Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
At 4-6 on the year, the Orlando Magic have again started hot after most preseason prognosticators lumped them in with the Celtics, the Suns, the Jazz, the Sixers and other like-minded franchises attempting to turn things around through the 2014 NBA Draft.
The term “tank” has an odious stank to it that most basketball fans find putrid. This is understandable. Nobody wants their team to try and lose games, since it flies in the face of everything we hold dear about sports and competition in general. That long preamble aside, the Magic really need to start losing more if they’re going to get the best odds in next year’s draft.
That’s not to say this year’s crop of youngsters, plus a few mended or mending veterans — who are, with the exception of Jameer Nelson, all in their 20s — aren’t super fun to watch. No, this scrappy bunch has been incredible to watch grow, and they’ll continue to grow, but they shouldn’t accelerate at a pace that disallows any draft lottery contention.
Is the current lineup good enough to compete with the best in the East? No, and it’s fair to say they won’t ever be, even if Oladipo fulfills his promise, Vucevic continues to blossom, and we stop waiting for Tobias Harris to come back.
The Magic need to get better and it’s preferable to snag one of the exciting college freshman rather than a trading away some cap space to sign a second-tier player from next summer’s free agent class. Rookie deals are a huge luxury because of their controlled costs. This point becomes more acute when you take into account the summer of 2015 when most of the roster is up for an extension or in-line for a new deal.
But how to tank without pissing fans off while instilling a culture of losing? Purposefully losing games just isn’t the way to do it. Even though a lot of GMs hope their teams start losing this year, not a single one is going to make this overt. Rob Hennigan is the same way, and so is coach Jacque Vaughn, who has done an exemplary job with personnel that ranges towards the lower end in age and skill level.
There are a few steps the Magic could take to improve their chances in next year’s draft lottery without forfeiting their competitiveness.
Dangle Afflalo as a trade chip, but only for a first round pick
Arron Afflalo just set a career-high the other night, and his stock has never been higher. While we’ve already gone over why he can’t be the first offensive option for a team, he’s made that proclamation a tad dicier this season.
Through nine games this season, Afflalo is averaging 21.3 points per game, and shooting better than 48 percent from the field and an incredible 52 percent on 3-pointers. That latter number comes even while Afflalo has taken nearly six 3-pointers a game.
Combine the scoring with 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game, and Afflalo resembles one of the elite shooting guards in the league through less than an eighth of the season. A sliver, sure, but teams have to be high on him right now. Just look at that 21.4 PER and .621 True Shooting percentage! Those are both career-highs for Afflalo.
Try to trade Nelson, too
Jameer is only averaging 31 minutes a night through 10 games, and he doesn’t look very good. He has a .489 True Shooting percentage, and averaging a career-high 2.8 turnovers a night. Nelson’s performance isn’t going to wow any contenders in need of a backup point guard, but that’s what Hennigan should be aiming for.
On a positive note for a lottery contender as well is Nelson’s contract is guaranteed for only $2 million after this season, and teams might be willing to take on the $8.6 million remaining for the 2013-14 season in favor of shedding him this summer before the free agency bonanza. Utah — which could use a point guard (Jamaal Tinsley?!) — and Philadelphia might jump at the chance to get even slimmer under the salary cap.
Play Oladipo at point guard more
As mentioned previously, it’s actually a good sign Dipo is turning the ball over. It shows he’s not afraid to attack, and that he’s still growing into his athleticism.
But why is there a reluctance to play Dipo more with the starting lineup? Vaughn goes with three guards — Afflalo matched up against an opponent’s small forward — more so than with Dipo at point. This will give Victor more reps running the team, which is not an easy thing to master and will lead to even more turnovers.
So what? This is a blueprint for tanking, not succeeding, but playing Oladipo more at the point is also helpful. It’s throwing a Lamb to the Tygers, but Blake only wrote his Songs of Experience after he’d written Songs of Innocence.
Oladipo has to take his lumps first, and this is win-win in that the Magic probably won’t win as much with him figuring out how to run the offense. Though any excuse to get E’Twaun Moore off the court doesn’t necessarily tie in with tanking.
Play Vucevic less
Big men break down, especially if they’re pushed too hard before they fully mature into their bodies. Knees buckle and shoulders swell. It’s the price you pay when you’re larger and more athletic than 99.9 percent of the population.
Running up and down a hardwood court every single night and during the day isn’t a normal routine for the body, even the professional athlete’s body, which is why rest is so important. Vuc is still a swarthy 23-year-old Montenegrin, but if he is to be the future of Orlando’s frontcourt, he should be eased into it.
This is tricky since benching the youngster would raise some eyebrows in the league office, but keep him near 30 minutes a game, and if people complain, point to his rather disappointing plus/minus figures. The Magic are 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Vucevic is on the floor, per NBA.com. Obviously this is a small sample size, and the Magic are inevitably better with him on the court, but any little bit helps when you’re actively trying to lose more.
Listen, this wasn’t fun to write. In a perfect world, the plucky Magic should do everything in their power to get wins. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world constrained by a collective bargaining agreement that forces smaller market teams to shed players (ahem, James Harden) they would prefer to keep.
The outrageously hyped college class of 2014 has up to seven possible All-Stars in its mix, and that means franchise-changing talents. If the Magic are going to nab one in that top-7 coterie, they’ll need to start losing more.
The good news is that next year this crap ends.