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Rebuild 2.0: Keys to Orlando Magic succeeding in second attempt at franchise rebuild | NBA News

The Orlando Magic have been here before.

Pinning their hopes on two lottery picks in a draft class in the expectation they will take the jump needed to become the franchise-altering players required.

In 2014, it was Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. In 2021, it’s Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner.

The 2014 vintage also contained a second-year player making a bit of a leap in Victor Oladipo, although it’s not as significant as what we have seen from Cole Anthony, who is potentially in the NBA Most Improved Player conversation going 12.9 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and 5.1 assists per game to 20.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 5.8 apg, while increasing his shooting efficiency from 39.7 per cent to 41.8 per cent.

More parallels could be drawn with the team seven years ago for sure, but what is certain is that Magic fans are sick of waiting for a new dawn where the team will become truly relevant again.

The failed first rebuild

Gordon and Payton, as well as 2015 draft bust Mario Hezonja, were the poster children for the first iteration of the Magic rebuild under former GM Rob Hennigan. The wheels came off his tenure when he tried to accelerate the Magic’s timeline with a disastrous trade in June 2016 which saw him deal Victor Oladipo, forward Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis, who was taken with the 11th pick in that summer’s NBA draft, for an eight-month rental of power forward Serge Ibaka.

That move no doubt set the Magic back considerably and Hennigan was fired less than a year later after Ibaka had been traded once again to the Toronto Raptors.

Jeff Weltman was brought in to heads things up for the Magic as the team’s President of Basketball Operations and was later joined by Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond.

After posting a 132-278 record under Hennigan, the worst five-year stretch in team history, the Magic decided initially under the new front office to go on the course of a ‘softer’ rebuild, trying to establish the team to relevance once again by winning some games. And it worked, with the team going 42-40 in 2018-19, the first of Steve Clifford’s three years as head coach. That record saw the team return to the postseason as they did the following year (going 33-40), going out in a gentleman’s sweep in the first round in both years, before falling back to a record of 21-51 last season as injuries to starters Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac decimated the team’s plans.

Blowing it all up once again

With those injuries very much hampering the team’s ability to properly compete at the trade deadline in March, the Magic pivoted to a full rebuild once again by trading the three most prominent players of recent years in All-Star Nikola Vucevic, Gordon – who never quite took the jump (very much metaphorically speaking, in literal terms the guy can jump over a 7ft 5ins center during the NBA Slam Dunk contest) his number four selection had maybe threatened, and French swingman Evan Fournier.

In return, Orlando added Wendell Carter Jr, Otto Porter Jr (who has now left), and two lightly-protected first round picks (one of which turned into Wagner) from the Chicago Bulls in the Vucevic trade; they picked up RJ Hampton, Gary Harris and a first round selection from the Denver Nuggets in the Gordon trade; and two second round picks from the Boston Celtics in the Fournier deal – as well as a trade exemption which gives the Magic the ability to acquire a player for $17million more than they send out, if they wish to, prior to the trade deadline this year.

Weltman, after the trades were concluded, insisted that the moves provided “flexibility” and the Magic definitely believe they are closer to being a relevant team once again than their 7-26 record this season would suggest.

But just how close are the Magic, and what does the success of this latest rebuild depend on?

The head coach – Jamahl Mosley

Jamahl Moseley has first full-time NBA head coaching role in Orlando
Jamahl Moseley has his first full-time NBA head coaching role in Orlando

After deciding to blow it up, the Magic also decided to change head coach. It was a move that made complete sense with Steve Clifford in no way the right man to develop the young core. Clifford had clearly become disenfranchised with losing towards the end of his third year in charge and called the team out publicly on more than one occasion. His refusal to give game time to Mo Bamba over Khem Birch, for example, was proof that he was more interested in winning than development, so it was no surprise to see the Magic move on.

They hired Jamahl Mosley, a 43-year-old in his first head coaching job but someone who had talent development very much in his DNA. Mosley had plenty of experience, which was relevant to the task at hand. He joined the Denver Nuggets of the NBA as a player development coach and scout in 2005 before being promoted to an assistant coach in 2007. He then worked as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2010 to 2014 and the Dallas Mavericks thereafter where he was appointed as Rick Carlisle’s defensive co-ordinator in 2018, responsible for the team’s defensive strategies. Mosley has also always built up a strong rapport with the players he’s working with and Mavs superstar Luka Doncic is just one example of many players around the league who enjoy working with him.

The new Magic head coach’s mantra of “working every day to create winning habits” is certainly angled towards longer-term development for the team and he appears to be patient with his group.

As all rookie head coaches do, Mosley is also learning on the hop himself when it comes to game management and rotations but it’s clear a number of the young players are already improving in the Magic’s squad and the atmosphere within the camp seems mostly bright despite the losing habit. This season will be judged by how they develop, and despite the team’s fairly abysmal record they are still fighting right through to the final buzzer every night. That competitiveness is a good sign for building up a winning culture.

Developing the Magic’s young core

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Cole Anthony scores 29 points, with 16 rebounds and eight assists in the Orlando Magic’s victory over the New York Knicks in Week 1 of the NBA

As mentioned earlier, Cole Anthony has been the star of the show for Orlando this season. He has taken a legitimate jump and after previously being considered as a certainty to be relegated to being the team’s sixth man when Markelle Fultz returns (more on him to follow), Anthony is now looking like he could be the team’s lead guard for years to come. He has certainly carried the offense in spells this season and now looks a vital building block going forward.

