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Orlando Magic: Where We’ve Been and the Journey Ahead

Erick takes a look at the Magic’s past, how those teams we built, and how those builds could impact this one.

Nick Anderson, Alex Martins, and Pat Williams at the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Orlando Magic Culture

Twenty-Seven Seasons, Four Eras


As with most analysis there are near infinite options for how one goes about slicing and dicing a subject into rational and coherent chunks. This article aims to organize the Orlando Magic’s history into four different eras, with an era comprising two phases of the team’s development, which are tanking and playoffs. We start an era with the first lottery season and end it with the last playoff appearance. For each era we will look at time spent in the lottery and playoffs, and the most era defining GM, Coach, Player, & Team. The benefit of this approach is that we will place Hennigan’s Magic in direct contrast with other Magic eras.

Lottery and Playoffs

First, an introduction to the graph and the stat used, SRS. Simple Rating System is a team metric developed and hosted over at Basketball-Reference.com. This lovely metric tells us the margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule. The higher a team’s SRS, the more competitive the team. Simple as that.

The graph shows the Magic’s SRS on the blue line, each blue dot is a different season. Playoff births are represented as red dots. A line connects the dots when possible to show continuity. This is how you can read the graph; the Magic’s inaugural season of ‘89 has a blue dot below -8 SRS and no corresponding red dot, indicating that on average we’d lose by 8 points, and that we did not make the playoffs.

Era 1: Expansion 1990 - 1997, Eight Seasons

  • Lottery Seasons: 4
  • Playoff Seasons: 4
  • General Manager: Pat Williams
  • Coach: Brian Hill
  • Player: S. O’Neal
  • Team: 1995 “Eastern Conference Champions”

The original “Organic” build, Orlando toiled through terrible season after terrible season on the way to establishing a young core of lottery draft choices and building around them. We all know how the era ended, Shaq’s departure doomed the era and brought the contention window to a close.

Era 2: Zombie 1998 - 2003, Six Seasons

  • Lottery Seasons: 2
  • Playoff Seasons: 4
  • General Manager: John Gabriel
  • Coach: Doc Rivers
  • Player: T. McGrady
  • Team: 1999 “Heart & Hustle”

The poster boy for a non-organic build, this era saw Gabriel wheel and deal his way into two marquee free-agents in T-Mac and Grant Hill. Perhaps Gabriel’s hand was forced by a “spoiled” fan base that had the taste of contention on their tongues, or perhaps he was a victim of the botched tank that turned into the “Heart & Hustle” team. Whatever the reason this era gave birth to the “Orlando Tragic” meme and most likely served as a warning to Hennigan and leadership during the Dwight Howard trade deliberations.

Era 3: Rebirth 2004 - 2012, Nine Seasons

  • Lottery Seasons: 3
  • Playoff Seasons: 6
  • General Manager: Otis Smith
  • Coach: Stan Van Gundy
  • Player: D. Howard
  • Team: 2010 “Best Team on Paper”

This era definitely had an organic feel to it, with Jameer Nelson and Howard both leading the team through the highs and lows. Otis went a bit mad scientist in those last few seasons and the turnover from 2009 to 2010 is in retrospect hard to justify, but a strong case can be made that this was the best era of Magic basketball.

Era 4: Hybrid 2013 - TBD

Here we are, and there are more questions than answers. Who is our core? Do we have a franchise player in the fold ready to emerge? Will 5 years in the lottery be 1 year too long for Hennigan, making this a playoffs or bust year?

Those are questions that we will get answers to as the season matures. Frank Vogel, stepping in for Scott Skiles (who had righted our course admirably it must be said), is about as good a response to the Skiles resignation as one could have hoped for and will definitely have a lot to say about how we answer these questions, and others.

Thoughts

For Pat Williams and Otis Smith success came from grabbing lottery talent in the draft and integrating that talent into a winning team identity. Players like Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, and Jameer Nelson all played core roles in their rise to contention, and the continuity of building a core through the draft gave each a special chemistry. The lynch pin to their success was of course hitting the jackpot on Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and Dwight Howard. Not just a little luck went into winning those prizes, but a proper tank is all about collecting as many lottery tickets as you can and hoping one of them turns into a winner. We’ve had several winners.

Also integral to the success of Pat Williams and Otis Smith was their ability to weave free agents into core roles. Horace Grant, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu all played core roles on the best teams in Magic history. John Gabriel even used free agency to lure in Tracy McGrady, another all-time Magic great right there with Shaq, Penny, and Dwight. Free agency has been very good to Orlando.

While adding free agents complimented, catapulted, or even defined their respective team’s successes, it is less clear what value or benefit have been derived from the trade market. The argument against relying on the trade market is no more apparent then when looking at John Gabriel’s trade for Grant Hill or Otis Smith’s trade for Vince Carter. For Gabriel, it was about avoiding a rebuild through the draft altogether and going for broke with a pieced together Super Team. For Smith, it was about recalibrating a core that just the year before had made the finals.

Rob Hennigan has used tanking, free agency, and trades in different measures to bring us to this point in Magic history. Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka from trades, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja from the lottery, and Bismack Biyombo from free agency. It feels a bit patchwork, a hybrid approach, but when you consider the hand Hennigan was dealt in the end it may just be the collection of better choices overtime whose synthesis we hope produces something greater than the sum of its parts.

To ensure this synthesis produces a winning chemistry we have Frank Vogel. His will be the task of elevating one or more of Gordon, Payton, and Hezonja into superstardom, of integrating Ibaka and Biyambo into the core alongside Vucevic, all while building a winning culture. Accountability and sacrifice will be essential principles for him to teach if he is to be successful.

So much needs to happen for this era to rise into contention. It can seem daunting, even disheartening, given the four years spent in the lottery and our trading away Victor Oladipo. Yet, with three lottery tickets still waiting to mature, with a new coach in Frank Vogel, and with Hennigan’s relentless focus on bringing in “good human beings”, you just can’t help but see it happening. Again.