Farewell to the mediocre Magic

It was good to see the Orlando Magic finally do something last week. So many trade deadlines have come and gone since they last had a legit franchise player that it seemed like the endless cycle of failure, frustration and downright mediocrity would never end.

Sure, some of the trades they made were questionable. Of course it’s tough to see Nikola Vučević go. And yes injuries ultimately forced this latest rebuild upon them. But now that it’s underway, the outlook for this team is far brighter than it was just a week ago.

From a certain point of view that is.

The dreaded hamster wheel of mediocrity

For anyone who became a Magic fan during what should be remembered as the Rob Hennigan era that probably won’t be the case. You inevitably develop an attachment to players, good or bad (Rony Seikaly anyone?), and that makes it difficult to envisage a future without them. But the thing about this particular group of players is that, together, they were neither good nor bad, and there’s really nothing worse than that in the NBA.

In the words of Josh Robbins of the Athletic: “The dreaded hamster wheel of mediocrity — that is where the Orlando Magic positioned themselves for the last two and a half seasons. They were nowhere near good enough to reach the NBA playoffs’ second round but also nowhere near bad enough to select a franchise-changing player at the very top of the draft. The franchise planted itself solidly in the middle, with an uncertain pathway toward a better future.”

Two playoff appearances in eight seasons tells you everything you need to know about where the Magic were prior to this week’s deadline. And while things have been better these past couple of years thanks to those playoff appearances, the core of the team as constructed had ultimately reached its ceiling. Perhaps if Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz had stayed healthy, Vučević, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier may have had one more first round exit in them. But the front office was always going to have to do this at some point, it was just a matter of when.

After all, you’ll never win anything when your best player is a borderline All-Star.

Voooocccchhhh

Don’t get me wrong, Vučević has become a Magic legend and thanks to him the last nine seasons haven’t been entirely awful. From setting a franchise record for most rebounds in a game (29 against the Miami Heat) during his first season to his playoff career-high 35-point, 14-rebound effort in the Magic’s Game 1 win over Milwaukee Bucks in last season’s first round, Vooch gave the Magic his all.

In fact, he left Orlando having recorded the third-most points in Magic franchise history (10,423) and the second-most rebounds in franchise history (6,381). Not bad for a player who was, at 21, considered to be a throw in on the Dwight Howard trade.

Vooch, at times single-handedly, dragged the Magic from the mire to the playoffs during his time with the franchise and fully deserved the extension he signed in 2019. But time and again, the front office failed to surround him with the right players. And in the end a combination of a bunch of bad contracts, a legitimate shot at a top five pick in this year’s highly appealing draft and a trade package from the Chicago Bulls that was supposedly too good to turn down meant that the time was finally right to move on.

Even so, it was weird to see him in Bulls colours on Saturday night, while the interview posted on the team’s Twitter account illustrated just how much love he has for Orlando and the Magic’s fanbase. And although that love is undoubtedly reciprocated, those same fans will now be hoping he does the Magic one last solid by ensuring the first of the picks acquired in Thursday’s trade lands in the lottery sweet spot.

Playing the lottery

As for the lottery, it is, well, a lottery, and there’s no guarantee that it will deliver a star, particularly under the new rules. The franchise knows this well, having whiffed on the likes of Mario Hezonja and Mohamed Bamba in recent years. But in that time they (and in this instance ‘they’ refers to the previous regime) also drafted Victor Oladipo, Dario Šarić and Domantas Sabonis with lottery picks, all of whom have gone on to have above average NBA careers, albeit with other teams.

The real test now lies ahead of general manager John Hammond and president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman. Not least because they finally have an opportunity to reshape the future of the franchise in their own image, having worked with a roster they largely inherited for a number of years. A roster, that is, that lacked one of the fundamental ingredients to NBA success – a star player.

As Josh Robbins points out though, to date “none of Weltman and Hammond’s first-round selections in Orlando – Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony – have proven themselves to be sure-fire difference-makers,” which won’t exactly fill fans with confidence. And yet, with a genuine shot at one of the top five players in a draft that features at least five prospects who could become top players (come on Cade Cunningham), that could all be about to change.

Another new era

In essence, Weltman and Hammond deserve credit for finally biting the bullet and tearing things down, even if they should have done it a couple of years ago. They should also be commended for landing the only first round picks that changed hands on Thursday. Furthermore, Wendell Carter and RJ Hampton could yet turn out to be diamonds in the rough, adding to an intriguing, albeit injury-prone, core that already features Isaac, Fultz, Bamba, Chuma Okeke, and Cole Anthony. When you also consider the future picks they now own, the potential trade value of Terrence Ross and maybe even Gary Harris, and the $17 million trade exception they got from sending Evan Fournier to Boston, things start to get interesting.

And yet even if the future is full of promise, it’s not going to be easy for an already embattled fan base like Orlando’s to embrace more losing.

Much of it expressed shock, frustration and disappointment at what happened last week, largely because they saw a bunch of players they know and love transformed into a fistful of magic beans in the blink of an eye. And while those fans most likely overestimated the trade value of an aging big man in a small-ball era, a player whose athleticism has never really translated into anything tangible, and a swingman on an expiring contract who likely offers more value as an impact player coming off the bench than he does as a starter, it’s still hard to let go. Even when you know full well that rebuilding is an essential part of the NBA lifecycle and that if you’re not good enough, it’s time to start over.

So, farewell to the mediocre Magic and hello to a couple more years of being awful. Hopefully this time the associated heartache will be worth it.