The Suns in 2021. The Bulls in 2022. The Magic in … 2023? 2024? This lifetime?
Amidst questions regarding the MVP race and championship favoritism, SB Nation Reacts also recently asked readers what they thought was the biggest storyline of the season so far. For fans of the Magic, two options likely resonated: the Suns proving that they’re legit and the rise of the Bulls. Both of these teams are currently enjoying the sort of circumstances that the Magic can only hope for and aspire to.
Before the 2020/21 season, one would have to go back four years to find evidence of either of the Suns or the Bulls reaching even .500 in the standings (Chicago, who went 41-41 in 2016/17). In fact, Phoenix endured three consecutive years of last-placed finishes in the Western Conference before their recent two-step ascendance, first to 10th in the West and then eventually to the NBA Finals last season. How did they both manage to turn it around?
Let’s consider Phoenix. Booker at 13 in 2015. Ayton at 1 in 2018. Mikal Bridges that same year after trading up to the tenth slot. Cam Johnson and Dario Saric in exchange for the sixth pick in 2019. Jae Crowder as a mid-tier offseason signing. Cam Payne as a super low-risk free agency addition. It’s a steady series of roster construction victories, peppered as it may have been with various strikeouts (see: Bender, Dragan; and Jackson, Josh). However, despite this stream of positive moves, the team’s ascension didn’t fully come together in a winning fashion until the Suns took a chance on the financial commitment required to land Chris Paul. To make the leap to genuine contention they essentially had to build an entire rotation that they could eventually augment with a Hall of Fame level talent. Only then did they have a winner.
The Bulls are a slightly different story, one that, interestingly, the Magic contributed to. They first turned a disgruntled Jimmy Butler into Zach LaVine. A couple of years of underwhelming draft returns and results wilderness followed before they successfully pried Nikola Vucevic from Orlando. Six months later they were able to make a splash in free agency, adding DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in separate sign-and-trade deals, while also picking up Alex Caruso on the open market. The rapid transformation was (essentially) complete.
Where the Suns primarily used the annual Draft as the setting for their roster tinkering and talent injections, the Bulls leaned more heavily into the whirlwind atmosphere of free agency and the trade deadline. Phoenix’s moves piled up incrementally, with the youth of rookie picks slowly morphing the nature of the team until the final brush stroke that would bring everything together was applied. Chicago, by comparison, completed their overhaul in the space of six months, installing an instant contender around their franchise centerpiece via the addition of talented veterans who were largely undervalued by the rest of the league.
Now the question for basketball fans in Central Florida is whether the Magic can ultimately emulate either of these two paths to contention. Might one of the recent transformations of Phoenix or Chicago offer, if not a definitive blueprint, at least a hazy outline of how Orlando’s fortunes could improve in the seasons to come?
The Chicago model would first require one of the young pieces already on the team to emerge as a genuine All-Star talent, as LaVine did after the Bulls acquired him. Could that be one of either Jalen Suggs or Franz Wagner? Or Cole Anthony? At the moment it’s not yet clear if anyone on the roster has the capacity to eventually reach such a ceiling, but as LaVine’s own experiences in Chicago have demonstrated it’s usually a happening that is years in the making. The Magic won’t find out in 2021. There likely won’t even be absolute certainty by the end of next year. But they’re going to need to make a firm bet at some point on who this transformative talent may be.
It’s also worth remembering that even should they find such a player, the team also needs to eventually put themselves in the perfect position to strike across free agency and trade season. This would require the successful identification of targets, the accumulation of necessary assets, and the finessing of cap space to make such a series of moves possible. Basically, the front office has to play that side of the rebuild perfectly while also getting the star emergence they need from a talent they’ve already added. What a tightrope to walk!
The Phoenix path isn’t any easier, really. The hope in this instance would be that swing after swing after swing in the lottery eventually adds a youthful foundation that blossoms together at the right time. The team would also need to have avoided any signings or extensions that stymie their opportunities moving forward, maintaining the flexibility required to pounce should a star player become available for any reason. Any such star would also need to basically be a perfect fit for the roster they had built to that point. Easy, right?
If you want to claim that both of these possibilities seem more like a daydream than anything rooted in reality, you’re probably right. It’s not clear that the Magic have anyone on the roster who will ever rise to the level of a Booker or a LaVine, and that’s just the first domino that needs to fall in such a sequence.
Still … if one squints hard enough, could they be convinced that a combination of, say, Anthony, Wagner and Bamba looks a little like what is happening out in the desert? The roles and skills certainly aren’t perfect facsimiles when compared to their counterparts in Phoenix, but if a series of ‘best case scenarios’ were to come to fruition for this triumvirate the Magic would appear to have the backcourt, the wing and the painted area in a theoretical rotation accounted for in a similar way.
These fanciful projections could be taken in other directions. Assuming health there are a variety of ways to combine the players already on Orlando’s roster such that the team arrives at the same sort of three-pronged future, to say nothing of the lottery talent likely on the way in the next 12 to 24 months. The percentage chance of having such a triumvirate of talent emerge might be slim, but it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
The Magic, like Phoenix and Chicago before them, just need to hit big on one bet to get that process started. If they can, it might not be all that long before Orlando is following in the footsteps of these recent success stories.
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