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For the Orlando Magic, at Least the Worst Is Over

Their fans can’t predict the future, but it surely can’t be any worse than the past four years

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

Here’s a secret: Before four years ago, the Magic were a model franchise. They had three relevant eras and made two Finals runs in 23 years. They’ve made as many conference finals as the Mavericks, more than the Nuggets and Nets, all teams who have existed in the NBA for much longer. They came into the league the same year as the Timberwolves, who have, to this point, been relevant exactly once, 12 years ago. They housed some of the sport’s greatest superstars: Shaq, T-Mac, Dwight, Bo Outlaw. They have a nice arena, they’ve had some great uniforms, and their mascot, Stuff, once boxed a kangaroo at halftime.

This is what makes the past four years of Magic basketball so grim. The franchise went from over two decades of watchability and excitement to the absolute bleakest team on earth. SportVU’s player-tracking technology has not produced quantifiable statistics for “dribbling the ball out of bounds on a big possession” or “falling down for some reason,” but the Magic lead the league in both since 2012, I can assure you. The worst part of being a Magic fan over the past few years has been explaining why they lost while simultaneously trying to sound smart. There was no stat to explain it, no next-level analysis. The actual answer was: They were just bad.

Rob Hennigan has been one of the few GMs to employ the much-maligned “collecting assets” strategy in basketball and do it well. But there’s a downside: The rosters assembled in the meantime, before the big-picture vision of the team is complete, actually have to play together on the court. Basketball is what happens while you’re making plans. The meantime Magic were a disaster. Young players made a lot of mistakes, couldn’t shoot, and had defensive lapses. The veterans on the team compounded the issue by demonstrating the same weaknesses. The following players have started at least 15 games since Dwight Howard was traded in 2012: Andrew Nicholson, Dewayne Dedmon, and DeQuan Jones. Devyn Marble started seven games in 2015. The team once signed Ben Gordon (Ben Gordon!) after a 2013–14 season in which even the offensively challenged Bobcats had no use for him. The Magic were in the wilderness.

The past four seasons accounted for four of Orlando’s worst five seasons since 1992, the year the Magic drafted Shaq. The high point came in January of 2016, when the team was in the hunt for a decent playoff seed with a 19–13 record at the start of the month. That was also around the time Scott Skiles decided he didn’t want to coach the team anymore.

The problem with that era — let’s call them the Andrew Nicholson years — is that the Magic had no identity. The 2015–16 team was supposed to be defensive-minded but — whoops! — forgot to play defense. They couldn’t get to the free throw line. They couldn’t hit outside shots, which was not ideal considering the fact that they couldn’t hit inside shots, either. The interior defense was bad, but Skiles routinely blamed the poor perimeter defense for its woes. Everyone was bad in their own way and it was all interconnected. Think of all of the complexities of Interstellar. Then add Shabazz Napier.

This is in stark contrast to the previous Magic teams in history who knew exactly what they did well. The high-flying Shaq-and-Penny teams were helped along by elite outside shooting from Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott. The Dwight teams were buoyed by a great bench and matchup nightmares in Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. In Orlando, ask anyone over college age about the “Heart and Hustle” team and they’ll speak fondly of a post–Penny Hardaway (pre–Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill) squad of scrubs, led by Darrell Armstrong, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and Chucky Atkins, who scrambled to 41 wins under rookie coach Doc Rivers by, uh, hustling.

The only identity the Magic have managed to cultivate since 2012 has nothing to do with their on-court product: They were unlucky. The Magic have had one of the five worst records in the league in three of the past four seasons, but were never bailed out by the ping-pong balls. Even their highest pick during the rebuild was a step backward. For having the worst record in the NBA in 2013, Orlando was awarded the no. 2 overall pick in what could go down as one of the worst drafts in NBA history. The Magic drafted Victor Oladipo, who, if you recall, was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder on draft night back in June. This horrid four-year run was not the worst stretch of basketball in league history, but it is certainly among the most depressing.

The goal of the 2016–17 Orlando Magic is to stop being depressing. Let’s check in with Frank Vogel after the team’s preseason loss to the Heat this week:

Huh. OK.

Early returns aren’t promising, but that hasn’t kept expectations from rising. Orlando Sentinel Magic columnist Brian Schmitz called this Magic team “the closest thing we’ve seen since 2012 to a legitimate NBA team.” That is truly the nicest thing anyone has said about the team in years. Schmitz made the point that Serge Ibaka “gives the Magic their first authentic power-forward presence since Horace Grant in the mid-’90s.” The Magic’s website was so excited that it floated what may be the greatest theory on the internet: “Did playing with KD and Russell hinder his development?”

