Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 10/31/12
For the uninitiated among us, lets set the record straight: New Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigans most critical misstep this summer was not merely the act of trading franchise center Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. After all, it was plain to see that the Howard-Magic relationship had fallen into such a state of disrepair, the cloud hanging over the team growing so ominous, that an offseason trade had become unavoidable. Rather, Hennigan and the Magic erred in negotiating a proper return in the complicated four-team, 14-player deal for the leagues best big man but the downside to Orlandos haul as it relates to the post-Howard era of Magic basketball isnt what you think. In fact, its quite the opposite. As Orlandos regular season kicks off at the Amway Center on Nov. 2 against Denver, the concern isnt that the Magic are going to be bad, because bad is precisely what they wanted, needed and got. The worry is that Orlando wont be bad enough for Hennigans Sam Presti-inspired overhaul to begin to take shape. The Magic are stuck in basketball purgatory, not good enough to contend for a playoff spot, even in the watered down Eastern Conference, but also not bad enough to be among the worst of the worst (and among those with the best shot at the No. 1 pick in next years draft). And unless the wunderkind Hennigan has future plans to further blow up the roster and maybe he does Orlando has a team that could certainly win 25 or 30 games this year. Unfortunately for optimistic Magic die-hards, Orlandos roster doesnt have the talent to win 35 or 40 games and emerge as a serious threat to nab a coveted playoff spot, either. (But really, is it worth missing out on the draft lottery altogether to get blasted by the Heat in the first round, anyway?) Orlando will operate with a familiar veteran nucleus of Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, all holdovers from last years roster, which went 4-8 in the regular season without Howard. The Magic also acquired some respectable pieces in the Howard swap, including likely starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo, career 14-point-per-game scorer Al Harrington and Philadelphia 76ers lottery pick Mo Harkless. Add Orlandos own first-round pick Andrew Nicholson and free agent pickup ETwaun Moore to the mix, and the Magic are a bona-fide star away from being kind of interesting. But the Magic dont have one of those, and because of the salaries owed to Turkoglu, Nelson, Afflalo, Harrington and Davis in the coming seasons, they wont likely have the funds to obtain a true game-changing franchise player through free agency until at least 2014 and Orlandos history with free agent signings has been shaky, at best. So instead, Orlando is left with a plucky, if ragtag, group of veterans with an enormous, Dwight Howard-sized hole in the middle, and the Magics options for replacing him particularly on the defensive end of the floor, where Howard was arguably of the most value are underwhelming. Howards departure leaves 22-year-old seven-footer Nikola Vucevic and 27-year-old big man Gustavo Ayon responsible for accepting the All-Star big mans responsibilities as both a dominant defender and first-rate presence on the glass, and neither young player is equipped to even begin to take on that kind of role. Ayon averaged 8.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24 starts last year for the Hornets and has at times shown a propensity for rebounding (17 in 33 minutes against Cleveland on Feb. 22) and blocking shots (four in 29 minutes against Golden State on April 24). But if Ayon is known for anything and thats debatable its his offensive efficiency. Ayon shot a tidy 53.6 percent from the field last season, a number that was largely a function of the former Spanish League center taking most of his shots near the rim following a cut or roll to the basket. And while Ayon may be able to contribute with the ball in his hands, thats not the player Orlando needs him to be. As for Vucevic, the 16th pick in the 2011 draft started 15 games for Philadelphia as a rookie last year but made most of his impact averaging 16.3 minutes per game in 36 reserve appearances. Vucevic had a respectable defensive rebounding rate of 21.7, putting him in line with a player like Pau Gasol or Joakim Noah and immediately making him Orlandos most efficient player on the boards. But Vucevics ball-hawking numbers pale in comparison to those of Howard, who is the NBAs active leader in total rebounding percentage and grabbed a third of the defensive boards available to him last season. Furthermore, neither Vucevic nor Ayon is considered to be a plus defender, and teams that were once forced to alter their game plans to account for Howard prowling the paint will no longer find that necessary. Orlandos entire operation under Stan Van Gundy was centered on playing above-average defense Van Gundys Magic teams held opponents to 95.2 points just 44 percent shooting over his tenure, the third- and second-best marks in the NBA, respectively, in that span and shooting well from the perimeter (37.7 percent from 3-point range under Van Gundy) as a result of the increased attention paid to Howard inside. Vucevic and Ayon wont generate any interest inside from other teams, and Orlando will suffer at both ends of the floor as a result. Certainly, new head coach Jacque Vaughn will implement his own game plan and coaching style to try to accommodate for those shortcomings, but that is as big a problem as anything else the Magic are facing going forward. Not only does Orlando not have a superstar to rely on or exciting draft picks to look forward to, but the team also has to adjust to a first-time head coach who, while energetic and hopeful, is still trying to figure things out himself. In the end, though, Orlandos struggles not just this season, but for the foreseeable future will be tied back to the disappointing Howard trade and the teams failure to accomplish any of its set goals. The most effective way to rebuild a team is to start from rock bottom, and Hennigan, in settling for passable talent, failed to get there. The Magic didnt get the cap relief they were looking for, nor did they receive the type of promising young talent that soothes the pain of a departure like Howards. The draft picks Orlando received in the trade, while mostly first-rounders, are bordering on worthless, and the players they did receive made them too good to expect to have a shot at Cody Zeller or Shabazz Muhammad or Nerlens Noel in next years draft. (And in addition, the haul both draft- and talent-wise that Oklahoma City received from the Rockets for James Harden over the weekend only serves to raise more questions about what the Magic could have gotten from Houston had they held out a little longer.) This Magic team really thinks it has a chance to compete which is to say theyre not as futile as the Bobcats or the Wizards and that, more than anything, is going to be the biggest problem it faces going forward. Vaughn has made it a point to say his the Magic are not rebuilding this year, but maybe the future would be brighter if they were.
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