Win-now Orlando Magic abandon youth movement with lineup changes

The Orlando Magic hoped to build through the draft into a sustainable winner. Trying desperately to make the Playoffs, they are pushing that youth aside.

The Orlando Magic entered this season stuck in the purgatory of a rebuild.

It had been four years and the team had yet to eclipse the .500 mark or make the Playoffs. The team, its fans and its management were getting antsy to win. Yet, they were still a young team. A team full of players high on potential but not quite sure of who they are and where they fit in the league. The Magic’s core players — the young players they invested seasons to draft — needed some more time.

Orlando was not waiting, though. It was going to take that step forward. The Magic were going to go for wins first and foremost. And with that comes some sacrifice.

Despite continued faith in players like Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, winning mattered more. And when the Magic struggled to win and struggled to form their identity, development took a back seat.

Friday against the Utah Jazz, that sacrifice and the goals for the Magic became all the clearer.

Coach Frank Vogel made the surprising decision to replace Aaron Gordon in the starting lineup with veteran Jeff Green. It was a move to add some more stability to the lineup and rely more heavily on the team’s veterans.

“Rely more heavily on our veterans,” Vogel said as the reason for the lineup change. “It wasn’t anything that Aaron Gordon did. I considered leaving Elfrid out and leaving him in. I wanted to separate them a little bit and have them each play with four veterans for most of the game.  Pull Mario out of the rotation, hopefully not for long. When you are struggling, you turn to your vets.”

The Magic had big visions for young players like Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja. They had already parted ways with their top draft pick in Victor Oladipo in favor of a veteran whom the Magic thought could change the game. They parted ways with young players like Tobias Harris to get older and more experienced.

Winning was paramount. They knew they needed to add veterans to make the team more successful. But they wanted their young players to be part of it.

The success or failure of this team rested on the development of these young players — particularly the Magic’s 2014 first round picks, Gordon and Payton. They needed these two players specifically to begin cashing in on their potential to reach the Playoffs.

A decision to take one of them out of the starting lineup does have something of a feeling of conceding their development is not going as planned. Turning to the veteran players has a feeling of admitting the steady hand of a veteran is more reliable than the potential of the player.

Gordon, to his credit, took the “demotion” in stride. And he played well with the second unit, seemingly liberated by the space created from the other rotation move Vogel made to play Damjan Rudez at the 4.

“Jeff is a veteran guy,” Gordon said. “He has been around the league more years than I have been here. He helps everyone get on the same page out there. But for me, whatever helps us win. I’ve said that since the day I came here. And I have always played that way. If that’s the lineup that is going to help us win games, so be it. Let’s run with it. That’s how I am and that’s how I will always be.”

Jeff Green’s contributions this year have been marginal. Gordon still has more potential and has played better on the defensive end — his 1.5 defensive box plus-minus tells part of the story as does his sub-40 percent field goal shooting on shots he defends. Gordon is not scoring at the rate the Magic likely want either. He has struggled to work off the dribble with the lack of space with the first unit.

Green does not do much to improve that. He is shooting worse from the field this season.

The move, in other words, was really puzzling. Especially considering the former fourth overall pick has so much promise and potential still to realize. It would seem the Magic would want to feature him and foster his growth by showing confidence in him.

Going to the bench may not be a demotion — and the early returns were it did open things up. But the optics of taking the Magic’s most high-profile player to the bench were not good.

Even the alternative move of sending Payton to the bench for D.J. Augustin has the same concern. This is a player the Magic invested a lot in and fostered for his growth. And Payton has struggled to perform. His defense continues to lag behind. His shooting has improved, but not anywhere near where it needs to be. Teams ignore him on the 3-point line.

There is undeniable pressure on this entire team to win and win now. The Magic are done waiting and demand production for playing time.

That means young players like Gordon, Payton and Hezonja, who is at least temporarily out of the rotation, have to perform even if they are not ready.

The Magic wanted to make this rebuild through the draft. Their draft picks have slowly either proven themselves not to be what the Magic needed or still too raw to make any determination. In the meantime, the Magic’s goals changed. The pressure to win grew.

And that meant development took a back seat. The players in the Magic’s rotation are either ready or they are not. And Orlando had to turn its test in, ready or not.

Gordon may be the brightest spot in the Magic’s future. He may be the player with the most potential to turn into a star. But none of that matters if he is not ready to contribute to a winning team. And clearly Vogel felt Friday, at least, Gordon was not the best option at small forward. Tomorrow it may be Payton. Hezonja is already out of the rotation.

The Magic are in win-now mode. They are no longer waiting for development anymore. And, for better or for worse, that will change the way the Magic treat their young players and their goals for the team’s long-term future.

The only thing that is clear is development is not the priority. Maybe that was clear beforehand. The Magic are all in on winning now, losing focus on the long-term growth of their young players still looking to develop.

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