Denton: Building Blocks in Place for Future Success
By John Denton
April 18, 2013
ORLANDO – Whereas there is no satisfaction today in having just completed a season with the NBA’s worst record, the Orlando Magic take solace now in the fact that several of their young players made significant progress to firm up the foundation and the franchise has the best odds at possibly landing another top pick in the June NBA Draft.
While the Magic are out of the playoffs for the first time in seven years, ending what was the longest run of consecutive years in the postseason in the Eastern Conference, many with the franchise feel that there was definitive progress made in this transition season.
True, it’s hard to consider a season with 20 wins and 62 losses much of a success, but there is a belief coursing through the Magic franchise that some of the building blocks were put in place to ensure success for several years to come.
``I think it was a year, looking back on it, where we made progress. We were able to set a direction and a foundation and some stepping stones that will benefit us going forward,’’ Magic GM Rob Hennigan said. ``We’re not happy with 20 wins and that’s unacceptable to us. At the same time, we realize that it’s a process and we want to be good for a long time. But you can’t skip steps to get there.
``I think we really believe in what we’re doing and we believe in the players that we’re bringing in,’’ Hennigan continued. ``We believe in our ultimate goal of being an elite team for a long time. I think when you have an organization that is as convicted and belief-driven as we in this organization I believe that’s a powerful thing. We’re very confident in our abilities to continue to get better and get us to that point.’’
The Magic had the look of being the feel-good story of the NBA season when they started 12-13, beat the Lakers and former Magic center Dwight Howard in Los Angeles and shockingly ranked sixth in the league. But a variety of injuries and unfortunate events knocked veterans Jameer Nelson, Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis, Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington out of action for long stretches. Factor in the February trading of longtime cornerstone J.J. Redick and the Magic were devoid of many experienced players as the season wore on, causing the losses to pile up.
Those unplanned bumps in the road put rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn to the test, forcing him to use a whopping 29 different starting lineups and rely on rookies and young players almost exclusively over the season’s final two months.
``I wouldn’t let myself get to the level of saying frustration, no. Did we anticipate having the injuries that we had and the multiple lineups that we had throughout the season? No. Was it a challenge? Yes, but frustration I wouldn’t use those words,’’ Vaughn said. ``We got better as a team and that’s a goal we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year.’’
The positives that emerged from that fast-forwarded youth movement were prevalent for the Magic. Nikola Vucevic, one of the primary pieces acquired by Hennigan in the four-team, 12-player trade that centered around Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala, blossomed into one of the NBA’s best young big men by ranking second in the league in rebounding (11.9 rpg.) and third in double-doubles (46). Tobias Harris, acquired in the Redick trade, became a go-to scorer in Orlando, pumping in two 30-point games and averaging 17.3 points in 27 games with the Magic. And Harkless, Orlando’s youngest player at 19 years old, welcomed the challenge of guarding the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony on a nightly basis while also making huge strides in his overall game.
``This year was a pretty rough year, we didn’t win a lot of games and none of us are happy about it, but I think we’ll have a much better team next year,’’ said Vucevic, 22. ``We’re all going to work hard over the summer. We have really good pieces on this team and I know we have a bright future.’’
Many of the Magic’s young players, including power forward Andre Nicholson, center Kyle O’Quinn and guards DeQuan Jones and Doron Lamb, huddled together on the plane ride home following Wednesday’s loss in Miami and discussed plans of working throughout the summer to get better. They made a vow to push one another and hold each other accountable so that they would never have to endure another 62-loss season like this again. The negativity from this season, Jones said, will spur the group to work even harder this summer.
``With us being as youthful as we are, speaking to the guys on the plane ride back, we’re going to use all of the negativity and remarks that we heard and feed off it,’’ said Jones, one of the great stories on the team for how he made the roster as an undrafted free agent. ``We’re going to hold one another accountable and we look forward to making one another better.’’
