For the uninitiated among us, let’s set the record straight: New Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan’s most critical misstep this summer was not merely the act of trading franchise center Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
After all, it was plain to see that the Howard-Magic relationship had fallen into such a state of disrepair, the cloud hanging over the team growing so ominous, that an offseason trade had become unavoidable.
Rather, Hennigan and the Magic erred in negotiating a proper return in the complicated four-team, 14-player deal for the league’s best big man — but the downside to Orlando’s haul as it relates to the post-Howard era of Magic basketball isn’t what you think.
Article continues below ...
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
As Orlando’s regular season kicks off at the Amway Center on Friday against the Denver Nuggets, the concern isn’t that the Magic are going to be bad, because bad is precisely what they wanted, needed and got. The worry is that Orlando won’t be bad enough for Hennigan’s Sam Presti-inspired overhaul to begin to take shape.
The Magic are stuck in basketball purgatory, not good enough to contend for a playoff spot, even in the watered down Eastern Conference, but also not bad enough to be among the worst of the worst (and among those with the best shot at the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft).
And unless the wunderkind Hennigan has future plans to further blow up the roster — and maybe he does — Orlando has a team that could certainly win 25 or 30 games this year.
Unfortunately for optimistic Magic diehards, Orlando’s roster doesn’t have the talent to win 35 or 40 games and emerge as a serious threat to nab a coveted playoff spot, either. (But really, is it worth missing out on the draft lottery to get blasted by the Heat in the first round, anyway?)
Orlando will operate with a familiar veteran nucleus of Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, all holdovers from last year’s roster, which went 4-8 in the regular season without Howard.
The Magic also acquired some respectable pieces in the Howard swap, including likely starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo, career 14-point-per-game scorer Al Harrington and Philadelphia 76ers lottery pick Mo Harkless. Add Orlando’s own first-round pick, Andrew Nicholson, and free-agent pickup E’Twaun Moore to the mix, and the Magic are a bona-fide star away from being kind of interesting.
But the Magic don’t have one of those, and because of the salaries owed to Turkoglu, Nelson, Afflalo, Harrington and Davis in the coming seasons, they won’t likely have the funds to obtain a true game-changing franchise player through free agency until at least 2014 — and Orlando’s history with free-agent signings has been shaky, at best.
So instead, Orlando is left with a plucky, if ragtag, group of veterans with an enormous, Dwight Howard-sized hole in the middle, and the Magic’s options for replacing him — particularly on the defensive end of the floor, where Howard was, arguably, of the most value — are underwhelming.
Howard’s departure leaves 22-year-old Nikola Vucevic and 27-year-old Gustavo Ayon responsible for accepting the All-Star big man’s responsibilities as both a dominant defender and first-rate presence on the glass, and neither young player is equipped to even begin to take on that kind of role.
Ayon averaged 8.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24 starts last year for the New Orleans Hornets and has at times shown a propensity for rebounding (17 in 33 minutes against Cleveland on Feb. 22) and blocking shots (four in 29 minutes against Golden State on April 24). But if Ayon is known for anything — and that’s debatable — it’s his offensive efficiency.
Ayon shot a tidy 53.6 percent from the field last season, a number that was largely a function of the former Spanish League center taking most of his shots near the rim following a cut or roll to the basket. And while Ayon may be able to contribute with the ball in his hands, that’s not the player Orlando needs him to be.
As for Vucevic, the 16th pick in the 2011 draft started only 15 games for Philadelphia as a rookie last year but made most of his impact. He averaged 16.3 minutes per game in 36 reserve appearances.
Vucevic had a respectable defensive rebounding percentage of 21.7, putting him in line with a player like Pau Gasol or Joakim Noah and immediately making him Orlando’s most efficient player on the boards. But Vucevic’s ball-hawking numbers pale in comparison to those of Howard, who is the NBA’s active leader in total rebounding percentage and grabbed a third of the defensive boards available to him last season.
Furthermore, neither Vucevic nor Ayon is considered to be a plus defender, and teams that were once forced to alter their game plans to account for Howard prowling the paint will no longer find that necessary.
Orlando’s entire operation under Stan Van Gundy was centered on playing above-average defense — Van Gundy’s Magic teams held opponents to 95.2 points just 44 percent shooting over his tenure, the third- and second-best marks in the NBA, respectively, in that span — and shooting well from the perimeter (37.7 percent from 3-point range under Van Gundy) as a result of the increased attention paid to Howard inside.
Vucevic and Ayon won’t generate any interest inside from other teams, and Orlando will suffer at both ends of the floor as a result.
Certainly, new head coach Jacque Vaughn will implement his own game plan and coaching style to try to accommodate for those shortcomings, but that is as big a problem as anything else the Magic are facing going forward. Not only does Orlando not have a superstar to rely on or exciting draft picks to look forward to, but the team also has to adjust to a first-time head coach who, though energetic and hopeful, is still trying to figure things out himself.
In the end, though, Orlando’s struggles — not just this season, but for the foreseeable future — will be tied back to the disappointing Howard trade and the team’s failure to accomplish any of its set goals. The most effective way to rebuild a team is to start from rock bottom, and Hennigan, in settling for passable talent, failed to get there.
The Magic didn’t get the cap relief they were looking for, nor did they receive the type of promising young talent that soothes the pain of a departure like Howard’s. The draft picks Orlando received in the trade, though mostly first-rounders, are bordering on worthless, and the players they did receive made them too good to expect to have a shot at Cody Zeller or Shabazz Muhammad or Nerlens Noel in the next draft.
(And in addition, the haul — both draft- and talent-wise — that Oklahoma City received from the Rockets for James Harden over the weekend only serves to raise more questions about what the Magic could have gotten from Houston had they held out a little longer.)
This Magic team really thinks it has a chance to compete — which is to say they’re not as futile as the Bobcats or the Wizards — and that, more than anything, is going to be the biggest problem it faces going forward. Vaughn has made it a point to say his the Magic are not “rebuilding” this year, but maybe the future would be brighter if they were.