Unless Sam Hinkie is the GM, a team only gets so many shots at a true rebuild. Even if you botch your lottery pick as often as humanly possible, there just isn’t an organization dumb enough not to accidentally stumble into a few competent players. If you’re picking in the top-five every year, sooner or later you’re just going to have too many good players to pick in the top-five.
The goal of a rebuild obviously isn’t just to finish outside of the bottom-five. It’s to win a championship. But if you don’t take advantage of those few lottery tickets you’ll end up somewhere in between. Which is where we find the Orlando Magic.
Only four games out of a playoff spot, this season is actually something of a success for Orlando. They wanted to be competitive. They wanted their young players to develop. Both boxes have been checked. Yet if the season ended today, Orlando would be picking 11th. They wouldn’t make the playoffs, and they wouldn’t have a clear avenue towards the sort of star who can make sure they make it next year. They’re stuck in organizational purgatory.
Despite picking second, fourth and fifth in the last three drafts, the Magic don’t have a single player who ranks in the top 20 of any of the following categories: Real Plus-Minus, PER, Value-Added, Estimated Wins Added, Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares or Box Plus-Minus. Their best player, Nic Vucevic, is the Swiss Brook Lopez, averaging only around 16 points without shooting three’s or playing defense. None of those top-five picks are regular starters, but all three are valuable contributors.
And as the word suggests, “valuable” contributors have value. You don’t win championships with stars alone. But it’s worth mentioning that in all three drafts, Orlando took players seen as relatively safe. Victor Oladipo was the sure thing of the 2013 draft. Potential Australian star Dante Exum was passed in favor of known American quantity Aaron Gordon. Even as they dipped into the international pool with Mario Hezonja they did so largely out of a short-term need for shooting. Had they sought out the best overall prospect they surely would’ve taken Duke’s Justise Winslow.
GM’s don’t like taking risks. Risks get you fired. You might well find the next Giannis Antetokounmp or Paul George in the middle of the first round… but it’ll take that guy three years to develop and you’ll be long gone by then. There’s security in taking players like Oladipo and Gordon, but it’s worth asking what value that kind of security really has. Does anyone want to be that team that may or may not snag an eighth seed every year? Do fans enjoy that? Do players?
It’s nearly time for Orlando to start answering those questions. They already have significant money tied into Vucevic and Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier is due to hit restricted free agency this summer and Oladipo will be eligible for an extension then as well. As soon as opening night of next season the Magic could have four players on long-term eight-figure contracts without this core ever having made the playoffs. With teams like the Knicks, Celtics, Pistons and Bucks on the rise and playoff stalwarts Cleveland, Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Toronto and Atlanta still largely intact, Orlando needs to decide if this group can actually make noise in the playoffs or needs to be stripped down and rebuilt once again.
Consolidation moves are the hardest in basketball to make, especially at a time like now, when teams like Phoenix, Philadelphia and Boston have spent years preparing for just such a chance. Orlando can’t outbid any of them for a true star like Blake Griffin or DeMarcus Cousins, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be sniffing around for high-end players teams may want to move.
Take Al Horford. If Atlanta isn’t particularly confident that they’ll be able to re-sign him, it makes quite a bit of sense for Orlando to call and offer a package built around Vucevic and/or Oladipo. It’s a bit pricey, but it kills several birds with one stone. They get Horford’s bird-rights and the chance to give him a five-year contract with larger year-to-year raises, but even if he leaves the organization has an excuse to tank for another year or two because hey, we tried, it just didn’t work out.
Available players of Horford’s stature are rare, but they exist and get traded out of the blue almost every year. Miami managed to steal Goran Dragic last season because of some mistakes Phoenix made that escalated far more quickly than anyone imagined. This year has plenty of sellers with talented players that just don’t fit their timeline. That’s essentially half of Denver’s roster. Miami doesn’t want to dip into their cap space to re-sign Hassan Whiteside so he’s more than available. Hell, go swing for the fences and bring in Derrick Rose for a flier.
Unblemished, undervalued blue-chippers like James Harden practically never come onto the market. But if you’re willing to take chances with things like injuries, untapped potential, bad fits or sketchy personalities, you can almost always find players who have more value than their teams gave them credit for.
Pretty much every contender this season has a player like that or two. Milwaukee dumped Andrew Bogut on the Warriors because of injuries. Cleveland was able to snag J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert mainly because they were sulking on a bad team. Toronto only has Kyle Lowry because Houston was desperate to acquire picks to try to entice Orlando into a Dwight Howard trade. Getting to the top is largely about taking risks that could easily send you to the bottom.
That’s been Orlando’s biggest problem during this rebuild. They’re just too damn sensible. They’ve refused to miss outright on anyone, and in doing so they’ve made it impossible to hit any home runs. If they don’t take that chance soon, they’ll find themselves stuck in the middle for the foreseeable future.