Nowadays, NBA coverage has become increasingly top-heavy. Every day we are confronted with news about another Westbrook triple-double or the epic Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry and their up-coming finals rematch. One team that is barely featured in NBA media are the Orlando Magic, which is unsurprising, as they aren’t really competing for a playoff spot nor do they have any exciting young players. We tend to forget, though, that Orlando has been to the finals as recently as 2009, when they lost to the Lakers in five. We hardly remember the years of Eastern Conference contention under Stan van Gundy. All this is because the Magic have not overcome the loss of their superstar Dwight Howard until today and instead lingered in a terribly long and unproductive phase of rebuilding.
The wind of change
The Magic of the Howard-era were a truly terrific team. Perfecting their coach’s approach to the game they surrounded Dwight Howard with an army of shooters. Rashard Lewis, J. J. Redick and Hedo Türkoglu maximized Howard’s huge presence on the inside, together they provided a great defense with a capable offense. In 2012, when Howard left for Los Angeles in an ugly trade saga, everything changed. Jacque Vaughn replaced Stan van Gundy as head coach and at the end of the season, after another trade, this time with Milwaukee, their team looked vastly different from the group around Dwight. Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris were the only bright spots in an otherwise desolate Magic team. In Vaughn’s first season they saw a drop from 59 to 20 wins, but there was light at the end of the tunnel: They secured the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and were armed with an additional first-round choice in 2014 from the Howard trade.
Doubtful draft choices
Unfortunately for Orlando, all the draft’s franchise players went outside the top ten. They chose Shooting Guard Victor Oladipo out of Indiana. To be fair, he played a really good rookie year, scored almost 14 points with four boards and assist on average. He even made it to the All-Rookie team, which was less of an achievement in a class with only few high-end talents. But he was also a foreshadowing of what the Magic were going to struggle with in the years to come; Oladipo lacked shooting and was an average distributor which made for a rather poor skill set for a Point Guard, the position Orlando made him play. He didn’t turn out to be a franchise type player, so the Magic kept losing. They had a second chance in the 2014 draft with two lottery picks, but they managed to ruin it again. With their first pick they got Aaron Gordon, who played an injury plagued and after all abysmal rookie campaign. But their bigger mistake was what they did with their second selection: They wisely chose Croatian Dario Šarić, only to ship him to Philadelphia for Point Guard Elfrid Payton. The Louisiana La Fayette product is a gifted passer, but only provided more of what Oladipo could and couldn’t bring to the table. The result: More stagnation and more losing.
Stuck in the rebuild
Since then, much has changed in O-Town. There have been three head coach changes, leading to Frank Vogel’s nomination in 2016. Most notably, the Magic have torn down part of their old core, including Oladipo, in a trade with Oklahoma in which they acquired Serge Ibaka. They also signed Centre Bismack Biyombo in free agency giving their roster more of what it already had, defense. And so the Magic are firmly underway to another sub .500 season. What has made them such a hopeless project? The most obvious answer is their failure to build up a worthy successor to Dwight Howard. It’s never easy to replace a player of his caliber, but Orlando has done their best to make poor draft choices, to trade away potential stars and to gamble on the same type of player twice. As importantly, they have failed to establish any consistency; they fired a number of coaches after quite predictable losing seasons. Also, they demonstrated how little believe they had in their young core when they traded for Ibaka ahead of this season. Together with dubious personnel decisions- like sending Tobias Harris to Detroit – the Orlando Magic have largely seemed like a franchise without a plan and not enough patience to conduct a proper rebuild. They will probably end up picking high again, hopefully this time they make a better choice than they have made the last years. Maybe we will just have to wait even longer to witness the glory of the 90s and the Dwight Howard era again, because at the moment the Magic are stuck in a rather nasty rebuild.