Denton: Magic CEO Believes Team Will Return to Championship Potential Soon

By John Denton
April 26, 2013

ORLANDO – Admittedly somewhat off his normal schedule because the Orlando Magic have made a habit of hosting playoff games this time of year, CEO Alex Martins predicted that his team’s transition will be a relatively short one.

History tells Martins so.

Orlando is out of the playoffs this spring for the first time in seven years, ending what was the longest such playoff streak in the Eastern Conference. But with several blossoming young players, the best lottery odds to get the top pick in the June 27 NBA Draft and a basketball operations staff that is on a roll following the addition of several key acquisitions, Martins firmly believes that it won’t be long before the Magic are once again competing for a NBA championship.

After all, that’s been the Magic’s way through the years.

After struggling in its first three years in existence, the Magic acquired Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway in consecutive drafts and played for a NBA title in 1996. After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2000 with the famed ``Heart and Hustle’’ team, Orlando was able to attract two of the most coveted free agents in the NBA – Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady – to get back in the mix.

And after bottoming out in 2004, Orlando wisely bypassed the more-established Emeka Okafor and took 18-year-old Dwight Howard with the top pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. Five years later, the Magic were in the NBA Finals once again.

Now, even though the Magic just went through a 20-62 season in which it transitioned from Howard to several younger pieces, Martins said history strongly suggests that Orlando’s franchise will soon be back in the mix competing for a championship.

``We have proven now time and time again over 25 years that when we go through a transition period we come out of it quickly. And we come out of it to the extent where we are competitive at the highest levels of the NBA,’’ Martins said earlier this week while the Magic were opening an 11th Reading and Learning Center at the Rosemont Community Center in Orlando.

``The statistics bear (the quick turnaround) out,’’ Martins continued. ``In my opinion, we’re setting ourselves up to be successful moving forward. And in the very near future, we’ll be in a position again to compete for a conference championship and a NBA championship. All of the moves made this year and the ones to come in the future will be done in order to build that success on the court.’’

The Magic have certainly had plenty of success on the court in recent years, furthering Martins’ point about Orlando’s incredible resilience and ability to repeatedly build winning teams. Over the past 20 seasons, the Magic have made the playoffs 14 times, tied for the fifth most appearances in the NBA. Also, the Magic have had a .500-or-better record 16 times since the 1992-93 season – again tied for the fifth most in the NBA.

``I’m a little bit out of sorts this week because it’s the first time in six years that we haven’t been hosting playoff games,’’ Martins said. ``I’m confident that (the transition) won’t last long. But I’m also confident about the manner in which we’re going about building ourselves back up to be competitive at the highest levels of the league.

``I don’t think you can ever put a timetable on it because there are so many factors that go into (rebuilding),’’ he continued. ``I would have never guessed at the beginning of the season that we would have lost four of our starters to injury, two of them for virtually the entire year and two for a majority of the year. Those are the things that you can’t predict or prepare for. But what I do know is that we’re going to continue to work in a systematic fashion to build it in a way where we have all of the pieces to compete for a championship. We’re not trying to just get to the playoffs; it’s to compete for a championship.’’

Martins is confident because of the work put in this past season by first-year GM Rob Hennigan and rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn. Hennigan, the youngest GM in the league at 30 years old, snagged a building block in last June’s NBA Draft (Andrew Nicholson) and then turned the disgruntled Howard into three foundation fixtures (Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo). He also traded J.J. Redick in late February for Tobias Harris, who averaged 17.3 points a game in 27 appearances with the Magic.

``As we wrapped up the season last week, Rob and Jacque are taking a well-deserved week off this week and we’ll get together next week and talk about how we move forward. My message will be that I’m incredibly proud of the work that they’ve done,’’ Martins said. ``From a transactions standpoint, Rob and his staff did a phenomenal job of maximizing the two significant trades that we made trading Dwight Howard and J.J. Redick. We got very good players back who have grown over the course of the year and have given us a great foundation for the future.’’

Vaughn, who turned to coaching after 12 years as a player in the NBA, instituted Orlando’s youth movement over the second half of the season and got some promising results. Vucevic finished fourth in the voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after finishing second in the league in rebounding (11.9) and third in double-doubles (46). Harkless, who doesn’t turn 20 years old until next month, improved his scoring average over each of the final four months of the season and gained valuable experience by guarding the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash. And Harris, who was finally given a chance to play in Orlando after seeing little action in Milwaukee before the February trade, showed promise as an elite scorer by twice pumping in 30 points and scoring 20 points nine times.

``As for Jacque and his staff, the question I would ask to any fan would be, `Did our players improve from the day that they joined us until the end of the season?’ My evaluation is they improved dramatically and that’s a testament to Jacque and his staff and their player developments,’’ Martins said. ``That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of – the coaches growing our young talent and making them better players. Thus, from my perspective, our entire basketball operations staff is to be commended for the work they did this year. It brings me a lot of excitement and energy about what they will continue to do for the future.’’

Martins said that while next season once again figures to be building year, brighter days are ahead for the Magic. And he stressed that the Magic will continue to build the roster through a variety of ways such as the draft, free agency and international signings.

Orlando figures to have some $30 million in cap space to spend in the summer of 2014, enough to potentially land two maximum-salaried all-stars. Combine that with the blossoming pieces already in Magic uniforms and Martins is confident that the franchise’s future is on the right track.

``The fans can expect the same systematic growth that we experienced over the course of this year,’’ Martins said. ``I have been so pleased with our basketball operations staff. The transactions that we have made have been successful. We’ve picked up some very good, young talent. That’s the way we’ll continue to build this roster – through the draft and through additional transactions in the future. And free agency will be a part of that as well. This summer we don’t have the (salary cap) room to make significant changes, but (2014) summer we will. It really will be about putting all of the right pieces together. And I think our fans will continue to see vast improvement.’’

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