Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
Tonight’s game between the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder is very likely to end a certain way. The Thunder are one of the league’s best teams, perhaps the only reasonable candidate, aside from the San Antonio Spurs, to topple the Heat from their throne. The Magic are starting rookies and sophomores while working under the 20-win threshold. There’s room for variance in sports, but we’re unlikely to find it here.
However, as the Magic take the court in Oklahoma City, they will be facing off against more than just an overwhelming opponent. For the Magic, the Thunder are the goal line, the final realization of a plan that will hopefully lead the franchise back to better days.
When Rob Hennigan was hired as the Magic’s general manager this summer, it was a fairly clear declaration of intent. Hennigan had grown under Sam Presti’s supervision in the OKC greenhouse, where the optimal model for rebuilding an NBA franchise from the ground was re-established: hoard draft picks and young prospects who will hopefully pan out, keep maximum financial flexibility, avoid the questionable temptation of signing average veterans to long-term deals, and put your resources into player development. Oh, yeah, and luck into a superstar or two (or three, and trade the third away).
It’s that last part that is the most crucial piece of the puzzle. Fittingly, it’s also the hardest to emulate. It is perhaps somewhat unfair that Hennigan’s execution will ultimately be judged on his ability to stand idly by while ping pong balls are sorted out in the correct way in the correct year, but such is the nature of the business.
Meanwhile, as the Magic wait for a Kevin Durant or a Russell Westbrook to fall into their laps, they have already made several moves in the right direction since their last superstar — Dwight Howard — has left.
The Magic have already acquired three future first-round draft picks through the Dwight trade — Denver’s or New York’s (whichever is lower) in 2014, and one each from Philadelphia and the Lakers that could come by as early as 2015 and 2017, but are more likely to drag out through the next decade. That may not sound like much, but as the latest trade deadline has shown, the new CBA has caused first-round picks to spike in value, to the point that the Magic themselves couldn’t find a late first-rounder in return for J.J. Redick.
Whether this is a sane method of prioritizing by NBA general managers is beside the point — the market is only as strong as the buyers dictate, and if first-round picks are worth a lot, then the Magic have a lot. Combine that with the Magic’s own draft picks, which will presumably fall very high in the upcoming drafts, and the franchise has a chance to add a lot of young talent.
And while the team hasn’t won much this season, that talent will be added to some tangible goodies already on the roster.
Nikola Vucevic still struggles defensively, but is an elite rebounder and can be seasoned into an above-average starting center if everything goes right.
The forward triumvirate of Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Andrew Nicholson has looked very good since the trade deadline, and while none of them seem to have star talent, they could develop into good rotation players (or hopefully even more) for years to come.
And much like the Thunder did with Scott Brooks, the Magic have committed to a young coach in Jacque Vaughn, who so far has done a good job of reaching his players, and getting them to give effort and commitment despite an untenable situation.
Where Hennigan still has some work to do is in the checkbooks. In the early Presti years, the Thunder did well to stay well under the salary cap, using the extra space to acquire Eric Maynor (by taking on Matt Harpring), jump up in the draft in 2010 (for Cole Aldrich, who didn’t pan out), acquire the pick that became Serge Ibaka (by taking on Kurt Thomas), and lock Nick Collison for very cheap yearly salaries by giving him a large signing bonus on his 2011 extension.
This sort of flexibility goes a long way in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Magic don’t have much in that regard, with large deals still attached to the likes of Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu, Al Harrington, Glen Davis, and Jameer Nelson.
As those deals expire over the next two seasons, Hennigan will need to be very careful with his spending. There have been rumblings of the Magic shooting for the 2014 free agency class, but unless a bonafide superstar becomes available, keeping the gunpowder dry is probably the smart move for a franchise that still won’t be ready to compete for much by then.
The Magic have hardly been flawless so far. Even though Vucevic has exceeded expectations, I believe it’s still fair to question whether the Dwight trade was the optimal move available.
Choosing to give Jameer Nelson a three-year deal, even with the third only partially guaranteed ($2 million), over the four-year deal Ryan Anderson got from New Orleans remains bewildering. Unless you subscribe to the school of thought that Hennigan will waive Nelson to maximize his ability to acquire a superstar (or two) from the 2014 free agency class. Anderson is the type of efficient young talent you hope to luck into when you acquire late-round picks and he was already in Orlando’s hands.
And of course, none of this is relevant in the big-scale NBA picture until a star is unearthed. Balanced young teams can only get so far.
Less than a year in, though, there definitely seems to be a correct direction with correct management. After years of Otis Smith and Howard holding them hostage, that’s all Magic fans can ask for.