The Orlando Magic's fall was sudden and hard. The team went from a perennial contender to a postseason afterthought trying to hold onto its superstar at all costs (no matter the cost or the missteps along the way). Orlando is desperate for any kind of help right now. Especially cheap help.
The cheapest way to get that kind of help is through the draft. Rookie contracts are relatively small commitments and extremely cheap. Having a player that can produce at around $3 million per year with the various team options and what-not, plus the added trade value that comes with being a young player.
If there is one thing the Magic have sort of forsaken in the run toward and the fall from championship contention, it is these type of players.
If Orlando is going to rebuild in any capacity, the draft has to regain a high priority.
Maybe it lost its priority because Stan Van Gundy has a tendency to trust veteran players more. Maybe it lost its priority because the team was enamored with certain types of players in a never-ending quest to surround Dwight Howard with a championship roster. One thing is clear, now that the Magic are falling off their perch and are playing with an uncertain future, every failure is under the microscope.
None moreso than the draft. When you look at the teams that made it deep in this year's playoffs, the draft is a big commonality among them. The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili. They also selected George Hill (who played for Indiana), Gary Neal and Danny Green. Similarly, the Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook. Boston made a draft day deal for Rajon Rondo and selected Paul Pierce (oh so long ago). Miami's lack of depth might be caused by Miami's committment to those big salaries and their inability to replenish their team with young players.
The argument is certainly there to be made that the draft is very important in building a team. Trades -- like the one the Spurs made to bring in Boris Diaw, or Oklahoma City made to bring in Kendrick Perkins -- are meant only to supplement a drafted core.
The Magic have Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson as their "star" players that were also drafted. Hedo Turkoglu was acquired in a trade. So too was Jason Richardson. These are the highest paid players on the roster. And only two of them (and really one is a star player, the other can be very good) were originally drafted by the Magic.
They drafted Courtney Lee, only to send him to New Jersey a year later (although they got Ryan Anderson in return). They then proceeded to trade their 2009 draft pick (for Rafer Alston, a necessary move) and then selected Daniel Orton in the 2010 Draft. Orton showed some promise when given the chance but injuries limited his ability to play and it became clear he needed more experience and work in college. Orlando once again traded its 2011 pick in the ill-fated deal that brought Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson to Orlando.
What has become clear as the Magic moved forward was that there was nothing in the war chest to support the troops. There were no players to develop, no young assets to move or dangle in trade offers. Nothing. The team was what it was and could not potentially be much more.
That is a problem.
So now that the Magic stand at a franchise crossroads -- having to hire a new coach and general manager and likely make a final decision on their franchise player -- the Draft looms larger and more important than ever. Especially if the Magic are entering a rebuilding mode.
Orlando will draft 19th. This is an area where you hope you can get a decent roation player, but it is no guarantee. Certainly, there is a better likelihood of getting a guy with lottery talent higher up in the draft. And this is the highest Orlando has drafted since selecting J.J. Redick in 2008. Whether Howard is in a Magic uniform or not, the new GM will have a very important decision to make when it is time to pick.
A new regime in the front office might bring a new approach to the roster and how to build it. One going theory is that Orlando de-emphasized the draft and that is one of the reasons the cupboard was ultimately bare when Orlando tried to make trades to improve the roster. The franchise exhausted its assets with an inability to have young backups ready incase the trades for veterans failed (really only the Rashard Lewis trade was done with that clearly in mind... and the player brought back was nowhere near good enough).
The Magic's drafting exploits recently have gotten pretty bad, as Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld relates:
Rival executives openly joke about the Magic’s approach to the pre-draft process. Most teams interview and work out everyone on their draft board. Some teams will even bring in a player multiple times to make sure they have a good read on his personality and game. The Magic’s lack of preparation has hurt them and a new regime must have a better approach to the draft. Orlando doesn’t have much cap flexibility, which means the draft is one of the only ways they can improve their roster year-to-year. They need to do a better job of evaluating prospects so that they can draft contributors rather than wasting picks on players who will never see the floor.
I talked very briefly with Ed Isaacson of NBA Draft Blog about the Magic and their draft perparations and he said that things are probably not as bad as Kennedy characterized a few weeks ago. It is actually pretty common for teams to take players without an interview or a pre-draft workout.
Orton seems like a great example because many mock drafts had him going in the lottery and the consensus was that he had lottery talent. For him to fall to the Magic at 28 that year was something I do not think the Magic could or should have let slip by. His failures only became egregious when the Magic traded Marcin Gortat and he was, all of a sudden, the player most likely to be the backup center. He was clearly not ready or healthy for that role.
But this seems to be the exact problem the Magic can complain about when it comes to the draft.
As Orlando had the important decision to make following the Tracy McGrady trade in 2004, Orlando opted to strive for medicority rather than bottoming out. The franchise has been through the free agent game for a long time. Orlando consistently missed on draft picks.
In 2000, Orlando drafted Mike Miller, who went on to win rookie of the year, and traded the draft rights to Keyon Dooling. From 2000 until 2004, here is a list of Orlando's first-round picks: Steven Hunter, Jeryl Sasser, and Reece Gaines. None of those players made any impact for Orlando. This forced the Magic, during the McGrady era to rely heavily on free agency, which was not helped by Grant Hill's injury sitting on the payroll.
The Magic's real only impact first round pick since drafting Howard was J.J. Redick.
This is more of a problem. Free agency is where the mistakes are made. And Orlando had to replenish and improve its team through risky contracts (which you inevitably over pay for) and hope that players don't fall off. They got away with it for a few years with McGrady and Howard, and then eventually things fell completely off.
Orlando, it seems, has to value the draft more to get the kind of rebuilding they want. Really, you have to do everything right to get where you want to go. Especially when it seems the Magic have such a small margin for error and an uncertain goal to achieve.
Was the draft the reason the Magic fell? Partially. Ultimately, Orlando fell because it rushed into trades that sold their assets for players that they could not flip and could not perform to expectations on the floor.
Will the draft be the way Orlando rebuilds? It absolutely has to be a bigger part of it.