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The Magic Have Set Themselves Up for a Massive Rebuild … Again

They swung for the fences with Serge Ibaka and struck out badly. Cutting their losses is smart, but fans won’t like where this is heading.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Serge Ibaka era in Orlando lasted a little over eight months. Babies conceived in celebration of the Magic’s trade on draft night haven’t even been born yet. The trade for Ibaka was supposed to mark an all-in playoff push, especially since it cost the team Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis, the no. 11 pick in the 2016 draft. But nothing went according to plan, and they’ve quickly waved the white flag, shipping Ibaka off to the Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick in 2017, the lower of either the Raptors’ or the Clippers’ selections, which will be somewhere in the 20s. It’s a terrible return on investment, but it was better than watching Ibaka, an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, walk for nothing. The Magic took a big swing, and they struck out.

The plan in Orlando was to build an elite defense around an all-Congolese front line of Ibaka and free-agent acquisition Bismack Biyombo (Ibaka is from the Republic, Biyombo is from the Democratic Republic) under new coach Frank Vogel, who developed a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive minds during his time in Indiana. Developing an identity on that side of the ball would take some of the pressure off their bevy of young lottery picks, while contending for the playoffs would hopefully accelerate the kids’ development. Instead, the defensive breakthrough never happened, and a lack of 3-point shooting suffocated the Magic offense. Orlando has been one of the most disappointing teams in the league, currently second to last in the Eastern Conference with a record of 21–36 and a point differential of minus-6.2.

Even worse for a franchise committed to drafting and developing — one run by general manager Rob Hennigan, a disciple of Sam Presti in Oklahoma City — its young players have all stagnated or gone backward. Mario Hezonja, the no. 5 pick in the 2015 draft, has been in Vogel’s doghouse for most of the season, and his stats have declined across the board. Elfrid Payton, the young point guard whom they built their offense around following Oladipo’s departure, still can’t shoot. Nikola Vucevic, their most talented offensive player, still doesn’t play much defense, a glaring problem for any center. Aaron Gordon, their most promising prospect, has spent most of the season playing out of position, and he has not taken the leap forward many expected in his third season.

If there’s a silver lining in the Ibaka trade for the Magic, it’s that Gordon will finally be moved to power forward, his natural position. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who made a splash on the national stage with his jaw-dropping performance in last year’s dunk contest. However, he’s a career 29.2 percent shooter from 3, so forcing him to play on the perimeter next to two traditional big men as a small forward was a classic example of jamming a square peg through a round hole. Playing as a power forward next to more 3-point shooting on the wing will open up more driving lanes for Gordon and allow him to play closer to the basket, while moving up a position on defense should allow him to play a more active role in pick-and-roll coverages. Gordon has the length and athleticism to switch screens and guard virtually every position.

According to the positional estimates at Basketball-Reference, Gordon went from a 40–60 split in his time between the small forward and power forward positions last year to 93 percent at small forward and only 4 percent at power forward this season. Orlando’s logjam in the frontcourt was so bad that he spent 3 percent of his time at shooting guard, a criminal misuse of his talent. For a glimpse at what Gordon could look like at power forward, we can go to Orlando’s 105–96 loss to the L.A. Clippers on January 11, when Ibaka was out with a sprained right shoulder, the only game he’s missed all season. Gordon looked like a different player, dropping 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Look at how much space he has to attack the rim in this sequence:

Like most combo forwards in today’s game, Gordon’s skill set is more suited to attacking slower defenders off the dribble as a 4 than to trying to take smaller defenders in the post as a 3. He has only been used as a roll man in the two-man game eight times this season, compared to 54 possessions in the post, where he is in the 27th percentile of post scorers in the NBA. He will be up for an extension on his rookie contract in the offseason, and the Ibaka trade will allow the Magic to get a much better feel for what they have in him by putting him in situations he’s more comfortable in.

As talented as Ibaka is, and for as much of an impact as he might have in Toronto, his departure won’t be a huge loss for Orlando. His block rate over the past two seasons (4.4 percent) has plummeted in comparison to his peak in Oklahoma City (9.8 percent). The Magic were actually worse on defense with him on the floor this season, with a defensive rating of 108.1 with Ibaka playing and 105.8 without him. At this stage in his career, he’s probably better off playing closer to the basket as a center, which wasn’t going to happen in Orlando thanks to the combined $29 million in salary the Magic are paying to Vucevic and Biyombo.

The other side of the trade for the Magic is the addition of Ross, who should immediately step into a role as their starting shooting guard. In five seasons in Toronto, he’s a career 37.6 shooter from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game, and his ability to shoot from deep with volume and efficiency will be a huge benefit to one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA. The Magic are 18th in the league in 3-point attempts (25.8 per game) and 28th in 3-point accuracy (33.2 percent); opposing teams are packing the paint and daring the Magic to beat them from the perimeter. Playing Ross and Evan Fournier together on the wings should give the other Orlando players much more breathing room on offense.

