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Tackling (latest) rebuild means no quick fixes for Orlando Magic

New front office parsing through roster to find way back into East's upper crust

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

They’re now in the throes of yet another rebuild since the “Dwightmare of 2012,” and for those counting at home, this means the Orlando Magic still lead the league in attempts, not makes.

Will they get the reset right this time? That’s up to new basketball ops chief Jeff Weltman and new GM John Hammond, the surgical team busy checking the body for any parts worth salvaging as they move forward. It’s time, again, to develop the young and steer away from moves that’ll put the future in jeopardy or cause the team to take a step backward.

Perhaps more than most in the NBA, the Magic lack the identity and pop needed to carve a nice niche and begin rising in the league’s pecking order. What’s especially disturbing is they haven’t made up much ground, if any, since separating themselves from Dwight Howard, their last meaningful franchise piece and link to the good times.

It’s almost six years now and there’s no All-Star or apparent young beast in the making on the roster, or anyone who’ll make a trade feel like a franchise-changing blockbuster. Those are the tools needed to roust confidence in the blueprint and convince folks the club is on the up-and-up.

That’s the challenge this season, to once and for all put something in place that gets traction and makes a solid impression. Hammond is a seasoned basketball guy with successful stops in Detroit and Milwaukee. Weltman was the right-hand man of the respected Masai Ujiri in Toronto and Denver. They put the Magic in experienced hands. The catch, though, is the new guys need patience and time, too.

For now, the Magic own the award for surprise of the early season, after they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road by 21 on Saturday and, for a fleeting moment, gave their fans the hazy memory of when Orlando, not Cleveland, was the kingpin of the conference.

But after those peak Howard years and great returns, the Magic failed to upgrade the talent around him. Howard and ex-coach Stan Van Gundy had their fallout, then the Magic lost both of them, and now this.

Right now, it’s the time for us to have patience and try to learn as much as you can about your team first.”

Magic GM John Hammond

This would normally all be OK (because every good run eventually comes to an end), yet the Magic have lost a half-decade under former GM Rob Hennigan. Essentially, the Magic are starting over. Again.

When the new regime arrived last spring and conducted an in-house inspection, they saw what everyone knew, that this would be no quick fix.

“Jeff and I both liked players on the roster,” Hammond said. “We realized we had players who had value to us and value around the league. We understand it’s going to take some time. Do we want to win today? Of course. But not doing so at the sacrifice of the future. We want to make sure, as we try to build this, we build something that can sustain winning and reach the goal of playing for a championship.”

While Hammond and Weltman liked the roster enough to refrain from wholesale changes right away, their actions spoke louder: There were no contract extensions at the deadline for Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, a pair of 23-and-unders who normally would inspire confidence as former top-10 picks.

To be fair, only fellow 2014 first-round picks Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Gary Harris snagged extensions. It makes sense for the Magic to wait, protect their salary-cap room and reassess next summer when the two hit restricted free agency and get a better idea of their true value.

Payton hasn’t shown enough consistency as a shooter or playmaker to be the long-term answer at point guard, and the bigger surprise is Gordon, an immensely-gifted athlete who’s still working on being an immensely gifted basketball player.

Gordon isn’t a volume scorer or rebounder, but has done just enough of both in his three years to keep planting hope that he’ll be more than just the best Slam Dunk Contest runner-up we’ve ever seen.

With Gordon, the questions are many. Is he a power forward or small forward? Is he a classic ‘tweener? Can he ever average 20 points despite a 29.7 percent career mark on 3-pointers? Gordon was helped by the in-season trade of Serge Ibaka in 2016-17 and, for now, is fitting at power forward with solid production so far.

“He’s an improved player,” said Hammond. “Every player should have the goal to come back better every year. Players should come back and improve at least one area of their game. Sometimes it’s a major and sometimes it’s not. One thing Aaron has done is improve his improvement shooting and his range. He has the ability to be a very good player. He’s already a premier athlete in this league. To play above the rim, speed and quickness, he has those God-given traits and his skills are improving.”

That’s really what Weltman, Hammond and coach Frank Vogel will do this season: See who’s staying and who’s going among the young core, and how much veteran carryover from the last regime is worth salvaging.

One in particular is rim protector Bismack Biyombo, a desperation signing by Hennigan two summers ago with a cap-clogging four-year, $17-million-a-season deal. Orlando rolled the dice on Biyombo, thinking his 2015-16 season and playoff performances were career-changers. Instead, Biyombo has failed to duplicate that in Orlando so far.

On the flip side of the economic divide is Jonathon Simmons, an energy guy poached from the San Antonio Spurs this summer at a very reasonable $18 million over three years, proof that Weltman and Hammond are careful not to threaten their most valuable resource: Future cap room.

“Look, I think it’s important to have patience in trying to make some decisions,” Hammond said. “We don’t overreact. If an opportunity presents itself, or opens today and in the future, we look at it. Right now, it’s the time for us to have patience and try to learn as much as you can about your team first.”

The real goal is to nail the high No. 1 picks that will likely be coming Orlando’s way, or any pick for that matter. Hammond was in Milwaukee when the Bucks took Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick, and as we’ve see, the correct call in the Draft (and a bit of luck) can make all the difference.

“I would be disingenuous if we knew he would be this type of player,” Hammond said. “He’s got extremely high character, and he works extremely hard and he’s got great gifts. You put all those three together and that’s the formula for success. Milwaukee is excited about him and the team is in position to move forward.”

It’s far too early to tell if Hammonds’ first draft decision in Orlando will fall anywhere in that same zip code, though he’s high on Jonathan Isaac who’s just 20 and brings the same length and basketball instincts. The immediate issue is Isaac getting enough playing time on a front line with Simmons and Gordon and touches with Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic; other lottery picks don’t have that problem.

“His strength is going to be an issue early in this first season, but he does have a good feel for the game,” Hammond said. “He knows how to play, can handle it, can pass it, can shoot it some. You can put him on the floor without hurting your team. Frank has shown that confidence in him.”

The NBA team that owes its history to being lucky in the draft lottery needs a repeat of that, along with some front office skill, to recharge a franchise that’s fallen off radar. Since leaving the Magic, Dwight Howard has changed teams four times, roughly matching the number of Magic rebuilds. Coincidence, no?

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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