Sitting in the basement of the Eastern Conference with just 14 games to go in the season, the Orlando Magic find themselves on their way to a fifth consecutive last-place finish in the Southeast Division.
After a slew of questionable moves over the last two years, the 2017 offseason will be a critical one for general manager Rob Hennigan, as this may be his final chance to right the ship.
GETTING IT RIGHT ON DRAFT NIGHT
Looking up and down the Magic’s roster, you find a lot of potential and a few talented players that can definitely contribute if given the right opportunities.
What you don’t find, though, is a superstar, and in a rebuilding situation, that type of player is an absolute necessity.
If Orlando keeps going down the path it’s going to finish out the regular season, odds are it will land a top-five draft pick in this year’s draft at worst. In addition to that, the team will receive a pick in the low-to-mid-20s from the Los Angeles Clippers or the Toronto Raptors, pending on which pick is less favorable.
Fortunately for the Magic, it’s a class loaded with playmakers. When a situation like that presents itself, draft the best player available. Depending on the outcome of the lottery, they could have the pick of the litter.
Assuming they’re awarded the fifth overall pick, here’s a list of names a few different mocks have them taking:
SF Josh Jackson, Kansas
PG De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
PG Dennis Smith, N.C. State
Anybody out of that group will do regardless of position, but how about killing two birds with one stone?
That option would be Lauri Markkanen, a seven-foot scoring assassin from Arizona. Based on his style of play, the 19-year-old Finn would be used as a stretch four in the pros, a position the Magic are sorely lacking on their roster.
In 34 games this season, Markkanen is averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 30 minutes of action. He’s shot 49 percent from the field overall, including a 43.2 percent clip from beyond the arc on nearly five attempts per game.
Adding somebody with those skills improves an Orlando team that’s severely underwhelmed in the perimeter shooting game. In today’s NBA, it’s paramount to have at least one of those types of players.
Whoever it is, whether it be Markannen, Fox, Jackson or even Jayson Tatum if they’re lucky, the Magic absolutely have to hit on this pick.
HIT A SINGLE, NOT A HOME RUN
Impatience is a big reason why the Magic are in this situation in the first place. The surprising acquisition of Serge Ibaka on 2016 draft night came at a hefty cost. Not only did Orlando give up Victor Oladipo, but also the draft rights to Domanatas Sabonis and contract rights to Ersan Ilyasova, who had been with them for just 22 games.
To make a young, up-and-coming two guard with an improving jump shot the center piece of a deal is understandable, but not so much when it’s in exchange for a player with an expiring contract who would’ve likely been a rental. Of course, it’s unknown whether Ibaka would’ve signed back with the Magic as a free agent, because Hennigan already dealt him to the Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-rounder after only half a season of basketball with the team.
After the aforementioned draft day deal, Orlando was an active player in free agency, re-signing Evan Fournier to a five-year, $85 million contract and bringing in Bismack Biyombo on a four-year, $72 million deal. They also added Jeff Green, signed veteran point guard D.J. Augustin and acquired Jodie Meeks.
The hefty payday for Biyombo was risky and perplexing, especially considering he wouldn’t be starting for the Magic with Nikola Vucevic and then-power forward Ibaka in the mix. Green, who is averaging career lows nearly all across the board, hasn’t panned out as they’d hoped. They gave him $15 million this season.
The point is, if you want to succeed, let your players grow. It’s clear that Hennigan was chomping at the bit to bring a winning culture back to the Magic franchise when he hired Frank Vogel, but it can’t happen in the snap of a finger. The odd makeup of this roster has led to uncertainty regarding players’ positions and constant changes in the rotation.
When it comes to free agency this time around, Hennigan needs to be much more calculated with his moves. Considering the Magic are only losing a handful of players this offseason and project to have just $15.7 million in cap space barring further moves, they likely won’t be able to land elite talent via those means.
Before making any moves, Orlando’s got to cut bait with Damjan Rudez. If they don’t offer the qualifying offer by June 29, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. Secondly, C.J. Watson’s five million dollar salary becomes guaranteed on July 10, so parting ways through a trade or waiving the veteran would be a wise decision.
What the Magic can do is add shooting and improve their depth.
The main target that comes to mind should be Tim Hardaway Jr. After struggling to find playing time in his first season with the Hawks, it’s been an entirely different story his sophomore year in Atlanta.
Through 65 games, Hardaway Jr. is averaging a career-best 13.7 points per game on 36.5 percent from distance. In 11 games since the All-Star break, that number has improved to 43.5 percent.
It would be a tough get for Orlando, considering he’ll be a restricted free agent and the Hawks will be able to match whatever offer he fields.
If that didn’t shake out in their favor, two more names out there that could fit the criteria are Justin Holiday and Ian Clark. Both are upcoming unrestricted free agents starved for consistent playing time, and have proved their worth when their respective numbers have been called.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE YOUNG GUYS
The contract extension deadline for Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon is on October 31, 2017. These calls will be another crucial factor that will determine Hennigan’s future with the organization.
This decision….is not easy.
Payton has been absolutely terrific as of late. In the last five games, the 23-year-old has recorded three triple-doubles and seems to really be finding his groove as a floor general. Since the break, Payton is averaging 12 points, but dishing out 8.2 assists and pulling down 7.7 rebounds per game. He’s shooting a better percentage on fewer field goal attempts and is barely taking threes anymore. He’s playing towards his strengths and eliminating a weaker element from his game.
It’s these kinds of flashes of improvement and development that should earn Payton an extension. Each year, even with inconsistencies, he’s shown steady growth in his aggressiveness. The defensive awareness is something to be desired, but remember that he is only in his third year as a pro.
As for Gordon and a potential extension, that’s a little more complicated.
At 21 years old, Gordon still has a ton of room to grow. He’s a prospect with a ton of potential and excitement. He’s a freakish athlete that’s also displayed flashes of greatness at times, especially defensively.
But by the same token, there are limits to what Gordon can do on the floor. His perimeter jump shot has been woefully bad this year. A change of position as an experiment didn’t help his case out, but he’s got to stop taking those threes and start driving. Hitting the boards needs to be a point of emphasis, as well.
There’s enough evidence there aside from those areas, though, to grant a contract extension to Gordon. It’s kind of a benefit-of-the-doubt sort of thing, but once his usage increases and he gets even more acclimated to the league, he’ll be somebody to reckon with down the line.
In order for the Magic to get back on the right track, there are going to be bumps and bruises. The most important thing on this long road to redemption is to stay the course.
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