ORLANDO, Fla. — As a team with a first-year head coach and a first-year general manager that finished the NBA season with five first-year players, the Orlando Magic were certainly expected to go through some growing pains.
And to be sure, the bulk of the past four months were painful. As one of their rookies, backup center Kyle O’Quinn, put it succinctly, if not quite elegantly: “Losing sucks.”
But the Magic would prefer to look beyond the 20-62 record and see ample reason to believe things will soon improve.
“We feel good about how we’re positioned for the future,” general manager Rob Hennigan said Wednesday after he and coach Jacque Vaughn held their end-of-season exit interviews. “We feel good about the players we have. But every man knows we have a lot of work to do still. And we’re excited about that. We know we have a challenge ahead of us. We know we have to get better. We believe we will get better. And the group that we were able to establish this season is a real good starting point for us.”
When the season tipped off Nov. 2, Nikola Vucevic was an unproven 22-year-old center, Maurice Harkless had no training camp or preseason because of surgery for a sports hernia, and Tobias Harris was a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Little did anyone, even Hennigan, know how pivotal the three of them would become in the post-Dwight Howard era.
Although Vucevic didn’t make everyone entirely forget about Howard, he ended up being one of seven players in the league to average double figures in points and rebounds. Harkless made 59 starts before so much as reaching his 20th birthday, and Harris was a revelation in the 27 games he played after being acquired in a trade that sent sixth man and fan favorite J.J. Redick to the Bucks.
“The thing I like that I did this year is that I’ve gotten better each month as the season went on,” Vucevic said. “I stayed consistent, and I stayed healthy, for the most part.”
He was in the minority. The Magic’s injury problems began on opening night, when Jameer Nelson strained his right hamstring and Hedo Turkoglu fractured his left hand. Nelson wound up missing 26 games with an assortment of ailments, while Turkoglu — like Nelson, one of the few remaining ties to the 2009 Eastern Conference championship team — never was a factor.
Things began to unravel when starting power forward Glen Davis sprained his left shoulder Dec. 19 during a victory over Washington. At that point, the Magic had a 12-13 record, including a resounding win at Los Angeles over Howard and the Lakers. While Davis was able to return in mid-January, he fractured his left foot nine games later and was lost for the season.
“Part of the year, we showed that we could compete and play with the best of them,” Davis said.
“Did we anticipate having the injuries that we had and the multiple lineups throughout the course of the season? No,” Vaughn said. “Was it a challenge? Yes. But frustration? I wouldn’t use those words. Overall we got better as a team. And that was a goal that we set at the beginning of the year.”
The Magic dropped 16 of their final 18 games as injuries to Nelson and Arron Afflalo forced Vaughn to go with a collection of guards who might not be with the team come next season.
“You have to go through these experiences out there,” said Afflalo, who averaged 16.5 points before going down with a strained right hamstring. “All we can do is try to learn from what happened this year to move forward into next year.”
A lineup of Nelson, Afflalo, Davis, Vucevic and either Harris or Harkless would appear formidable, and that’s not even taking into account the Magic will pick anywhere from first to fifth in the upcoming draft because of their record. But there are no guarantees that Hennigan, who saw first-hand in Oklahoma City how the Thunder rebuilt from scratch, won’t make the Magic an even younger team.
“You always need to have veterans on the team,” Hennigan said. “You have to be careful of being too young; you have to be careful of being too old. So there’s a balancing act that you have to find.”
“It’s not my place to even think about that,” Davis said. “My place is to worry about Glen Davis and how he can help others. That’s my only focus.”
The sooner the Magic can put their first lottery-bound season since 2006 in the rearview mirror, the better.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Harkless said. “And you could see that just by the last games we played against those teams that are in the playoffs and how different it was. It’s probably going to take a little while to get there. It’s a process. But with work and consistency, we’ll be able to get there.”
That’s kind of talk is music to Hennigan’s ears.
“We’re still a ways out,” he said. “But I would think we’re a little bit closer than maybe the perception tells us.”