When the Orlando Magic shipped superstar Dwight Howard to sunny Los Angeles in August, everyone knew the Magic’s immediate future was, well, not so sunny. In that deal, Orlando acquired 5 draft picks, 3 first-rounders and 2 second-rounders, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and rookie Moe Harkless in exchange for Howard and cap fillers Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and Jason Richardson. GM Rob Hennigan was ripped in the national press for the return, or lack thereof, as the Magic netted cap relief, some picks and a quality 2-guard in Afflalo, but none of the deal’s 3 stars — Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala — came to Florida.
Not so fast, my friend. Howard’s impending free agent status is still very much uncertain in the midst of a made-for-TV nightmare season in L.A., and Bynum’s yet to log a minute of game action for Philly. Thrust into the primary scorer role, Afflalo has responded better than I anticipated, averaging a team- and career-high 16.8 points per game on 45% shooting, showcasing abilities to not only be a lockdown defender on one end, but an isolation scorer on the other. And Vucevic, an afterthought in the deal, is turning in a double-double per night, at 12.4 points and 11.5 boards, on 52% shooting. His points and rebounds have more than doubled over last year, when he started 15 games in Philadelphia. His player-efficiency rating, 17.7, is the team’s 2nd-best.
Sure, since a better-than-expected 12-13 start that had some in Orlando pondering playoffs in mid-December, the Magic have only won a horrific 3 of 31. At 15-41, Orlando’s boosting its lottery chances, only besting the 13-43 Bobcats thus far. And Orlando’s roster is chock full of young guys who’ve yet to prove themselves in the NBA; 8 guys are 23 or younger — Vucevic, Harkless, Tobias Harris, DeQuan Jones, Andrew Nicholson, Doron Lamb, Kyle O’Quinn and E’Twuan Moore.
Watching all these young guys play the Cavaliers on Saturday, they’re sometimes hard to distinguish. I’m really high on Nicholson, the 23-year-old rookie out of St. Bonaventure — a very solid around-the-basket forward with an excellent PER, 15.58, and very nice scoring numbers, 8.1 points in less than 17 minutes on 53% shooting. O’Quinn’s another capable rookie bruiser, at 6’10”, 240, who scores 3.1 points per in less than 8 minutes; his 19.30 PER, albeit in limited minutes, is a team-high.
At the 3, Orlando’s acquired 2 pieces, Harkless and Harris (via Thursday’s J.J. Redick deal), with exceptional athleticism and the ability to attack the cup. Harkless, 19, and Harris, a 2nd-year player at 20, are both non-lottery 1st-round selections with field goal percentages in excess of 46%, yet both (21% for Harkless, 33% for Harris) are limited from 3-point range. Harkless especially is a strong rebounder, at 4.1 per 20.5 minutes. Harris, who reaches the FT line just as much as Harkless in half the minutes this year, is an 89% shooter; Harkless is 57%.
If I’m head coach Jacques Vaughn, himself a youngster at 38, I see 26 games left in the 2012-13 season to get all these guys some valuable game experience. And it helps to have intelligent veteran leaders, like an Afflalo or a Jameer Nelson, who’s still going strong at 14.5 points, a personal best since 2008-09, and 7.4 assists per, strangely a career-high sans Howard. At the 4, Glen Davis is also still productive, with a career-high 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per, though he’s already missed 22 games and is out for the season with a broken left foot.
Assuming Hedo Turkoglu picks up his $12 million player option — a good bet since he’s only appeared in 11 games this season and is currently serving a 20-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy — Orlando’s already looking at about $53 million in contracts committed for 2013-14. And that ignores the $22.35 million the team’s paying Gilbert Arenas, currently playing in China, who was amnestied in December 2011 (of course, that money does not count against the cap).
Once 2014-15 hits, Orlando has less than $23 million committed to Al Harrington, yet to play this year due to a staph infection, Afflalo and Davis, with a reasonable $8 million team option on Nelson and much more affordable ones on essentially all the young guys. With a deep free agent class that summer, maybe that’s the time Hennigan makes a splash and tries to acquire a 2nd-tier max player to pair with his young core.
Right now, Orlando’s lacking points. At 93.8 per game, they’re tied for 24th in the league in points, and are 28th in 3-point percentage, which will only worsen given Redick’s departure. Vaughn’s bench is 19th in scoring at 30.4 points per game, again largely thanks to Redick’s 15.1. Defensively, they’re not much better — the Magic force a league-worst 6 steals per game, surrender a 20th-ranked 99.4 points per game and are 22nd in opponent’s FG percentage.
No one said the transition to the post-D12 era would be easy in Orlando, especially as the Magic are set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, Howard’s 2nd year in the league. Vaughn has a handful of pieces to tinker with, but for this team to have any success, someone has to ascend and replace D12 as the Magic’s new face.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.