In December 2016, Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins was in contention for making the boldest claim of any player, coach or management member of the season. During an interview with the Orlando Sentinel Martins said, “I certainly believe by 2030 we will have won at least one championship. And I say ‘at least.’ I firmly believe we’re going to get there and once you get there, you got the kind of team that hopefully can come back.”
At the time article was written (Dec. 10), the Magic had accrued 10 wins over the course of 25 games and were hovering around 11th place, sandwiched nicely between two eventual playoff teams in the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Although the good company may have led Martins to feel confident in his statement eight months ago, the Magic have managed to usurp the low-light from the up-and-coming Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets as the most irrelevant franchise in the NBA.
After a pair of abysmal seasons from the Kings and Nets, General Managers Vlade Divac and Sean Marks found the light at the end of the structurally unsound tunnel through which both teams trudged. Despite trading away franchise cornerstone DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans, Divac and company have restored faith in their Sac Town fan base drafting De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles to jumpstart a core of young, energetic players in the Western Conference. The Kings management continued to surprise when it allured veteran leaders Zach Randolph and Vince Carter out of the Memphis grindhouse in addition to sliding steady ball-handler George Hill away from the ski-slopes of Utah.
On the opposite coast, the Nets’ Sean Marks managed to reconfigure a team best known for giving Anthony Bennett a minimum deal in 2016 into a squad boasting names that warrant a few extra jersey sales in D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov.
Neither of these teams have any expectation of playoff success this year; in fact a playoff berth would be too generous. However, the Kings and Nets gave their fans something to appreciate after a series of sub-40 win seasons and benches loaded with players more appropriately found on the set of The Bachelor than on the hardwood.
The Orlando Magic, however, managed to ride a disastrous season into an equally disastrous post-season. With draft picks of Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu, the Magic failed to bring in talent that could address the immediate positional dearth at point guard. Despite the backcourt combination of Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton having the potential to complement team growth, the Magic played the 16-17 season with an incredibly loaded frontcourt.
Although Orlando incorporated three traditional point guards on the roster throughout the season (Payton, CJ Watson and DJ Augustin), the Magic’s most used lineup relied on Evan Fournier for primary ball handling duties. More perplexing though, was the choice to play power forward Aaron Gordon at the shooting guard and small forward positions, most notable in the home contest against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 24, 2017. During that game in particular, Watson, Augustin and Fournier were all benched citing “did not dress” as the reason despite Gordon starting a defensive assignment to cover Dwyane Wade at shooting guard.
Indeed, the Frank Vogel decision to limit ball handlers in favor of a big man heavy lineup runs counter to the league-wide turn towards small ball, though the Magic’s first 2017 free agency move brought six-year guard Shelvin Mack from Utah on a two year deal. While adding a ball handler does increase lineup versatility, the Magic currently lack any real assets to fuel a rebuild and missed out on any major free agent signings to garner greater attention. Offensively minded center Nikola Vucevic has trade potential, though few teams are looking to add the equivalent of a Jusuf Nurkic who becomes a defensive liability in smaller lineups. Fournier is the most likely trade piece but unfortunately carries a 5-year, $85 million contract that most teams with movable pieces would hesitate at eating up.
In all, the Magic have locked themselves in a rut while lacking the foresight of building for the future. Failure to build a defense first team around defense-aficionado Vogel led to a team loaded with inflexible big men who lack the scoring potential to outpace teams like the Cavs, Wizards or Raptors. Coupled with minimal player development for potential franchise cornerstones Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon and the Magic can only hope for a magical turn of events inspired by their Walt Disney partners.