There is a legitimate case to be made that this team could make the playoffs; the Magic, had they been capable of holding onto leads, would have done so last season, too. (See this list of hilarious, San Diego Chargers–style blown leads last year as evidence.) The talent on this roster is undeniably better than at any other point in the Hennigan era. Orlando, at last, has asserted a strong identity. It will do one thing well: defend. This “doing one thing well” is a wild departure from the “doing zero things well” strategy employed the past few years. In the past three years, Vogel’s Indiana teams had a top-three defense twice, in 2014 and 2016, and in the team’s one down year in 2015, they ranked eighth.

The key to the whole defensive operation here is how the Bismack Biyombo–Serge Ibaka–Aaron Gordon frontcourt would look. Vogel has been relentlessly praising the Ibaka-Biyombo pairing for its defensive versatility. “Really, I think that’s the way that I would build a team if I was starting from scratch,” Vogel told the Magic’s website of Ibaka and Biyombo. “To have the ability to not have to change your lineup every night — if you’re playing a big team, you don’t have to take your smalls out; and if you are playing a small team, you don’t have to pull your bigs.”

The team now has the personnel to indulge Vogel’s fantasy of playing games in which scores resemble high-scoring college football finals, but it might not have the talent to solve Orlando’s other glaring problem. During the four-year rebuild, the team never finished above 22nd in offensive rating. Losing Oladipo — a player prone to taking over quarters, creating quick offense, and getting really hot — and his production will not help matters. Nor would taking Vucevic, the team’s most talented offensive weapon, off the floor in favor of Biyombo. But what if the defense becomes as good as advertised? And, perhaps a bigger stretch: What if a member of Orlando’s young core makes a huge statistical leap in offensive production?

If a leap is coming, it probably isn’t going to be from Evan Fournier, who already enjoyed his breakout season last year. What fans ought to hope for is Mario Hezonja forcing his way onto the floor. Maybe Vogel takes him seriously about playing point guard, for instance, or Hezonja makes the most of his minutes spelling Gordon and Fournier. Of course, Hezonja has to improve his defense before any of this is remotely realistic, and Vogel said the Croatian has a “ways to go” on that. But his development should be a priority, even for a team looking to win now, not later: A defensively-capable Hezonja would theoretically solve a large chunk of the Magic’s problems. He can score from outside, play off the ball, and, at 6-foot-8, represents the kind of positional versatility on offense that Gordon, Ibaka, and Biyombo show on defense.

Or maybe Elfrid Payton, a good passer if nothing else, starts to develop enough chemistry with Gordon that they cash in on the Lob City 2.0 vibe they flashed last season. Gordon has shown a supernatural ability to adjust around the rim. Aaron Gordon putbacks on YouTube are the rabbit hole every Magic fan can waste a day on. (Or just watch every dunk here.)

The team is built not unlike a 2K team. It is filled with athletic people who dunk well but don’t necessarily fit and then a bunch of guys from free agency who worked salary-wise. Why is Jeff Green here? Is it because they wouldn’t let you start simulating games until you had enough combo forwards? Jodie Meeks is on this team. C.J. Watson is on this team. D.J. Augustin is the backup point guard and could take over as the starter if Payton fails to improve. When you find yourself in December wondering aloud where a marginal player who was kind of good circa 2011 is playing, the answer is Orlando.

Now, there’s an upside here. Those role players, as seemingly random as they are, could provide nice veteran depth if the starting five lives up to its potential. And on paper, this group of Payton, Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka, and Nikola Vucevic (or Biyombo) is a starting unit you could win 43 games with.

I have a lot of bad opinions on the Magic. I think they should have won the 2009 Finals. I think the late ’90s uniforms were the best and that Rashard Lewis’s $118 million contract was worth it. The opinion that is quickly becoming my worst is that I think Rob Hennigan is a really good general manager. He won the Dwight Howard trade principally by acquiring Vucevic and, crucially, running a team that didn’t have Dwight Howard. He turned a few months of expiring-contract J.J. Redick into Tobias Harris. He turned Arron Afflalo into Evan Fournier. He won nearly every trade.

Which is why something felt amiss about last season’s Harris trade. In the same way it’s easy to tell when Donald Trump isn’t really sending his own tweets, it is easy figure out when a general manager’s move isn’t his. The Magic shipping Harris for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova was his first major loss as a general manager.

It’s clear now that the Harris trade marked the beginning of a win-now philosophy that starts with ownership and management above Hennigan. That explains why he went out and acquired so many veterans this past offseason, and explains why, for the first time in his tenure, he wasn’t trying to get pieces for the future. Hennigan’s vision of a juggernaut built through the lottery won’t be fully realized, but after four horrible years the good news is that the floor on this team is a competent, watchable, well-coached team. And that is something the city will take.

The bar is low for the Magic: Give the city something. At the very least, have the mascot box a kangaroo again.