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NBA PM: Magic Following Thunder’s Formula for Success

The Orlando Magic are struggling, but Kevin Durant sees shades of Oklahoma City in the rebuilding Magic… Young stars keep All-Star Weekend as entertaining as it should be…

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Kevin Durant Sees Bright Future in Orlando

When the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Kevin Durant with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, it was one of the easiest selections any team had ever made in the history of the draft. With two players—Durant and Greg Oden—the clear top couple of picks in that draft, all the struggling Sonics had to do was take the player who fell to them. The organization, now in Oklahoma City, must thank the powers that be on a daily basis that Portland preferred Oden.

However Durant got there, that draft pick laid the foundation for a rebuild in Oklahoma City that literally could not have gone any better, as the front office made genius pick after genius pick, from Russell Westbrook to James Harden to Serge Ibaka. Every move, at least as far as the draft was concerned, was the right one, and that model has served as the basis for the way that almost every modern NBA team wants to approach the rebuilding process.

Bottom out, amass high draft picks, then use those high draft picks on franchise cornerstones. That’s the plan that some teams, like the Cleveland Cavaliers, have tried and failed miserably to duplicate, but other organizations, like the Orlando Magic, are having a much smoother go of it, as Durant himself has observed.

“They have a really good team,” Durant told Basketball Insiders. “The record doesn’t really tell how good a team they have from top to bottom. From Jameer (Nelson) to (Arron) Afflalo to Tobias Harris and (Nikola) Vucevic—all those guys have put up big numbers in this league.”

Last year’s second overall pick, Victor Oladipo, represents the first major high draft pick in Orlando’s rebuild, and Durant thinks he’s off to a strong start, as well.

“He works extremely hard,” Durant said of Oladipo. “He’s very humble, and he can play. The number two pick, of course you can play this game if you’re picked that high.”

Orlando obviously isn’t doing well as far as wins are concerned, but it’s easy to see the foundations of something interesting being built there. Durant, when asked whether there were similarities between his own experience rebuilding and what’s happening with the Magic, could only speak about what he and his teammates went through with the Thunder, but it doesn’t sound like Orlando is too far off the formula that has worked so well for OKC.

“It’s all about being patient and having faith and trust in the GMs and coaches to get your team better and bring in guys that fit the character and identity you want to have in your organization,” Durant said, adding that the acquisition of talented players is only half the battle.

“As coaches and players, you’ve got to come into work. We looked at practices like games. Shootarounds were like practices. We just learned from that every single day. We kept chipping away, and we understood that it was a process, but it helped that we got some guys in here. We stuck with what we believed in, which is having character guys that care about the team first and work extremely hard.”

Oladipo certainly fits that mold, as do Harris, Vucevic, Afflalo and Nelson, and so far the core guys on that Magic roster have remained relatively affordable. Another high pick in this highly-touted 2014 NBA Draft should only help them inch even closer to respectability.

It’s a hard model to follow because so much depends on making the most of the top draft picks that the team lands. Cleveland hasn’t handled that part of the equation well over the course of the last three years, Kyrie Irving aside, but Orlando is off to a great start with Oladipo. With strong young players and financial flexibility, they’re in better shape than almost any other team currently undergoing a rebuild.

The Magic are not the Oklahoma City Thunder, obviously, but they’re certainly walking the same path. Even better, they’re walking that path the right way.

No More Mediocrity for All-Star Saturday

It has always struck NBA fans as kind of ridiculous that star players would be uninterested in participating in the slam dunk contest because, honestly, these guys do crazy stuff in practice all the time that could be duplicated for the exhibition and still be a million times more entertaining than what the league has trotted out there the last several years. Even if, say, LeBron James was going at it half-speed, would anybody really care, as long as the guys dunking were actually the best dunkers and/or the biggest names in the NBA?

This year, the league once again invited some middling NBA talents with serious dunking skills, but those names include some truly exciting dunkers. Defending champ Terrence Ross is one of those guys, obviously, but Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore should be entertaining, too.

More importantly, though, is guys like Paul George, Damian Lillard and John Wall agreeing to take part in the competition. It’s not that Lillard and Wall are expected to do anything mind-blowing, but having actual All-Stars take part in the Saturday festivities is an important shift that will hopefully be duplicated for years to come. George, in particular, has the combination of athleticism and showmanship (not to mention star power) that made the early dunk contests so entertaining.

Granted, all these guys are young, which means the older stars are still being curmudgeons about participating in the event, but the dunk contest will only ever be fun if it features big names. It’s hard not to look forward to one in which there actually are some big names attached to the event.

Lillard, though not necessarily a favorite to win the dunk contest, will make history at this year’s All-Star festivities by participating in all five of the major events at All-Star Weekend. On Friday, he’ll get some minutes in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, and on Saturday he’ll do the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. Sunday, of course, he’ll play in the actual All-Star game.

Nobody has ever been this active at All-Star weekend because players want to use the weekend as a relaxing getaway to enjoy friends, parties, and the glitz and glamour of the festivities, but Lillard has the right idea, at least in terms of giving the fans what they want to see.

Hopefully, as guys like Lillard, Wall and George get older they’ll stay active in these events so that they never lose their luster. The years with no dunk contest were bad, but not as bad as the years that had really boring, faceless competitors. If this were the start of a trend and not just an anomaly, All-Star weekend would benefit greatly. More importantly, so would the fans.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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