There’s something to be said for what’s gone on in Orlando these past few years. They’ve picked in the top five three out of four years and have had two other lottery picks in that time. Yet they haven’t come away with a single player we can definitively call an NBA starter.
That level of incompetence is incredibly rare. Most teams accidentally wind up with someone worthwhile. The Suns have been picking at the bottom of the lottery for most of that span and wound up with Devin Booker. Detroit stumbled into Andre Drummond. Save for the darkest days of the Donald Sterling Clippers and whatever the hell is going on in Sacramento, I doubt a similar stretch of scouting incompetence exists in the history of basketball.
Trades haven’t borne any riper fruit. They nabbed Tobias Harris for two months of J.J. Redick… and then traded him to Detroit for a song. They gave up the one lottery pick they made that could be considered something of a success, Victor Oladipo, along with another lottery pick for half a season of Serge Ibaka. And then, sold him for eight cents on the dollar. The crown jewel of the Rob Hennigan era is probably Evan Fournier. He didn’t even make the French National Team at the Olympics.
The Hennigan era was a failure, and it wasn’t even a flaw in his lower case process. Oladipo was widely considered the best player in the 2013 draft. Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja were high-upside swings. They wanted Kristaps Porziņģis. If the ping pong balls fell slightly differently it’s not hard to envision an Orlando team with, say, Andrew Wiggins and D’Angelo Russell right now.
But after four straight years without a playoff berth and no tangible success in drafting young talent, Hennigan is probably going to get fired. That means a new GM is going to come in and we’re going to hear about a mandate to win immediately. But it’s not going to happen because Orlando, again, does not have an NBA starter on their roster. So, they’ll end up spending another three or four years in the lottery.
There are worse places to be. They’re currently slated to have the fourth-most ping pong balls in a loaded lottery. If it’s hard to wind up with nothing in four tries it’s damn near impossible to do so in seven or eight.
But the Magic have lessons to learn from their failed tanking experiment. Most notably, if they’re going to do this, they can’t do it half-assed.
The Magic have come a few ping pong balls short of a star on multiple occasions. Joel Embiid and Porziņģis went one slot ahead of them in back-to-back years. That’s not to say they have to relieve themselves of all shame and openly tank on the level Philadelphia has. But there’s a middle ground. There was never a long-term benefit to signing Channing Frye to a four-year deal in the middle of a lengthy tank. Arron Afflalo had no place on a roster with multiple young guards aching for playing time.
If the Magic are going to get this right, the Ibaka move has to be the first of many. Nikola Vučević and Bismack Biyombo have no further use on that team. Jeff Green was a mistake from the moment he signed. Winning now would be a bad thing for the Magic. So why is Frank Vogel holding Mario Hezonja out of games when he’s 18 months removed from being picked fifth?
Just let the young guys play and see what happens. Maybe they develop into useful players. Maybe they’re bad enough to net you a real star in the draft. Ideally, they do both. But giving their playing time to veterans who aren’t good enough to get you deep into the playoffs (or even within sniffing distance of them) makes absolutely no sense. Aaron Gordon shouldn’t be playing out of position just because Hennigan had money to burn and Biyombo was available.
Rebuilds require a certain degree of commitment. Teams have to accept that they’re going to miss the playoffs for a few years. And small markets like Orlando have trouble sustaining fan interest during those stretches. But treading water near the middle is no better. Beyond Brooklyn, you’d be hard-pressed to find a less appealing long-term basketball situation than Orlando’s. Their only way out of it is to tank, and to do it right this time.