The Magic have essentially swapped Oladipo for Ross, which may not be quite as bad as it might seem even though Oladipo has blossomed into a quality second option with the Thunder this season. Ross, like Oladipo, was a highly-touted lottery pick coming out of college, but he hasn’t gotten nearly as many chances to show what he can do. He was drafted a year after the Raptors took DeMar DeRozan, and he has either shared the floor with or backed up DeRozan his entire career in Toronto, which is a tough situation for anyone given how much DeRozan plays, how much he holds the ball, and how little he spaces the floor for anyone else.

Ross is averaging 22.4 minutes per game this season and Oladipo is averaging 33.6, so the only way to fairly compare them is to look at their per-36-minute averages:

The biggest thing that jumps out in Ross’s numbers is how many 3-pointers he attempts, an indication of his role in Toronto and a positive sign for what he could bring to Orlando. He doesn’t get to the line much or distribute the ball, but he has also never been asked to be more than a secondary scorer. He has a career usage rating of 18.7, compared to a career usage rate of 23.6 for Oladipo. While that may be an indication of their underlying shot-creating abilities, learning to play without the ball is a fact of life for anyone playing with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Trying to take the ball from DeRozan is like trying to keep light from escaping a black hole — it’s just not going to happen. If Ross is known for anything in the NBA besides his freakish dunking ability, it’s his 51-point explosion against the Clippers in 2014. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ross’s random outburst came in a game when DeRozan went down with an ankle injury.

In five seasons in Orlando, the biggest strength of Hennigan’s front office has been its ability to identify underutilized young talent around the league. The Magic traded for Tobias Harris when he was at the end of the bench in Milwaukee, for Fournier when he was a lightly used backup in Denver, and unearthed Vucevic from a 15-minute-a-game role in Philadelphia. Of course, Harris is now gone, having being traded for peanuts at last year’s deadline, and the Magic haven’t had much success in building a competitive team. But their front office’s eye for diamonds in the rough is a small reed of hope that fans can cling to.

With Gordon, Fournier, and Ross in place, Vogel should have more stability with his starting lineup, which he has shuffled multiple times over the course of the season. However, the Magic will still need to make decisions at center and point guard. Will they look to move Vucevic — who has been linked in trade rumors ever since they signed Biyombo — before next week’s trade deadline? Are they still happy with Payton, whose inconsistent offensive game reportedly caused a clash between the front office and former head coach Scott Skiles? Payton, like Gordon, is up for an extension on his rookie contract in the offseason, and leaguewide interest in a point guard who can’t shoot is at an all-time low.

The first question the Magic need to answer is whether they are still trying to compete for a playoff spot. For as bad as they have been this season, they are only 5.5 games out of the no. 8 seed out East. If they are waving the white flag, that means cutting playing time for veterans like D.J. Augustin, C.J. Watson, and Jeff Green to try to salvage the development of Hezonja, who’s still only 21 years old, and seeing if former Clippers first-round pick C.J. Wilcox, whom they acquired in the offseason, can play. If you want an obscure name to keep an eye on, check out 2016 second-round pick Stephen Zimmerman, a former five-star recruit out of high school who slipped in the draft because of a knee injury he suffered in his only season at UNLV. Zimmerman has an intriguing combination of size, athleticism, and shooting ability at 7-foot and 240 pounds.

Here’s what’s depressing, though: those three players are the extent of the Magic’s possible youth movement. For a team that has been in the lottery ever since dealing Dwight Howard in 2012, they have a frighteningly low number of young building blocks, all while former players like Harris, Oladipo, Moe Harkless, and Dewayne Dedmon have blossomed elsewhere. The only under-25 players on their roster are Gordon, Hezonja, Payton, Fournier, Zimmerman, and Anthony Brown, and there may not be an All-Star-caliber player among them. Orlando has traditionally been able to attract free agents based on its climate as well as a lack of a state income tax in Florida, but the team’s recent struggles mean the Magic may need to take several more trips to the lottery in order to replenish their talent pool to the point that they could seriously expect to win a playoff series, much less contend for a championship.

The good news for Magic fans is this year’s draft class is considered one of the best in recent memory, and it’s historically deep at point guard, the position at which they are weakest. They have the fourth-worst record in the league already, and if they embrace the tank they could conceivably catch the Suns, who they’re only 3.5 games “behind” for the second-worst record. (The Nets, with a record of 9–46, can’t be caught for the most ping-pong balls, although their pick is going to the Celtics this season.) The outlook in Orlando would be a lot more promising with Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball running the break with Gordon, and the shooting ability of Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, or Frank Ntilikina could significantly improve the team next season. They would presumably pass on De’Aaron Fox, who is shooting only 17.4 percent from 3 at Kentucky this season, given how much they’ve struggled with Payton’s inability to stretch the floor.

It would be nice if they had their first-round pick from last year’s draft, whether they used it on Sabonis, who has been a solid starter for the Thunder as a rookie this season, or someone else, but that is water under the bridge at this point. Thanks to Tuesday’s Ibaka trade, the Magic will now have two first-round picks in this year’s draft, and it’s imperative they hit them out of the park. But given how many times the Magic have struck out in Hennigan’s five seasons in Orlando, what the franchise will have to figure out is whether it might want someone else making those picks.