The Orlando Magic are trying to build from the middle and make the playoffs. As they wait for their all-in move, they have to draft better.
Orlando Magic fans are rightly frustrated watching the Miami Heat build a championship-caliber roster seemingly overnight.
It was just last year the Magic had bested the Heat and prevented them from even reaching the playoffs. Now the Heat are one game away from the NBA Finals thanks to one major move and seemingly nothing else.
Magic fans have had to watch their chief rival seemingly blow past the painful parts of a rebuild and dig out players like Tyler Herro — two picks before the Magic even came up in the 2020 Draft.
The comparison of having Tyler Herro on the floor for the Heat while Chuma Okeke was rehabbing in Lakeland is not a good visual. Especially with the Heat surpassing the Magic in the standings all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Heat seemingly have everything the Magic want and they are left asking how do they get there?
Fans are understandably antsy to see this team take that kind of leap. Patience is running pretty thin after six years of being stuck in the wilderness of the Lottery ringer and no consistent All-Star to speak of. Making playoff cameos are — rightfully — not enough.
There will be changes ahead for the Magic without a doubt. It feels like the team reached its ceiling. Even without the games inside the campus, the Magic were likely only to finish seventh and probably hover near 40 wins and not get back to .500.
Orlando has some serious work to do to reach that level and progress as a team. Nobody is hiding from that or ignoring that challenge that is ahead.
While trades and timely free-agent acquisitions will be critical in building this team back. If the Magic truly want to be like the Heat were this year, they need to put their focus back on drafting.
Indeed, it is good drafting that feeds the success “build from the middle” stories. And that is an area where the Magic have not been successful enough to take that important step.
The difference between teams like the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors, who successfully built title contenders without having to go into the Lottery, and teams like the Charlotte Hornets are draft picks.
The Heat’s draft history
The Miami Heat’s roster is full of players they drafted or mined off the proverbial scrap heap. This is how a team goes from missing the playoffs in three of the past five years to the Eastern Conference Finals this quickly.
That and having the reputation and culture to attract a star player like Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade deal. The Miami Heat have built a lot of equity that they cashed in that the Orlando Magic simply are not going to be able to copy.
The Heat’s reputation and smart cap maneuvering enabled them to make an all-in move that proved perfect in these playoffs.
But simply adding Butler to a roster that failed to make the playoffs would not have been enough to make the postseason. The Heat’s reputation and excellence are built on their drafting and scouting.
Miami has become the master at plucking talent from seemingly difficult locations.
Tyler Herro was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 Draft. That is a similar spot where the Heat drafted All-Star Bam Adebayo — 14th overall in the 2017 Draft. Duncan Robinson went undrafted, latching on with the Heat last year. The team picked up Kendrick Nunn in free agency after the Golden State Warriors dropped him.
And key players the Heat used in their trade to acquire Jimmy Butler this offseason were also similarly situated as late draft picks — like Josh Richardson (picked 40th overall in 2015) and Hassan Whiteside (picked up off the scrap heap from the Sacramento Kings).
The Heat have built a sudden contender and survived what looked like certain salary cap hell — they had several big salaries having signed Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson to long-term contracts within two offseasons. And they can certainly thank their drafting for that.
It was not merely Miami that has done this trick of growing form the middle.
The Drafting Pattern
The Toronto Raptors are another good example of a team who many thought needed a restart and yet found themselves winning and contending for a title.
The current Raptors rotation is filled with players the team drafted even while they were making the playoffs every year. It has provided a steady stream of role players able to fill in and contribute, stepping up when needed throughout the long regular season.
The Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick in the 2016 Draft, painstakingly developing him in the G-League before graduating him into the lineup. Fred VanVleet went undrafted in that same draft and stuck with the team, playing a huge role in the Raptors’ surprising season this year. Norman Powell (the 46th pick in the 2015 Draft) and OG Anunoby (the 23rd pick in the 2017 Draft) also played vital roles for the team.
These players were necessary as the Raptors tried to push forward after losing Kawhi Leonard to free agency. But even before then, the Raptors seemed like they were a team stuck in the middle.
