Posted Aug 14, 2013 11:28 AM
This is the latest in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.
In many ways this is new territory -- the role of savior and face of the franchise -- for Victor Oladipo. A somewhat unheralded high school recruit, he eased into a starring role at Indiana. But as the No. 2 pick in the June Draft, the rookie guard will be counted on to do more than just ease into his situation with the Orlando Magic (20-62 in 2012-13).
Even with simple instructions from Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, expectations for Oladipo and the Magic will be greater than anything he has dealt with to this point in his basketball career.
An escape from the lottery may be an unreasonable ask. But Oladipo knows where to start.
"Just come in and learn, learn the different aspects of playing in the league," Oladipo said, echoing the instructions he has received from Vaughn. "Try to impact the game on both ends of the floor, and bring a hard work ethic."
A blue-collar work ethic is never a problem for Oladipo. He wears it like a badge of honor and has done so throughout his career. Whether that work ethic and his talent can tip the scales in the Magic's favor remains to be seen for a team still searching for an identity in the post-Dwight Howard era.
"We're hard workers," Oladipo said. "We play hard on both ends of the floor. And I think if we do that, we'll have a good chance of winning."
The Magic have been an afterthought in the playoff picture since their Dwightmare ended. They played with passion in Vaughn's first year but were clearly at a disadvantage in terms of talent at almost every position. An injury to Glen Davis last season proved to be tougher to overcome than probably anyone anticipated. His absence led to opportunities for youngsters like Tobias Harris, Mo Harkless and Andrew Nicholson. But their lack of seasoning was too much for the Magic to overcome.
Without a true identity to fall back on, the Magic found out first hand just how tough it is to survive in the NBA without a superstar anchor, or at least a quality impersonator. Veterans like Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo put up solid numbers. It wasn't nearly enough.
The Magic won just three games against Southeast Division foes last season and just eight road games. So their climb back must include baby steps before they even think about getting back into the playoff mix.
The Magic didn't add any true difference-makers in free agency -- no offense to Jason Maxiell. They do have some returnees, including Harris and the underrated Nikola Vucevic, that are poised for breakout seasons. If Oladipo is ready for prime time, that's one potential difference-maker Vaughn will be able to include in his rotation.
Still, when a team is trying to build organically, as general manager Rob Hennigan clearly is right now with the Magic, it has to allow for some of the growing pains that come with young talent and has to pass on some of the pricey (and risky) free-agent talent that floods the market every summer. The core in Orlando is taking shape. But it's far from the solid unit that will power a playoff team.
The franchise's recent history remains the biggest hurdle. From ownership down the line, the Magic have to wrap their heads around this rebuilding process and the fact that it takes time to get back to relevancy. Having spent the better part of the past decade as a playoff regular -- and that includes a trip to The Finals in 2009 -- makes it a little tougher for the Magic and their fans to stomach these tough times. But it's a necessary evil for them to endure.
The gains made by Vucevic, Harris, Harkless and others must continue as well. There has to be a continued rise, or at least a sustained level of production from those promising youngsters.
Hennigan would be wise to see exactly how this team has progressed -- and if Vaughn's voice and vision have taken hold of the roster -- before making any moves. No one player acquisition will solve the Magic's problem.
With a stronger Draft crop in 2014 and a monster free agent class next summer, the Magic need to maintain a position that allows them to act and react should opportunities arise.
When you've been dealt as severe a blow as they were when Howard forced his way out of town, a two- or three-year recovery should be expected.
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