn’s straight talk with each player.

But the Magic have so far to go, and they know it. Finding a star in this draft is crucial for the Magic’s long-term championship aspirations. If they find merely a good player, the road is going to be very difficult.

At this point, any one of Oladipo, Gordon, Payton, Harris or Vucevic has a chance—however varying in probability—to emerge as a bona fide cornerstone. That general manager Rob Hennigan and Co. have spread their gambles across all five positions speaks to an organizational philosophy at once sensible and intriguing.

But with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks each adhering to a similar rebuilding timetable (and strategy), Orlando’s margin for error might not be as vast as fans would like to think. Sooner or later, Hennigan must begin shifting his focus from Ping-Pong balls to proven talent to capitalize on the Magic’s massive cap space by bringing in players capable of accelerating the rebuilding process.

Matt York/Associated Press

With a slew of team and player options on the horizon, the Magic have a bevy of blueprints at their disposal, from maintaining its current core to reinforcing with veterans on the fringes and just about everything in between.

More importantly, they have the means necessary to begin their standings ascent—if not this season, then certainly by 2015.

Tempting as it might be to remain bolted to the basement, the time is nigh for Orlando to grasp a central truth of today’s NBA: Realizing you’re ready is just as important as the process of getting there.

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