The core of Kyle Lowry (acquired in a trade with the Houston Rockets) and DeMar DeRozan (the ninth pick in the 2009 Draft) made five straight Playoffs with only one conference finals appearance — and two trips to the conference semifinals — before they pulled the trigger and acquired Kawhi Leonard to complete their championship picture.
A lot of people believed the Raptors needed to completely reset their team after so many playoff failures. But the Raptors built their championship team because of their great drafting and an opportune trade at the right moment.
Drafting gone wrong
Of course, it can all go wrong too. A team can make the wrong kind of all-in move and the team’s drafting and poor development — or bad luck — can expose the team.
This is what happened to coach Steve Clifford with the Charlotte Hornets.
Kemba Walker was a sure hit. And acquiring Al Jefferson in free agency helped give the team some legitimacy and turn it into a perennial playoff contender — although Clifford made the postseason just twice in his five years there.
But everything else ended in disaster.
The team went all-in to acquire Nicolas Batum and complete the team’s build around Kemba Walker. That worked for a year. Then they signed him to a massive four-year contract that he has struggled to live up to thanks to injuries.
The team was unable to supplement the roster picking in the mid-Lottery with quality players.
Second overall pick (2012) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never developed into anything more than a solid defender with a wayward jumper before injuries dulled his effectiveness and limited his availability. Fourth overall pick (2013) Cody Zeller has proven to be a solid role player at center.
Ninth overall pick (2014) Noah Vonleh turned into a bust (shuttled to Portland in the Nicolas Batum sign-and-trade). But it was the two other picks in that draft that Charlotte made — Shabazz Napier (24th overall) and Dwight Powell (45th overall) — traded on draft night that could have given the team a real boost.
Ninth overall pick (2015) Frank Kaminsky was a solid role player but could not make a true impact. The reported ransom the Hornets turned down to stay there and take him is legendary torture for that fan base.
It is easy to see how even decent teams can get killed by poor drafting. Ineffective players taken in the first round or giving up on late-first-round picks or second-round picks can torpedo a team and leave them exposed if the big-contract players do not pan out.
The Hornets never got out of purgatory because they could not supplement the roster effectively with their drafting.
These are two extremes and somewhere in the middle are teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers — perennial playoff teams that have a checkered drafting record to stay competitive.
The All-In Moment
Inevitably building from the middle requires an all-in trade. That is what ties everything together and eventually pushes the team over the top.
But it also requires smart and opportunistic drafting to supplement the roster. This is what the successful teams on this path do.
This is what the Orlando Magic still have to do too.
Their draft picks under Jeff Weltman have been OK at best. Jonathan Isaac (drafted sixth in 2017) has looked like a potentially all-defensive team player. But he has dealt with injuries in two of his three pro seasons.
Orlando’s other first-round picks — Mohamed Bamba and Chuma Okeke — have yet to deliver because of injuries. The team’s second-round picks have made only a fleeting impact — really only Wesley Iwundu has played meaningful minutes and only sparingly then. The Magic’s G-League players have not seen the floor.
Weltman’s statement from the 2017 Draft that the draft flattened out may have been an honest evaluation (Kyle Kuzma might disagree), but it was a lost opportunity the Magic did not take advantage of.
And those are opportunities this Magic team cannot afford to miss out on.
Orlando now finds itself trying to build on a team that has little cap room and a pair of playoff appearances under its belt. There is no high draft pick coming the team’s way to inject a ton of talent (not without a franchise-altering trade).
Expect the Magic to be active in the trade market as they look to create the team they envision. And even without Jonathan Isaac in the lineup in 2021, the Magic will try to build a team that fits that vision and make the playoffs for a third straight year.
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The one thing Orlando is very unlikely to do is to sell all their veterans and go completely young with the aim of trying to play the lottery. The Magic are going to make other teams fight them for their precious playoff spot.
And that means their drafting has to be better. This will be their primary vehicle to add to the roster. Successful drafting and scouting reflect well on a team’s culture too. It makes the team more viable for that necessary all-in move on the horizon.
It is the sign of a healthy franchise able to sustain itself and build no matter where the team falls in the standings.
The Magic are trying to get there. That is where they must get.
In order to do so, the Magic have to follow the path of teams like the Heat and Raptors. They have to draft better and take advantage of opportunities to add players into their fold that others might miss.
That is how you build from the middle.