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NBA Friday: Magic Arriving Ahead Of Schedule

The Orlando Magic are above .500 and the playoffs are a possibility. Have they arrived?

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Orlando Magic’s Rebuilding Project Ahead of Schedule

Talent reigns supreme in the NBA. Period. This is why when teams lose an elite talent, the franchise in question usually toils in the league basement for years while they recover.

For the Orlando Magic, losing a superstar talent is all too familiar for the organization.

In the 1990s, the franchise lost both Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. Most recently, former All-Star center Dwight Howard expressed his desire to explore different opportunities. The team obliged and in 2012 shipped him to the Los Angeles Lakers in a massive blockbuster deal.

The move was initially believed to give the Lakers the extra push they needed to contend for a title. The Philadelphia 76ers were also thought to have hit the jackpot and received center Andrew Bynum, who was considered a top-five big man at the time.

The Magic, on the other hand, were thought to have received the short end of the proverbial stick – receiving the relatively unknown Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless. Orlando also received veterans Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Josh McRoberts and a slew of future draft picks.

Howard went on to play just one season in Los Angeles before bolting to the Houston Rockets in free agency, while Bynum never appeared in a game for Philadelphia.

But the Magic endured three consecutive 55-plus loss seasons during the subsequent rebuild, landing top five picks in each draft (Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja). The Magic also pulled off a savvy move in 2014 when they traded for current starting point guard Elfrid Payton, sending the rights to Dario Saric and a 2017 first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Saric has yet to suit up for the Sixers, while Payton finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting last season.

Orlando also eventually traded Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets and landed guard Evan Fournier, who has developed into a starter for the Magic. The 23-year-old has been a key contributor this season, averaging a career-high 14.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals.

Even with their steady progress, most didn’t believe the Magic had an opportunity to be in the playoff mix in an improving Eastern Conference. However, if the playoffs started today, the Magic (17-12) would surprisingly hold the fifth seed in the conference.

It goes without saying that the Magic have arrived to relevancy a bit ahead of schedule, but where does the franchise go as we approach the trade deadline? Will the team ride out the season with the current core of youngsters or look to acquire a veteran presence to aid the team down the stretch of this season?

The Magic could also opt to bypass the trade market and evaluate free agency next summer to add in the final pieces of their rebuilding plan. Orlando will have just $60 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for the 2016-17 campaign, giving them the flexibility to target an asset.

Orlando appears to be in a similar position as the 2014-15 Boston Celtics, who managed to secure a playoff berth ahead of schedule since the franchise was still rebuilding. The experience proved to be valuable for their young core and the team is in the hunt for another playoff appearance this season.

Are the Washington Wizards the NBA’s Most Disappointing Team?

Last season, the Washington Wizards won 46 games and reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second consecutive season. Because of their success in the playoffs last year, expectations were high for the unit heading into this season (especially since most of their core players were returning).

However, at the quarter mark, the Wizards (13-14) are currently outside of the playoff race and appear to be a team struggling to just stay afloat let alone one that is contending for Eastern Conference supremacy.

But is the franchise the most disappointing unit during the early going of the 2015-16 campaign?

It’s tough to give the squad this distinction because of the injuries that have been piling up in the nation’s capitol. Bradley Beal (10 games), Nene (15), Otto Porter (3), Drew Gooden (21), Marcin Gortat (3) and Alan Anderson (27) have all missed time due to an assortment of injuries.

All-Star point guard and franchise player John Wall hasn’t missed any court time, but the veteran has been battling an assortment of leg and rib injuries to start the campaign.

Even though the unit has struggled, the Wizards remain just 2.5 games behind the emerging Detroit Pistons for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. That’s a gap that could easily be closed, if and only if the Wizards are eventually able to put their injury woes behind them.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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