For the first time in almost three decades, the Orlando Magic were the recipients of good luck at the draft lottery.
Since the near unfathomable Midas touch of the ping pong balls that delivered Shaq and Penny, the basketball gods have seemingly been karmically opposed to the Central Floridian hardwood. At the conclusion of lean years the Magic consistently – invariably – would see their lottery position either slide or merely hold steady, a circumstance which regularly consigned the side to the margins of the draft’s consensus talent pools. It appeared that the team’s luck had dried up.
As such, when last week the Magic jumped to the head of the queue by bypassing the tanktastic Rockets and overcoming the near 50% chance of tumbling to either pick 5 or 6, both the franchise and its fans alike were justified in celebrating.
The focus now invariably shifts from whether the Magic will have better lottery luck and to the question of what they can do with their new-found fortune. Just last week in bringing the 2021/22 season to a close I wrote this:
“If Orlando is ever going to return to relevance, it will start with a home run rookie selection; get that foundational piece right and then they’ll have the opportunity to build something bigger. Sixty defeats, as unpleasant as they may have been as a collection, at least ensures that the team is positioned as favorably as they can be in this regard as they head into the offseason.”
Well, here we are. The Magic find themselves in literally their best-case offseason scenario, completely in control of their own fate at the head of the draft. It’s what the rebuilding side has wanted for the better part of a decade now, another season of significant losing finally securing the draft’s coveted top slot.
But how certain is success when it comes to the first overall selection? How likely are the Magic to capitalize on this opportunity?
Let’s find out.
Head of the Class
The number one selection in the annual draft is a spot that teams regularly duke it out over, committing all sorts of affronts to the game of basketball in the hopes of using a temporary status as the worst to secure a youthful talent thought to be the best. Considering the willingness of multiple sides to sacrifice entire seasons to the tanking cause, surely it’s a sign of the sure-fire success that accompanies any such pick. Right?
Worryingly, one actually has to go back six whole drafts to 2016 to find a first overall pick (Ben Simmons) who currently even ranks among the top three in his class in total win shares. In fact, since 2004 – when the Magic last picked at the top of the order – Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is the only number one selection to have paced their draft group by this particular metric. It’s seemingly a rare occurrence that the draft’s top choice enjoys the greatest metrical contribution to winning basketball.
Total win shares is, of course, just one way of attempting to measure the complete volume of a player’s on-court contributions, and one that is subject to some noise or incongruencies in the numbers themselves (particularly when wading into the per-48 minute versions). However, it’s a statistical measure that seems to align with the eye test; since 2005, there have been basically as many cautionary tales who were the first rookie off the board on draft night as there have been bona fide slam dunks.
Something else worth considering is this: since 2005, only three players to have heard their name called first on draft night have gone on to compete in a Conference Final for the team that picked them – Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, and, most recently, DeAndre Ayton. Further illustrating the difficulty any singular talent faces in elevating an entire franchise, the player who was considered the most ‘can’t miss’ prospect since LeBron – Anthony Davis – made the postseason just once in his time in New Orleans, instead only hoisting a championship after skipping town and joining forces with James. The teams picking at the draft’s apex have rarely been the ones playing deep into the postseason in the seasons to come.
Looking at things in a more favorable light, it is worth nothing that 9 of the 17 number one picks since the Magic selected Dwight Howard have successfully developed into All-Stars, a figure which accounts for just over 12.0% of all players from those classes who have at one point or another been selected to the mid-season showcase. Getting first bite at the draft apple basically equates to a coin-flip chance of securing a top twenty-ish talent, a fact which should boost the spirits of basketball fanatics in Central Florida. It’s been obvious for quite some time that the Magic are in desperate need of dynamic, top-tier talent, and the upper echelons of the draft are a great place to find those sorts of players.
(By way of quick comparison, the second pick has produced 6 All-Stars in that same time frame, while the third pick has generated an identical 9. The fourth, fifth and sixth slots have combined for 10 selections. The moral? The top three matters.)
The specifics of context
To this point, much of the conversation about the draft’s first pick has been without a necessary contextual factor: the Orlando Magic. Again looking to the win shares metric, five times since 1992 has the number one selection produced the most on-court victories from their specific draft class; the Magic account for two of that crew (Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard), while their ‘93 selection finished either second (Chris Webber) or third (Penny Hardaway) depending on how you look at it. In short, this is a team that has a history of getting it right when leading off the night.
The other contextual variable that will be in play for the Magic come the Draft is the Jeff Weltman and John Hammond combination. This will be the sixth time they’ve handled the team’s selection, and the fourth such appearance that has come in the lottery. Last year the duo hit a home run when they nabbed Franz Wagner with pick number eight, while their work at the two preceding events is also difficult to quibble with – Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke have both been solid pickups for their respective slots.
Unfortunately, the higher up the draft board we go, the wonkier the pair’s selections become. Jalen Suggs is far from a finished product, so any definitive judgment based solely on his rookie campaign would be shortsighted at best and misleading at worst. Still, it’s fair to say that there is already some consternation regarding that selection evident in sections of the fanbase.
Additionally, the back-to-back selections of Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac with top six picks have almost invariably been a significant misstep. Injuries have come to dominate Isaac’s narrative, a reality that further haunts based on the play of some who were drafted behind the lanky forward. Bamba’s career-to-date has disappointed for other reasons, but his selection resonates similarly for Magic fans because of a handful of players picked at later slots. Simply put, in neither circumstance did Orlando’s front office come away from the draft with the best player available.
So what does all of this mean for next month’s Draft? Have the Magic actually inherited a poisoned chalice in being bequeathed the top pick? Is the team’s front office doomed to repeat the gaffes of recent years?
The simple answer to those last two questions is ‘no’. The Magic, like any team, are undoubtedly in the driver’s seat when it comes to the draft by virtue of owning the top selection; they’ll be wholly responsible for determining their own fate, with an unimpeded avenue to whomever they deem the best talent available. Likewise, just because the front office crew have left some points on the board in prior drafts doesn’t mean they’ll do so again. Picking first theoretically makes that job a little easier by removing the variance and uncertainty that is generated by the actions of other teams.
Still, an examination of the recent history of first overall picks demonstrates the inherent difficulty of any draft selection – even the top selection is far from a franchise-altering certainty! However, choice number one does, of course, at least ensure the best chance at such an outcome; Orlando will literally be the only team with the opportunity to draft any player from the class.
For the Magic, it’s that opportunity which has been the driving force behind the team’s rebuild over the last twelve months. Thanks to a dash of overdue luck the team finds itself in the precise position that the front office were angling for all along. Now they just have to nail the pick, a proposition that is historically more difficult than it might appear at first blush.
If they can, the Magic will finally have seized the opportunity to build something bigger.