Can the Orlando Magic Really Compete?

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When the Orlando Magic decided that it was time to trade away franchise center Dwight Howard two summers ago, it meant the team would be rebuilding for the next several seasons. Many thought at the time that the Magic didn’t quite receive enough compensation in return for a player that had won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. A lot of fans weren’t quite ready to see the team compete for lottery picks after coming off of several seasons of 50+ win seasons and a trip to the 2009 NBA Finals.

The Magic were left in a position like the Minnesota Timberwolves faced this past summer with Kevin Love: do you trade away one of the best players in franchise history or do you keep him and risk losing him for nothing? When teams are in a position like that with no leverage, they often don’t come out on top, but it’s quite possible that the Orlando Magic did just that. That idea is especially surprising considering the fact that the team acquired all younger players that had yet to prove themselves at the time.

Now, it seems almost unanimous that the Magic won the trade that took four teams to complete. Left on the team from that trade are foundation players in Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and a first-round draft pick that came to be the No. 12 pick, which the team used to acquire point guard Elfrid Payton from the Philadelphia 76ers on draft night. In addition to those three players, the Magic were able to bring in Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon through the draft after two seasons in which they won 20 and 23 games, respectively. Also out from the Magic’s glory days is J.J. Redick, who the Magic traded away to the Milwaukee Bucks at the 2012 trade deadline in exchange for Tobias Harris.

It’s now those players that are burdened with the task of bringing the Magic back to the playoffs, but are the Magic ready to compete now?

With those core players gaining more experience in the league, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan looked to improve the team even more through free agency this summer. Hennigan signed free agent power forward Channing Frye to a four-year, $32 million deal that will make Frye the team’s highest-paid player. The addition of Frye will provide the Magic with spacing and a legitimate three-point threat, something the Magic lacked last season. Speaking at Magic media day on Monday, Frye said it was that core of players that ultimately attracted him to sign with the Magic.

“I think the biggest thing that I look at is definitely the roster, and what that is about,” Frye told Basketball Insiders. “I know some guys that have played here; I knew Ronnie Price, of course I know [cousin] Tobias [Harris], I know [Marcin] Gortat still lives here and I asked them how is the city. They said they love the city, the fans are the best and the facilities are the best. I asked Ronnie, ‘How is the team?’ He says the team is great, they’re just young. Some guys need floor spacing, some guys just need another year to develop and so when I looked at them I said there’s a need for me here and I feel like this team can compete and I feel like we can compete against some of the better teams in the league; we just have to develop that team cohesiveness and I think we really just have to embrace who we are and create an identity for ourselves and I think once we do that we’re going to be pretty tough.”

Despite the improvement from within the team and the addition of Frye, the Magic are still projected as a team that should be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference again. With two draft picks inside the top 12, many believed taking NBA-ready players would allow the Magic to take the next step in the rebuild but the Magic ultimately decided on Gordon and Payton, who are still viewed as being a season or two away from making a meaningful impact.

“That rebuilding word is kind of funny; I think last year or the year before they were rebuilding but now I think you look at the team and now we’re starting to get more expectations,” said Frye. “People just say, ‘Oh they are going to be bad,’ just because they were bad last year but I don’t think we have the same mindset. I think with the guys coming in last year they want to be better and I think what I’ve seen so far I think we are going to be better. I think that with the people Rob [Hennigan] brought in this new energy is going to help us be more consistent in the win column.”

Frye is familiar with playing on rebuilding teams not projected to do well. The Suns were expected by many to compete for the rights to Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Park last season, but instead missed out on the last playoff spot by just one game. After embracing the underdog role last season with the Suns, Frye says the Magic are being overlooked as well.

“I like being the underdog,” Frye said. “I think that no matter how good we were in Phoenix in 2010 they thought we were going to be 11th in the West and we ended up going to the Western Conference Finals so all of that stuff really doesn’t matter to me. I feel like you’re not in our locker room, you’re not out here working, you’re not watching us play all of the time and you’re not seeing our development. Do I think that there are teams that are better prepared to make the playoff push? Yeah, but I think Washington has made moves, Cleveland has made moves and Chicago has made moves but I also feel like we’ve made moves to be one of those teams that can compete with anyone.”