Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
A historic impending draft — combined with intriguing free agent opportunities during the summer — has the faithful fans in Orlando uttering two of the ugliest words in sports.
Every strategy within the organization has been put in place to culminate with an explosion back into success. That culmination might indeed arrive next year, or perhaps the city might have to endure a few more seasons such as the current one. But you get the sense that the organization’s patience, as a whole, will pay off eventually.
The draft has its own pitfalls, monsters, and glories. But with all the financial freedom the Magic will soon have, consider the vast, terrifying expanse that will be free agency. Another pair of words paints the picture well for a Magic fan.
Yes, he was a solid contributor at times for the team. But his time in Orlando is a perfect reflection of the reality that no matter how much care you put into building a fire, the weather above is completely out of your control.
An All-NBA player arrives
Drafted third overall by the Pistons in 1994 out of Duke, Hill spent all six of his seasons in Detroit on either the All-Rookie or All-NBA (1st or 2nd) team. He did just about everything well, averaging 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.0 assists a game during his Pistons tenure. He averaged a 22.4 PER in those six seasons. At his peak, he was generally regarded as a top five player in the league.
So when the opportunity to sign Hill as a free agent came in 2000, the Magic snatched him up. They brought him in by sign-and-trade, thinking they had loaded their artillery for the new millennium. It’s a move you’d make just about every time.
But we know the rest of the story.
Six rainy years
We won’t call it the “Grant Hill Era.” Most of that time belonged to Tracy McGrady. But Hill’s financial presence and physical non-presence went a long way in defining the make-up of the team.
I mean no disrespect. The man has always been an athlete I appreciate. And this was also a case of continual injuries over a talent lapse or any kind of ego obstacle.
But, as the wise ones say, “It is what it is.” He topped the fewest amount of games (50) he’d played in Detroit only twice in Orlando, which doesn’t amount to much considering that season was severely shortened by a lockout. When you look at games played in the stats column and you see the numbers “4,” “14,” and “21,” it takes you back to those frustrating years.
It is possible to overestimate how disappointing his impact was. He had a solid All-Star season in 2004-05 and played in 65 games his last year with the team. It’s not as if he never played a game.
But he never equaled even his rookie points output in any of his years in Orlando and only played in the playoffs one year — a quick sweep suffered at the hands of his former Pistons team.
All during those six rainy years, fans watched as he was paid more steadily each season, up to $16.9 million in the last one, all as the returns for the team were at times diminishing.
It’s very telling that when he was finally a free agent afterwards, he signed with Phoenix for a salary amount that had plummeted from $16.9 million to $1.8 million a year.
My only point in bringing the man up again at this point on the Magic timeline is to stress the mystery of success and the futility that sometimes accompanies blame.
GM Rob Hennigan and the rest of the front office have, from my perspective, done what is necessary to re-sculpt the team they are in charge of. But by this summer, there will be a lot of money to throw at high-profile free agents, and it has to be spent somewhere. Bringing in cornerstones for your roster requires financial risk, and if the skies don’t stay clear, you could end up with players that disappoint and no more money left for immediately addressing the problem.
That’s pretty scary.
I don’t envy the position whatsoever. It’s apparent that a big free agent will more than likely be required to vault this team to where it wants to be, whether or not it receives the top pick in next year’s draft. But barring one of the superstars deciding to jump on with a young Magic team, you’re looking at luring someone like Luol Deng or a somewhat less-proven Evan Turner to town. They should bolster the team, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be worth what it will take to rope them in.
2015 sounds a little more promising, with Kyrie Irving, Marc Gasol and others potentially available. But the same goes there. You have to throw a lot at them, and that limits your ability to bring in multiple signings and puts a chokehold on your margin for error.
And there’s always the chance that all that money could go to a current stud who will breathe the Disney air and somehow become abnormally fragile.
You just never know. Some things are beyond the ability of good planning to eliminate. And if it all goes wrong, you’re looking at another rebuild after the first never got a few feet off the ground.
Then again, the strategies of good front office minds might pay off on every front. It’s the beauty of the game. You don’t know what will happen.
You have to watch and, ever so nervously, see.