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The Orlando Magic currently sit 8.5 games out of the Eastern playoff picture with 36 games left on their schedule. They have the league’s third-worst record (14-34) and sixth-worst efficiency differential (-5.1 points per 100 possessions), per NBA.com.
The stingy defense that fueled their early season success has all but dissipated. The Magic have allowed an astonishing 111.9 points per 100 possessions over their last 23 games as the team has gone 2-21 in that stretch, per NBA.com. To put that number in perspective, the Charlotte Bobcats’ league-worst defense allows 108.3 points per 100 possessions.
It begs the question — is it time for Orlando to tank?
It seems somewhat absurd to ask if a 14-34 team should aim lower, but the idea of tanking in the NBA isn’t limited just to losing. From roster moves to coaching decisions, there are a host of options that would be immediately hurtful yet beneficial to the long-term fortunes of the franchise.
Here’s a look at some moves Orlando can make that would fall under the tanking umbrella and how prudent making those moves would be at the present.
Play the youngsters
Jacque Vaughn has done a fairly decent job giving future pieces burn so far, but there is still more room to grow.
The linchpin of Vaughn’s developmental plan so far has been second-year center Nikola Vucevic, who has started every game and leads the team with a 17.9 Player Efficiency Rating. Vuc has already improved by leaps and bounds since last season, and Vaughn deserves a lot of credit for it.
However, when it comes to the Magic’s next two long-term prospects, there is more that could be done. Maurice Harkless went through a short stint in the doghouse during January, which is borderline indefensible for a team that was already far out of playoff reach by then. The desired trend is the one we’ve seen in the past four games, when he played 30 or more minutes in each contest, including a very impressive showing against Milwaukee on Saturday (19 points, 14 rebounds, and four steals — all career-highs).
Even with Hedo Turkoglu back in the rotation, there is nobody on the roster that should take minutes from Harkless at this point.
The same applies to Andrew Nicholson, whose minutes actually went down from December (15.3 minutes per game) to January (13.8). Even worse, Nicholson only played 15.6 minutes per game during the 11-game stretch that Glen Davis missed spanning the end of December and the beginning of January with a sprained left shoulder.
Davis is back on the shelf again — this time potentially for the season. With all due respect to Josh McRoberts and Gustavo Ayon, Nicholson should be on the court for the majority of games, even if playing him next to Vucevic creates defensive problems. Again, it’s not like there are major solutions elsewhere.
Harkless and Nicholson project to be huge parts of Orlando’s future. Call it tanking or call it development, but they have to get major minutes for this team.
Trade J.J. Redick
Outside of Orlando, it’s become a matter of when, not if, the Magic ship out Redick and his expiring contract. This has led to somewhat of a backlash among Magic fans who have understandably become emotionally tied to a player who has spent his entire career in Orlando, going from an overmatched one-trick pony to an excellent all-around contributor and a mainstay in the community.
However, the benefits of keeping Redick around are slim-to-none. There is no guarantee that Redick re-signs with the team if given the chance. Even if that is where his heart lies, he will be 29 by the time the season ends. Combined with Arron Afflalo, bringing Redick back would give the Magic two shooting guards who will be on the type of long-term, above mid-level deals that provide the least value in today’s NBA and both of whom project to be at the tail ends of their primes by the time the Magic get back to contending for anything meaningful.
Given Redick’s contractual status, the best value would come from trading him to a semi-contender desperate for shooting.
The Grizzlies have a trade exception from the Rudy Gay trade that they could use to swallow J.J. Redick for a legitimately intriguing youngster in the newly acquired Ed Davis and a higher-risk prospect, who has nonetheless shown some tantalizing court vision, in Tony Wroten.
The Denver Nuggets have a litany of young swingmen on rookie deals (Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton, and Quincy Miller) that could constitute a smart gamble for a team like the Magic.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are literally the worst three-point shooting team in history and have Derrick Williams, who is but 18 months removed from people wondering if he should have been picked above Kyrie Irving. If a first round pick is available somehow, somewhere, all the better.
The point is that sentimentality for Redick is understandable and encouraged, but the long-term prospects of the franchise would be maximized by moving him when his value is at its highest.
Keep your eyes open
The Magic have a few more serviceable veterans who, despite possessing longer deals than Redick, could contribute to a contender. Arron Afflalo sits atop this list as a solid shooting guard on a decent, if not reasonable deal, but I can envision scenarios in which Jameer Nelson or Gustavo Ayon net an asset as well.
I separated these guys from Redick because they aren’t on expiring deals, which means they’re both less valuable to teams looking to save cash and aren’t a risk to walk if they aren’t dealt. Still, though there’s no urgency, Rob Hennigan would do well to keep his eyes open. On the off chance that a high pick or a promising youngster presents itself, there should be no hesitation to pounce.
Take on money for assets
The Magic are still in the first year of their rebuilding phase and, as such, lack the cap space that a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers can utilize to buy draft picks by taking on bad contracts.
Still, they have some limited monetary assets: only $6 million of Hedo Turkoglu’s massive deal is guaranteed next season and the final two years on Al Harrington’s deal are only 50 percent guaranteed as well. The value that each of these could net in a trade is limited, but it is material nonetheless.
Over the past few years, the going rate for a first round pick has been one terrible contract — the Warriors got Festus Ezeli for taking on Richard Jefferson, the Bobcats own a future first round pick from Detroit because they were cool with Ben Gordoning for a bit, the Cavs struck gold with Kyrie Irving after the Clippers surrendered an unprotected first round pick to get rid of Baron Davis, and so on.
These deals aren’t always available — don’t sit at home waiting for the Wizards to give you Bradley Beal just for paying Emeka Okafor next year — but they could be. By keeping their eye on the long-term benefits and not the short-term roster or books, the Magic could capitalize.
Scour the D-League or waiver wire
The Magic already have two players who were signed as low-risk free agents in E’Twaun Moore and DeQuan Jones. Whether or not they will be part of the franchise going forward, there was zero risk in bringing them in — anything tangible is gravy.
Worst case scenario: the Magic give minutes to bad players, lose a lot of games, and get more ping pong balls. Also known as the 2011-12 Warriors. Just look at this box score. It’s hideous. Best case scenario: you find yourself a valuable contributor at a great price.