Five summers ago, the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard, their decorated yet problematic big man, in what was the most seismic move by the franchise since Shaquille O’Neal departed in free agency and left Penny Hardaway hanging more than a decade earlier.
At the time, the new general manager, Rob Hennigan, said: “Are we taking a step back? Absolutely, we are. But we’re taking a step back with a vision.”
It didn’t require binoculars to see what that vision was: Orlando was starting over with youth and instantly began planting seeds that would hopefully cause a franchise reinvention. Building with young players and lottery picks is neither a novel concept nor a faulty one. The best way to get the next Howard is through the Draft, and cheap young talent doesn’t ruin salary-cap flexibility.
The risk lies with development and patience: How rapidly will those players reach their promise, and how long are you willing to wait before writing them off? Three seasons? Five? Longer?
It is now 2016 and the Magic are still waiting to return to the playoffs (which they made six straight seasons with Howard) and are still searching for anyone resembling an All-Star (let alone a franchise player). The signs aren’t terribly promising either will happen this season. The club sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Only Nikola Vucevic (11.6 rpg), Elfrid Payton (5.4 apg) and Bismack Biyombo (1.6 bpg) rank in the top 30 in any major statistical category.
There’s still time in 2016-17, but the early returns of the coach Frank Vogel era bears the clanky sound of a Biyombo free throw.
Based on that alone, the Magic will either require a second helping of patience, or a tweaking of the blueprint, or maybe a bit of
both. In the meantime, here’s what they need to ask themselves:
Why isn’t Aaron Gordon, a freakishly athletic forward once projected as the next Blake Griffin, showing more glimpses of being a breakout player by now?
Is it time to see what Vucevic, who at 26 has likely reached his ceiling, can fetch in a trade?
Can Payton be a true point guard for the future … or is he lacking the specific tools of that trade?
Did they overestimate the value of Biyombo, a raw defensive enforcer who leveraged a tremendous playoff run with the Raptors last spring into $17 million a season?
Anyone’s initial assessment of the makeup of the Magic would be positive. There are no dead spots, the average age of the playing rotation is in the mid-20s and the salary cap is manageable. Vogel had a very underrated run as coach of the Indiana Pacers and carries respect in league coaching circles. Still, the Magic haven’t recovered from losing Howard and the players taken in the lottery are, at best, a work in progress.
The best of the young bunch was shooting guard Victor Oladipo and after weighing his strengths and weaknesses — explosive player at times, yet short on ball handling and shooting — they packaged him and the 11th pick (Domantas Sabonis) for Serge Ibaka on Draft night. That was a sign Orlando wanted veteran help and also a chance to shore up its defense. It also showed that patience has its limits.
Here’s a status report on the Magic’s key young players:
Vucevic: He arrived in the Howard trade and became a radar player almost immediately, showing solid rebounding instincts and a soft touch from 15 feet in. which compensated for his so-so defense. He has a team-friendly contract (two years, $25 million remaining), so is the time to move him now, next summer … or not at all? After starting the season slowly, he wasn’t happy at being one of three players demoted in a starting-lineup shakeup Sunday by Vogel.
Biyombo (24 years old). First, he was a mild bust in Charlotte, where the Bobcats/Hornets lost patience with the former No. 7 overall pick in 2011. Biyombo then signed with Toronto as a free agent and, last spring, was a playoff force after yanking rebounds, blocking shots and sending chills through the spine of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals. Biyombo hit free agency just when salaries soared and cashed in beyond his dreams. But he’s getting only 24 minutes per game because he’s all thumbs when the ball’s thrown his way. If Vucevic is traded, will Biyombo flourish with 30-plus minutes, or will his weaknesses surface and hamper him even more?
Evan Fournier (24). He’s a hidden gem and the lone scorer on an offensively-challenged team who can create on his own, and has reached double figures in all but one game this season. Fournier is often streaky (just 42.5 percent shooting so far this season) yet the Magic can live with it for now, until they find a better primary option.
Payton (22). He was benched in favor of DJ Augustin in Vogel’s shakeup and the Magic hope that causes a shakeup within Payton. He was the starting point guard for much of the last 2 1/2 seasons and showed only mild growth in terms of decision-making and creating shots for teammates. Can he take the next step?
Gordon (21). Put him in the Dunk Contest and he’s in elite company. At 6-foot-9, his speed and leaping ability are beyond most players his size. He hasn’t managed the rest of his game, though, and a low point came Sunday when he was inserted as a starter and went scoreless in 31 minutes, missing all 12 shots. Gordon’s 37.6 percent shooting and 4.8 rpg are both steps down from last season even though he’s playing a career-high in minutes (26.8). He’s a good kid and hard worker who needs to be Vogel’s top project (if he isn’t already).
Mario Hezonja (21). He dropped enough hints in his rookie season to give the impression that he’d be a good sixth-man-in-training and backup to Fournier this season. But he’s not even in the rotation and slowly racking up DNP-CDs under Vogel. His 30.9 percent shooting (and 17.2 percent on 3-pointers) has something to do with that.
The Magic are last in shooting percentage, Offensive Rating, Effective Field Goal percentage, True Shooting percentage and, until a few weeks ago, were an average defensive team at best. This isn’t the start that anyone envisioned when Vogel was hired, Ibaka came in a trade and Biyombo was signed. They also assumed Payton, Hezonja and especially Gordon would develop into solid and above-average producers, and they still may this season. After all, it’s still November.
What this has become is a waiting game, as painful as it seems at times. The Magic remain in a transition period and that means they can’t make hasty or snap judgments during a development stage. They’d rather not give up on someone like Gordon too early and watch him go somewhere else and haunt them.
But when will their continued patience receive a solid show of faith?
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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