For a while, the Magic were considered the clear-cut winner of the Dwight Howard trade, the team that prioritized the big picture. The teardown was lauded after initially criticized, and they’ve steadily added young talent over the past three years to complete a typical rebuild. Yet the lack of progress in the standings or really in terms of building an identity is taking the shine off what was once considered an up-and-coming team. Young players and cap flexibility are nice but at some point what looks good on paper needs to translate to the court and that hasn’t happened. That’s why next few months are key for the franchise, a stretch that could determine whether the past three years have been a success or a failure.
The first big decision the front office will have to make is who will be their next coach. There’s no denying firing Jacque Vaughn was the right thing to do. Vaughn’s main job was to establish a culture and develop young players and by most standards he failed at both. Watching what Brett Brown is doing in Philadelphia makes it clear that even with a young, talent-deprived roster coaching matters. Brown has the 76ers ranking 12th in defensive efficiency despite being fringe NBA guys while the Magic ranks 25th. There’s no offensive identity either in Orlando. They tried pushing the pace but kept coming back to old habits of holding the ball instead of moving it. The players just weren’t buying in.
Vaughn’s replacement will be tasked with doing what his predecessor couldn’t: installing a system that utilizes the talent of rather unconventional players. No one epitomizes the challenge that could prove to be better than Tobias Harris. The four-year forward is an explosive scorer and rebounder who is still 22. He’s also a tweener with no ideal position and ball-stopping tendencies. There’s no doubt he’s a good player but whether he becomes a star or remains someone who gets numbers without helping a team win depends entirely on fit. Right now, he’s not the ideal partner for Vucevic at the four, since neither can protect the rim, and playing him at small forward would cramp the spacing since teams will live with him taking threes if it means controlling the paint.
Someone is going to throw an eight figure contract Harris’ way and the Magic will have to match that offer because they can’t afford to lose any talent. Building a good team around him will be a tall task yet the way the game is evolving shows that it’s possible. The Hawks are showing everyone that you can build a good defense without a rim protector and versatile forwards like Draymond Green and Markieff Morris are in vogue. Harris has the talent and the physical tools to be a one of the best in the league in that category, a Shawn Marion-type match up nightmare at power forward. What he needs is enough hard work on his defense and the right leader to guide and motivate him. That’s why a coach that can teach like Warriors’ assistant Ron Adams is probably the best man for the job.
Adams has been lauded for his defensive acumen as part of Tom Thibodeau’s staff in Chicago and was beloved by the Celtics players in his stint in Boston before being lured to the Warriors to be a part of Steve Kerr’s dream team of assistants. He specializes in player development and has helped Harrison Barnes get back to being a productive players after a tough 2013-14 season. That type of hands on approach — not unlike Brown’s in Philadelphia — is exactly what the Magic, who have four core players who are 22 years old or younger, need from their next coach. Adams is 67, which would make hiring him over a younger candidate a risk but he’s the prototype for what they should look for.
Regardless of who GM Rob Hennigan settles on as coach, the roster needs some serious tweaks. The Magic have too many pieces that don’t fit well together. The signing of Channing Frye signaled that the team was aiming to have a spread pick and roll offense but their biggest star, Nikola Vucevic is not the explosive dive man that style requires. A team that wants to push the pace doesn’t sign Luke Ridnour and Ben Gordon. Fortunately, everyone is on reasonable contracts and even with extensions to Harris and back up center Kyle O’Quinn the Magic should have enough cap space make additions. Getting a defensive wing with three-point range and a big man who can protect the rim should be priorities.
It’s possible they can fill one of those needs on draft night. The Magic are currently slotted to pick sixth and sharpshooting defensive specialist Stanley Johnson from Arizona and versatile giant Willie Cauley-Stein from Kentucky should be there for the taking. Nailing this draft pick is imperative for the Magic, who have had the bad fortune of being bad on years when the truly elite prospects were few. If the team is serious about improving, they might not get another pick in which they can nab a cornerstone in the next few years.
As dire as things have looked at times in Orlando in year three of the post-Dwight Howard era, there’s a chance that team could be special. They lack a true franchise-changing player but they do have enough intriguing young pieces that could blossom into stars under the right set of circumstances. Hennigan has done the first part of his job — getting talent — well enough. Now comes the hard part: finding someone that can maximize it and recognizing who fits the team’s long term vision. It’s a challenge every team that has bottomed out faces and one the Magic weren’t ready to tackle before. They better get it right this time if they plan of escaping rebuilding purgatory and achieve relevancy again soon.