Highlights of the Charlotte Hornets' trip to the Orlando Magic in Week 2 of the NBA.
Franz Wagner dribbles the ball past Gordon Hayward of the Charlotte Hornets

Franz Wagner also looks to be the real deal, a veritable ‘glue guy’ who can do a bit of everything and the kind of player that every championship team needs. Wagner has had a strong start to his NBA career and has showcased a level of talent that will have him named to the All-Rookie first team most likely. He’s averaging 15.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.8 apg and 1.1 steals and the eighth pick has very much looked the better of the Magic’s two lottery picks so far.

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The Orlando Magic selected Jalen Suggs with the fifth overall pick, the crew breaks down his game and fit in Orlando

That’s not to say that Jalen Suggs is a bust in any way, but his shooting has been very disappointing, shooting 33.9 per cent from the field and only a quarter of his three-point attempts. The Magic were delighted when he fell to them with the fifth pick and the offensive upside is certainly there for Suggs, with him capable of scoring at the basket and from range, but the smooth-looking shooting stroke is not falling right now and something needs to click. On the defensive side of the ball, he’s shown real competency and the team is considerably better on that side of the floor when he’s playing so there is still plenty of reason to remain hopeful about him on both sides of the ball.

Wendell Carter Jr is looking increasingly like former Magic favourite Horace Grant with the protective eyewear he’s been forced to don in recent games but he’s having a solid season, averaging a career-high in scoring and rebounding solidly. As well as that, his three-point shooting has taken a considerable step forward and he’s already looking value for the four-year, $50 million contract extension he was given.

He and fellow big man Mo Bamba have had a lot of reps together this season. Bamba started the season on fire from beyond the arc but that has settled back down again and, although he is probably playing the best basketball of his career, it still feels like the team should be getting more from the unicorn-skilled big man. Whether the man with the longest wingspan in NBA history does enough to merit a big money extension is still to be seen but as ever with the number six pick in the 2018 draft, the potential is very high. His increased minutes this year mean that he is unsurprisingly among the league leaders in blocks, averaging 2.2 per game which is third outright in the league behind Myles Turner and and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

All of these players are going to be important to the future of the Magic but the team realistically needs someone to take a few more strides forward to become the franchise star Orlando needs.

In terms of the team’s other young assets, RJ Hampton is an explosive guard with a lot of potential for development but he still looks fairly raw at NBA level and Chuma Okeke seems to have taken a step backwards after playing well in spells last season. It’s going to be the development of these types of player which will dictate how good the Magic can be in the long term.

Fultz and Isaac

How quickly they can get there hinges on the health of two players who have already experienced playoff basketball for the Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, both of whom have been on the sidelines for a long time with serious injuries.

Fultz, rehabbing from an ACL injury in his left knee, is highly unlikely to ever fulfil the promise that made him the number one pick for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Draft, but he still could prove a very useful piece for the Magic. Indeed, one of Weltman’s shrewdest moves to date was to pick him up for Jonathan Simmons and a second-round pick from Philly.

Markelle Fultz, center, and forward Jonathan Isaac on defense for the Orlando Magic
Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac on defense for the Orlando Magic

In terms of playing inside-out basketball, Fultz is the best player the Magic have at driving into the paint and dishing out passes (Cole Anthony is more likely to try and finish when he revs up in the lane) and he will provide a new dynamic to the Magic’s offense when he returns to action. This week it was reported he has now joined up with the team on the road for practice ahead of Saturday night’s game live on Sky Sports against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Isaac is the most transformative individual player the Magic have, if they can get him back on the floor. He is a one-man wrecking crew on defense, able to defend across multiple positions and with instincts of the highest calibre for getting steals and making blocks. He is a genuine Defensive Player of the Year candidate when healthy and if he can stay healthy, will be a perennial All-Defense selection. But that is the problem, keeping him healthy.

He’s only played 141 games since being drafted in 2017 and has only had one full season. Isaac, nicknamed the ‘Minister of Defense’, was absolutely flying before he went down with a devastating ACL injury in the bubble in Orlando last year, averaging 1.6 steals and 2.3 blocks that season. If he can get back to that level of defensive disruptiveness and stay healthy, the Magic have a true game-changer on their hands. It’s a big ‘if’ though. His surgery was back in August last year, and no recent prognosis has been provided regarding his injury or recovery.

Future moves…

The other key determinant will be the future moves the front office makes. Gary Harris and Terrence Ross are both having poor seasons and won’t have a great deal of value come the trade deadline (previous exploits may mean there is something of a market for Ross, who is a decent scorer), but the Magic may be able to squeeze a lower first-round pick out of someone and they do have the $17 million trade exception to play with, so the team will be able to take on salary for picks as well.

As well as that, the team should have a very high pick coming up for the forthcoming NBA Draft, which contains a few transcendent talents. Snaring one of the likes of Paulo Banchero or Chet Holmgren could make a big difference for the Magic.

Orlando already has a number of assets that could be packaged as and when the team wants to make a splashy move to become more competitive, but after Hennigan literally set the franchise back years with the Ibaka trade, the front office will be keen to ensure they only make that move when they’re truly ready.

Whenever that time comes, the team that emerges from that and from this process of building up slowly through the draft and shrewd market moves, will determine how successful rebuild 2.0 is in Orlando.

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