Monday, January 14, 2013

After The Storm, Orlando's Future Seems Bright

In his first season in Orlando, Arron Afflalo has played well for the Orlando Magic.

Never in a million years did I think we'd be sitting just months out from the four team blockbuster that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles thinking: "Orlando really got off well in that trade." Orlando didn't get the best player in the deal, nor did they get the second or the third. Orlando took back a couple of unproven players, some draft picks, and Arron Afflalo. As people sat back and viewed the trade, the prevailing thought was simply: "Los Angeles is going to be a powerhouse, Denver will become an elite team with Iguodala coming in, Philadelphia has second seed potential thanks to Bynum, and Orlando was screwed by the superstar and the system yet again.

As Dwight Howard complained about a trade, writers began creating the best ideas to give Orlando the best talent back. Most of them involved Orlando receiving Andrew Bynum, while others had Orlando receiving a bevy of talent and draft picks from Houston. Other than that, and the obligatory Brooklyn Nets offer, we thought the Magic were going to somehow get equal value in our minds. The move of Howard, a couple bad contracts sent with him, and Orlando would receive a player who could fit the role of "centerpiece" in the deal, and a couple draft picks going back Orlando's way. That's what we expected. Once Orlando made the deal, there wasn't a centerpiece. There was young talent we could identify, draft picks with high upside, but no draft picks, it was that that convinced us that Orlando had made the wrong move.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case at all. Denver has had a rough schedule to start the season, and even when it evens out, we find them team to have flaws, and while good, they aren't the team we expected going into the season. Philadelphia has played this season without Andrew Bynum. The rumor is that he underwent microfracture surgery, and will miss the regular season. Nevertheless, Philadelphia has to play out the season, and while the trio of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young excel, the Sixers haven't seen their success translate into victories. Los Angeles is a train wreck. Dwight Howard was rushed back too soon, Steve Nash was hurt, now he's back, and still haven't fix their defensive woes, and Pau Gasol just seems like he's done with the entire Los Angeles "thing". Other than a terrific Kobe Bryant season, the Lakers have been a complete mess, and there's a strong chance that they will not make the playoffs this season.

What about Orlando you ask? They had a solid start to the season, going 12-13, and sparking some potential 8th seed talk among peers. However, since that start, the Magic have dropped 10 of their last 11 games, and it seems like Orlando has realized it's best to look towards the draft. The difference between Orlando compared to Denver, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia? The Magic were expected to be terrible. The Magic front office was looking towards the next three years to shed the terrible contracts and find out what they have in some of their younger players. It turns out that package Orlando took on August 10th 2012, just might've been the best move for the franchise.

In case you forgot, Orlando received Nikola Vucevic, Maurice "Mo" Harkless, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, and three future first round picks. Let's ignore Al Harrington since he hasn't dressed for Orlando this season, and go right to the draft picks. Here's the picks according to Real GM: One 2014 first round pick from Denver (the least favorable pick between Denver's or New York's pick), Philadelphia's 2015 first round pick (Philadelphia owes Miami a first round pick, so before Orlando can get their pick, the Sixers must pay Miami first...meaning Orlando will want Philadelphia to get into the playoffs since the pick is top 14 protected this season), and a 2017 first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers (top 5 protected). Orlando will have plenty of picks to use, but most likely, I see Orlando using one of these picks in a trade to fill holes.

In just his second season, Nikola Vucevic has been amazing for the Magic, averaging 11.4 points and 11.0 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. He's not just a big man who scores near the basket, Vucevic can take a step outside of the low post and score. According to hoopdata, Vucevic is shooting 55% on shots from 10 to 15 feet. Coming out of USC, Vucevic had a knack for scoring, but it was a mystery if he would be able to do that in the NBA. For Orlando, he's given them a solid offensive threat at the center position on a rookie contract. On the defensive end, he still has work to do. Orlando is six points better defensively with "Vucci Mane" off the court, but Synergy would tell you that he has some upside as a defender. According to Synergy, Vucevic is 12th in points per possession when defending spot-up attempts, and 5th when defending pick and roll men. For Vucevic's sake, he'll have to improve defending post-ups, as he's seen 127 attempts and allowed a blistering 48% shooting.

After failing on Justin Harper and Daniel Orton, Orlando took another chance on a post player in this past year's draft, taking Andrew Nicholson with the 18th overall pick. Due to the lack of playing time, the on/off court numbers might be skewed, but the fact that Orlando is seven points worse with Nicholson off the court is encouraging. Offensively, Nicholson has been a force in his time. Nicholson is shooting 73% on shots from 10 to 15 feet, 62% at the rim, and 48% from 16 to 23 per hoopdata. Like Vucevic, the Synergy numbers don't suggest Nicholson will be a great defender, but unlike his post counterpart, he hasn't played as many minutes. It's not insane to imagine Nicholson becoming a lesser version of David West for Orlando as he continues to develop.

With head coach Jacque Vaughn playing Afflalo more at the small forward position these days, rookie Mo Harkless has found it tough cracking the rotation, but when he has, he's lived up to his profile of being a raw athlete. Harkless still has to develop on offense (especially finding a jumper), but he's had some moments defensively. At six foot eight, I'd imagine Orlando would use Harkless as a small forward long-term. Coming out of St. John's, Harkless was compared to Trevor Ariza, but I wouldn't be shocked if he became a better defensive player in his prime season.  Once this Magic roster changes this offseason, I wouldn't be shocked to see Harkless crack the rotation as a bench player.

Along with those three young talents,  Orlando also acquire Arron Afflalo. In his short time in Orlando, Affalo has continued to show why he was considered a solid shooting guard. He leads Orlando in points per game with 17.8, and he's also shooting very well, as evidenced by his 55.3 True Shooting Percentage. At 27 years old, and on an excellent contract (Orlando controls Arron for the next three seasons at just 29 million dollars), the Magic could keep Afflalo around, but I think as the guys around him get younger and younger, and as the league continues to starve for positive value shooting guards,  the Magic will consider using him as a trade chip to cash in on his value.

The new regime in Orlando has done a fantastic work in turning it around in the post-Howard era, but they still have a ton of work to do in ridding the roster in past mistakes. Hedo Turkoglu is still on contract for after this season, Al Harrington for the next two seasons, and ditto for Glen Davis. In Davis' instance, he's still producing something for the Magic, but both Turkoglu and Harrington, neither have produced for Orlando this season. The Magic have a ton of dead money with no Amnesty Clause to wipe some money off the books, but once they do get that money off the books, Orlando has the history of landing solid level players in free agency. Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, and Rashard Lewis all went to Orlando, and Tim Duncan once considered Orlando. They won't land an elite star, but those secondary talents? I think Orlando can lure free agents to play for them.

The other key for Orlando is keep losing for the next two seasons. This upcoming draft seems to be lacking the elite star talent, but guys like Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammed, and Indiana's Cody Zeller aren't slouches either. The real prize is a top three pick in 2014, where prospects Jabari Parker, Noah Vonleh, and Andrew Wiggins will be eligible to enter the draft. The grand prize is Andrew Wiggins, but if Orlando misses out, the idea of Parker or Vonleh shouldn't discourage them too much. If Orlando does land Wiggins? Orlando could be the verge of a dynasty.

And to think that we all thought Orlando made a mistake with that trade...


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