Following the fallout of the Dwight Howard trade back in the summer of 2012, the Orlando Magic were on the receiving end of much hand wringing. In fairness, the response to a franchise parting ways with its star player shouldn’t be appraisal. After all, the name of the game is to acquire star players, not trade them away.
To further complicate matters, Howard’s relationship with then-coach Stan Van Gundy ended on extremely awkward terms. In a matter of months, the Orlando Magic basically burned the entire operation down. No longer did they have a star player, no longer did they have a highly successful coach and no longer did they have a true identity.
The word “rebuild” is pretty much taboo, across all professional sports. Rarely do franchises want to associate themselves with such a flammable term. The Magic didn’t exactly distance themselves from it, if only because it’d be damn near impossible to justify their last three years of basketball existence as otherwise. Having won 68 games in the last three seasons combined says pretty much everything you’d need to know.
The good news is that the 2015-16 Magic appear poised for…something. The same cannot be said for the three other teams involved in the Howard trade. The Lakers, in terms of an on-court product, are in maybe the worst shape the historically great franchise has ever been in. The 76ers are unabashedly rebuilding, in large part, due to an ultimately disastrous gamble on Andrew Bynum. And the Nuggets are somewhere between lost and confused.
The Magic, however, have a core. Nikola Vucevic — the crowning jewel of the Howard trade — is on the verge of becoming the NBA’s next nightly 20-10 machine. Last season, Vucevic, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins were the only players in the league to notch 19 points and 10 rebounds per game whilst posting a true shooting percentage (TS%) over 54 percent and a usage rate (USG%) of at least 26 percent, per Basketball-Reference. In other words, Vucevic is one of the select few players in the league who can shoulder a large workload and still remain relatively efficient and productive. And keep in mind, he’s just turning 25 years old.
To be sure, Vucevic is one of the more gifted offensive big men in the game today. His shot chart last season was really freakin’ impressive. But Vucevic does have his shortcomings on the defensive end, specifically with being able to challenge shots vertically. At this point in his career, he’s just not a force that deters or alters shots at a respectable rate, but that’s not to say he can’t improve.
Improvement defensively should probably be a reasonable expectation for not only Vucevic, but the Magic as a whole this upcoming season. The reason for this? Orlando’s new head coach, Scott Skiles. Twice in Skiles’s coaching career he’s taken over a team during the summer months, and in both cases, Skiles’s teams dramatically improved defensively in his first season as the coach. The scheme Skiles implements has done wonders for a wide array of defenses, ranging from league-worst ones (late 2000s Bucks) to elite ones (early-mid 2000s Bulls).
Some questioned whether Skiles was the right hire at this point in time for the Magic. I personally hold some reservations, but the bottom line is the guy’s basketball knowledge goes toe-to-toe with anybody. The possibility that he’ll instill core defensive principles into a bunch of unseasoned toolsy players cannot go overlooked. Even if Skiles’s reputation proceeds him and he does end up being the coach who does the legwork for the guy down the road, I think it’s clear that Orlando is ready to start winning basketball games again. That should be welcomed, and Skiles figures to be the man who’ll get the wheels turning in the right direction.
To go along with Vucevic, the Magic are well-stocked with young talent across the board: Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja are all under the age of 24, with two of them (Gordon and Hezonja) not even being of legal drinking age. Orlando’s future really is as bright as any.
With that young core, why wouldn’t the Magic think they’re ready to win? The East is still the East, and a playoff spot is well within the realm of possibility. And who knows, maybe Skiles will be around once the team is legitimately ready to contend. Perhaps he’s accepted some of his faults — his unimaginative offense being chief among them — and he won’t simply be a placeholder.
All I know is that I’m excited to watch the Magic next season, and it’s a safe bet to assume they’ll grow a considerable amount. There’s a good chance they become a League Pass darling, and hey, maybe they’ll elevate to one of those surprise playoff teams a la the Milwaukee Bucks of last season. They’ve laid a solid foundation by drafting (and trading) very well, and now, in Skiles, they’ve got an architect they can trust with the blueprint.