The combination of Orlando’s loss Wednesday in Miami and Charlotte’s home win meant that the Magic will have the best odds at getting the top overall pick in the June 27 NBA Draft. The draft order will be determined on May 21 in the NBA’s lottery system. The Magic will have 250 combinations in the draft lottery or a 25 percent shot at getting the top overall selection. They have a 21.5 percent shot at the No. 2 pick, a 17.8 percent shot at No. 3 and 35.7 percent odds at the No. 4 slot. Because they have the NBA’s worst record, the Magic can fall no lower than the fourth pick in the draft.
``We’re going to pick where we’re picking. We have a chance to get the No. 1 pick this year and it’s our job to make sure we pick someone who will help us,’’ Hennigan said. ``We’ll pick someone who makes sense for us. The draft is part of (rebuilding), no question. We feel like the draft, if done the right way and done well, is a way to improve your team. But it’s not the only way.’’
While much of the late-season focus shifted to Orlando’s young players, the team still has a collection of veteran standouts under contract through next season. The contracts for Harrington and Turkoglu are only partially guaranteed and both are expecting to be bought out so that they can play elsewhere with contenders. Davis, whose shoulder separation ended the fast early start and his broken foot hastened the youth movement, put up career-best numbers across the board while being given added responsibilities as a captain. Afflalo, who missed the final three weeks with a hamstring tear, was steady early in the year and hopes to take another step toward being an elite player next season.
As for Nelson, the longest-tenured Magic player with nine years under his belt, he said he’s fully committed to continuing his career in Orlando. Nelson could have left last summer as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, but he resigned with the Magic because he takes seriously the notion leading the team through its transition time. Nelson said he fully intends to be back with the Magic next season and serve as a leader for Orlando’s young players.
``I’d like to be here. I take the challenge on of leading and helping this franchise turn back around. So hopefully I’ll be here and they’ll want me around and we can get better together,’’ Nelson said. ``It’s a different part of my life and we all go through changes as we get older. I’m very fortunate to be around 21-year-old (players) who have great personalities, great humor and most importantly are great guys. I’m fortunate to be on a team with great guys who want to be good and want to do things the right way.’’
Hennigan said the right way to construct next season’s team is with a definitive mix of veteran players and young players. He knows that if the Magic hang onto their draft pick that they will be adding at least one more rookie to an already heavy cast of young players. And he hopes to keep veteran leaders around such as Nelson and Afflalo to show the inexperienced players how to win in the NBA.
``You always need to have veterans on the team. You have to be careful of being too young and be careful of being too old,’’ he said. ``So there’s a balancing act that you have to find. But I would say our veterans are an integral part to what we’re trying to do here and will continue to be.’’
Whereas this June’s draft has already been panned for not having a definitive difference-maker at the top, some experts are already lauding the potential talent expected to be at the top of the 2014 NBA Draft. But Hennigan said the Magic afford to base any of their thinking on what could possibly be available some 14 months down the road. So he will insist on the Magic to still work to win every night and the young players to continue to grow as much as possible.
``We don’t want to work in the assumptive realm and we want to make sure that we try to win every game. That’s what we tried to do this year and that’s the truth. We didn’t win as many as we hoped, but I think the mentality, the culture and the desire to continue to try to win every game, every possession manifests itself in different ways and habits,’’ Hennigan said. ``That’s what we’re all about and we’ll continue to be about that next year. (The 2014) draft is the furthest thing on our mind.’’
Hennigan has been lauded for his finding Vucevic, Harris and Harkless in trades and passing on the injury-prone Bynum when forced to deal Howard last summer, but he said there is no celebration for him when the Magic are coming off a 20-win season. Still, he said the positives for a bright future are many and he will continue to work to bring in the kind of pieces to the squad that will make Orlando a sustainable success for several years to come.
``It certainly provides motivation and fodder to improve,’’ Hennigan said of the Magic winning just 20 games. ``But every person in our organization is incredibly driven and incredibly hard-working. We know that we want to be really good, but there are certain steps that you have to go through to get to that point. Nobody wants to have the worst record in the league because we’re here to win. We’re confident that we’re going to get there.’’
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