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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Rebuild Begins in The City Beautiful

After their second consecutive first-round playoff exit, the Magic unloaded their Hall of Fame center and a top-five coach. Now what?

Brad Barr - US Presswire

Team name: Orlando Magic
Last year's record: 37-29, third in the Southeast; lost to the Indiana Pacers, 4-1, in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

What significant moves were made in the offseason?

The Magic fired coach Stan Van Gundy and accepted the resignation of general manager Otis Smith, who presided over a disappointing team with a mismanaged cap during the most recent years of his tenure. In fairness to Smith, he also presided over a team which won nearly two-thirds of its games with Van Gundy at the helm, and one which made an NBA Finals appearance in 2009.

Orlando hired Jacque Vaughn to replace Van Gundy and Rob Hennigan to replace Smith. Weeks later, it unambiguously signaled its intention to rebuild by trading Dwight Howard, Jason Richardson, Earl Clark, and Chris Duhon in a multi-team deal which netted them Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vučević, Maurice Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, and multiple future draft picks.

Prior to the Howard deal, Orlando sign-and-traded restricted free-agent forward Ryan Anderson to the New Orleans Hornets for Gustavo Ayón.

The team drafted Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn and then signed E'Twaun Moore as a free agent after Moore's strong performance for the Boston Celtics in the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues.

Reserve center Daniel Orton and swingman DeAndre Liggins left the club in free agency. Orlando then waived Eyenga before he had a chance to suit up in exhibition action, owing to a hamstring injury.

The Magic didn't sever all their ties to the Smith era, however: they re-signed Jameer Nelson to a three-year contract and elected to guarantee the final season on J.J. Redick's deal, keeping the pair of veterans in pinstripes for the foreseeable future. For insurance at point guard, Orlando also re-signed midseason pickup Ish Smith to a three-year deal.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

If nothing else, Orlando is a deep team. The top eight players in its rotation--Nelson, Afflalo, Redick, Hedo Türkoğlu, Davis, Harrington, Vučević, and Ayón--have proven themselves, to varying degrees, as NBA players. The depth at the power positions is enviable.

The problem with that top-eight talent, however, is that one can argue each of the players in it is better suited for a supporting role on a better team rather than a featured role on a bad one. As we're meant to highlight positives in this section of the preview, I'll only say this much on the subject.

In Nelson, Afflalo, Redick, and Türkoğlu, Orlando still has good three-point shooters. Nelson's pick-and-roll game should mesh nicely with Davis and Vučević, who are both comfortable popping out for mid-range jumpers, and with Ayón, of whom opposing defenses occasionally lose track on his dives to the rim.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Returning to the point about roles I mentioned above: Orlando's roster is a collection of several overqualified sixth men, a handful of prospects, and fringe NBA players. One cannot reasonably expect such a roster to compete with most NBA clubs on a nightly basis.

The above paragraph is my way of saying "Orlando is untalented" as gently as I can muster.

More specifically, the Magic figure to be horrifically flammable on the defensive end without Howard's paint-protecting presence and Van Gundy's sound schemes. Vaughn has said his goal is to keep the ball out of the paint and force teams to take long two-pointers, but whether he can get his personnel to execute that plan is an open question. The Magic's perimeter defense leaves plenty to be desired, and no one will soon mistake Davis, Harrington, Vučević, or Ayón for ace shot-blockers. Opposing teams are going to make a killing in the paint area, and if the wing defenders aren't disciplined with their help, the defensive breakdowns that lead to paint touches will also yield open shooters on the outside.

I will, quite frankly, be rather impressed with Vaughn if he can keep this group out of the bottom five defensively.

Point-guard play is another concern. Nelson remains solid, but not at all spectacular, as he continues into his 30s, but Moore and Smith are unproven at the NBA level. In his rookie year with the Celtics, Moore played primarily as an undersized shooting guard. His success at point guard in Orlando and Las Vegas certainly helped convince the Magic he has potential as a score-first lead guard. He can certainly shoot the three-ball, but can he orchestrate an offense?

Smith is faster than Hell and has respectable passing instincts. What he's yet to demonstrate is any facility scoring. Opponents will happily concede jumpers to him, and even when he gets to the rim, he's a reluctant shooter, perhaps owing to his poor finishing skills.

Moore and Smith are young enough--23 and 24, respectively--that there's still room for them to develop at the NBA level. But if neither shows any long-term potential, Hennigan may have to look to upgrade the position via trade. Given the dearth of options behind Nelson, it's not at all difficult to understand why the Magic wanted him to stick around during their rebuild. Someone has to bring the ball up, after all.

What are the goals for this team?

I've argued that wins and losses this year are incidental, and I stand by that assessment: Hennigan can't concern himself too much with what happens on the floor this season, and must instead work to lay a foundation for the future, one built on the principles of player development, sound salary-cap management, and new scouting techniques.

Nicholson, Harkless, and Vučević offer potential for the future. So too might training-camp invitee DeQuan Jones, should he make the team's final roster. Apart from that core--from which I excluded O'Quinn, who projects as a fringe NBAer on the best of days--none of Orlando's players is expected to be part of its long-term plans.

What are the best and worst case scenarios for this team?

The best-case scenario is that, behind the leadership of Vaughn, Nelson, Redick, and Davis, Orlando plays hard each night and gives the City Beautiful a team of which it can be proud. Magic fans like to invoke the Heart-and-Hustle squad of 1999/2000--a team made up of castoffs and unproven players, under rookie coach Doc Rivers, which won half its games and nearly made the playoffs--as a potential model for this team, but I fear that hope is misguided: Rivers' Heart-and-Hustle team had brilliant defensive players and, in Darrell Armstrong, a two-way, diamond-in-the-rough star. There's no real reason to expect similar success from the current crew.

The worst-case scenario is that the team stinks and isn't fun to watch. Vaughn loses the locker room and his players appear to be more concerned with gunning for their own stats--and thus, potentially, punching their ticket to another team via trade--than with team-first play.

The real difference between a good season and a bad one, by the rebuilding Magic's standards, is how the fans feel about it. I'm not much for sentimentality, but Orlando fans, by and large, expect this team to stink. If the team's fans find cheering the Magic a chore, the season will have been a failure.


Orlando finishes 22-60 on the season and remains in fierce competition with the Charlotte Bobcats for the league's worst record.

Hennigan finds a taker for Harrington on or before the trading deadline, freeing up playing time for Nicholson. Redick, too, could be on his way out, though I don't think a trade of Redick is as likely as one of Harrington is.

Moore holds off Smith for the backup point-guard gig for much of the season.

The Magic finish the season 25th or worse in both offense and defense.

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