"I just want to thank the Orlando Magic organization for a great three years," said Victor Oladipo, via Instagram, upon receiving news that he was headed to Oklahoma City, "The entire city of Orlando, my teammates, the fans, and coaches have taught me so much and I'm truly grateful."
This trade, which sent Thunder forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando, marks the end of an era in Magic basketball – the Victor Oladipo era. Though he looked and acted the part, Oladipo never reached the star status that many hoped he could.
This town has always loved stars. From goofy centers like Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, to calm, lanky scorers like Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady, the "face" of the Magic franchise has often been among the league’s elite. This player, despite the ebbs and flows of team success, was always a source of pride among Magic fans. The star was a hero; an embodiment of what basketball should be to his generation of kids.
Even when first round exits were the norm, T-Mac still put on a show. Even after the departure of Shaq, the ghost of Penny could still go for 50.
Coming out of Indiana, Victor Oladipo seemed to perfectly fit the mold. He could defend, rebound, and shoot from the perimeter. He was incredibly efficient – Oladipo actually led the Big-10 in field goal percentage as a shooting guard.
But the "wow" factor came when he took flight. Scouts drooled and opposing fans looked away every time the muscle-bound guard went up for a dunk. You couldn’t watch SportsCenter without seeing him climb over a big man, or elevate for a 360-degree jam.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers whiffed on Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, it was Victor Oladipo that walked across the stage to don the pinstripes as the second overall pick. This was the first "real" draft selection of Magic general manager Rob Hennigan – those two would be linked together forever, or so we thought.
It was a tall order, rebuilding a team that was torn apart so violently. Because of the lack of talent, he was thrown right in given a long leash, earning his first NBA start on November 20th. That game, a near 30-point shellacking at home to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, showed Victor and the young Magic team just how far they would have to go to reach the top.
In his rookie year, Oladipo flashed signs of potential – a triple-double against the Philadelphia 76ers, a 35-point gem against the Chicago Bulls – but overall, he and the 23-59 Magic didn’t find much success.
Oladipo was good, but not great, and failed to win Rookie of the Year in a historically weak draft class. Of a possible 124 votes, 104 went to the Sixers Michael Carter-Williams. The gangly point guard would lead all rookies in points, assists, and rebounds. This was the first sign that Oladipo was not the hero Magic fans were expecting.
In his second year, it was more of the same. The Magic again trudged through the season in the midst of a rebuild, finishing the year 25-57, but Oladipo improved his game.
It’s usually in the second season that perennial All-Star guards make their mark. Players like Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, and Kyrie Irving all earned their first All-Star selection in year two. For Oladipo, the closest he would come is a selection into the Rising Stars challenge, where he would play alongside players like Cody Zeller and Trey Burke.
Oladipo was very, very good in his second year, but he still wasn’t great. A late-season scoring tear increased his per-game average to just under 18 points. His well-rounded skillset from college had begun to translate, as he filled up the stat sheet and contributed across the board with averages of 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.
Despite the improvement record wise, it wasn't enough as head coach Jacque Vaughn was sent packing in only his third year. Oladipo’s efforts alone could not save the Magic; he was their best player, but still a mortal.
Nevertheless, fans loved him, and for obvious reasons. Oladipo was a world-class ambassador on and off the court. He was flashy but humble, never shy; he could sing and dance, he was a strong Christian (if that’s your thing), a hard worker, and a great role model. He was plastered on billboards, and featured in local commercials.
Across the country, another star had burst onto the NBA landscape. While Oladipo and his teammate Elfrid Payton played in the Skills Challenge at the 2015 All-Star Game, he watched from the crowd. His name was Damian Lillard, and from the moment he stepped foot on an NBA floor, he did exactly what he wanted.
A little known player from a small school, Lillard didn’t enter the league with the same expectations. NBA insiders knew his name, but casual fans couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. At Weber State, he played against schools like Portland State and Northern Colorado, not Michigan State and Purdue.
Lillard has worn that ambiguity on his sleeve since his first game. In year one, he averaged 19 points on a 34-win team, and in year two he earned his first All-Star nod on the way to the playoffs. On the floor he was a silent, emotionless assassin as well as a fiery, vocal leader when his team needed him.
As good as he may have been in Orlando, Victor Oladipo was never going to be Damian Lillard. He was never going to be a perennial All-Star; he was never going to be a strong enough leader to hold his team accountable.
This quality became apparent in 2015, when his young Magic team became competitive. When the team rattled off a 13-4 record through December, it was with Oladipo on the bench, not leading the charge.
It seemed in year three that he had a superstar’s mindset without a superstar’s skillset. He struggled to find his shot, and the team struggled to win close games. He became timid – getting cut off at the rim and settling for floaters.
Again and again coach Scott Skiles was asked questions about leadership. Again and again Oladipo shrugged his shoulders and disinterestedly repeated the same coach-speak. Great players don’t make excuses; they find a way to get the job done.
Though Oladipo did many things for his team, including battling through multiple concussions last season, none of them translated to winning games. He was a finalist for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award, he loved working with kids, and doing interviews, he had an infectious smile. As much as he acted like one, however, Victor isn’t a superstar, and his team needed one.
The end of the Oladipo era in Orlando isn’t as much a story of what could’ve been – Magic fans have seen that movie before. With the team freeing up cap space, Oladipo was destined to be the third or fourth best player on next year’s team. He wasn’t a bust, but he was far from the face of the franchise that Rob Hennigan envisioned when he was drafted.
It was because of this that Hennigan felt content to ship Oladipo off to Oklahoma City for a proven asset. He no longer saw the star that he envisioned at Indiana, he saw the solid starter that would command a high price tag next offseason.
"I'm ready to win BIG and play in front of the best fans in the world!!!" That's how Oladipo ended his farewell post to the Magic – excited to play next to two superstars, and without the weight of being one himself.