The next few seasons are going to be difficult to watch for Orlando Magic fans. In fact, I think last weekend's Taylor Swift concert might have been the most excitement the Amway Arena has seen this season.
Stripped of its superstar center, the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic became a hapless group of youngsters struggling for respectability. Sure, there were some veterans on the team with the likes of Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson, but this team was without a sure-fire leader. What led to this rebuilding season, and is there hope for the future?
Shooting guard Arron Afflalo was acquired as the "centerpiece" of the Howard trade, and with a 16.5 PPG average he was a quality player for the Magic, but not a superstar.
The best thing going for Afflalo is his very affordable contract number at only $7.5 million. Unfortunately, his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 13.0 falls short of what ESPN deems the average number to be, 15.0.
To say Afflalo is a poor man's Kevin Martin would even be an understatement. Afflalo is a nice piece, but he should be the fourth or fifth piece, not the first or second.
At only 22 years of age, the surprise of the Howard draft haul appears to be Nikola Vucevic. Averaging almost 13 points and 12 rebounds per game, Vucevic has a PER of over 17 this season. The best part about Vucevic is his contract. He is signed through 2015 and tops out at just under $4 million that season.
The most promising addition to the team might have been Tobias Harris. Acquired in a late-season trade with the Bucks for JJ Redick, Harris has sparkled in recent [meaningless] games for the Magic and is definitely an upgrade over the aging Al Harrington. Harris should be a quality starter for years to come.
Assuming those three players stay with the Magic for the foreseeable future, Orlando has a decent (to put it nicely) core. Jameer Nelson is on board for two more years at a very generous salary (for him), but I can't help but think he is not the long-term answer at the point. He is undersized, a questionable shooter, and injury-prone.
That being said, his PER is right around 14.5 which makes him exactly what most people think of him as: average. Not bad, not spectacular, just plain average.
The only two words that are harder on the ears these days for Magic fans that Gilbert Arenas are Hedo and Turkoglu. With an abysmal PER of 3.38, the Magic most definitely will waive Hedo and owe him $6 million of the $13 million his contract calls for. Whichever GM gave him that five-year, $52 million free agent deal (Canadians...) should be sent to China to be the agent for Gilbert...
Last up among the prominent players is Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Davis is under contract for two more seasons at around $6.5 million per season. With a PER of over 15, Davis has a favorable contract...when he is healthy.
As for the rookies, I think we have to take a wait-and-see approach. Moe Harkless is young (19), raw, and has tons of upside. DeQuan Jones and Andrew Nicholson had nice moments this season, but it is doubtful they will ever be the equivalent of, say, an Al Jefferson, Davis West, or even Gordon Hayward. In other words, their roster spots are secured at fair salaries, but don't expect greatness from any of them.
So where do the Magic go from here? It all starts with the draft. Orlando has an excellent shot at a top 3 pick, and hopefully they do not take Kansas phenom Ben McLemore. Assuming they strike gold and get the No. 1 pick, McLemore plays the same position as Afflalo.
My choice would be Michigan PG Trey Burke (as a long-term successor to Nelson) or Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart (who has yet to declare but likely will). Both players are combo guards in the sense that they can score, but they are both classified as point guards.
The Magic don't need someone like Nerlens Noel, because Noel is not a big-time scorer. He can dribble, rebound, and block shots, but we already have some form of Noel with half our roster.
Orlando needs someone who, along with Afflalo, can fill the seats in Amway with his electric play. The answer (I hope) has to be Burke or Smart. Otto Porter would not be that bad of a consolation prize, but his ceiling may be the same as Al Harrington in his prime.
How did Orlando get into this mess of a rebuilding project? Otis Smith. Gilbert Arenas. Dwight Howard. All names that share culpability. Otis made multiple head-scratching trades and it's probably for the best he is no longer employed as the GM.
What's the best long-term prognosis for the Magic? If I were the general manager, this would be my plan.
1) Draft Burke or Smart, and find a trade partner for Jameer Nelson. Orlando will have another losing season in 2013-2014, so find a team that needs a decent PG (Lakers, Bobcats, Hawks, Pacers, Mavericks to name a few) and get Nelson off the books.
2) Do the expected and cut ties with Turkoglu. There is no other option here.
3) Figure out how to get rid of Al Harrington. He is under contract for two more seasons at over $7 million per year. That hurts. Fortunately, Beno Udrih comes off the books after this season.
4) Go with a starting lineup of Burke/Smart, Afflalo, Tobias Harris, Glen Davis, and Nic Vucevic. It's not overly exciting, but it may get you to a .500 season and the ability to compete for the eighth playoff spot.
5) When the bench is used, it should be used to increase the trade value of our subs: Andrew Nicholson, DeQuan Jones.
6) Make a commitment to Moe Harkless and use him every game for better or for worse. Of all the non-starting youngsters, Harkless is the one guy we need to keep no matter what.
7) Be masters of the salary cap. Let's assume it will be roughly $70 million for the 2013-2014 season. Orlando will have roughly $47 million in salaries counting against the cap (after waiving Hedo).
This leaves $23 million in salary. Take out about $5 million for draft picks, and Orlando can make one or two very intelligent signings in the free agency period. What can $18 million buy you?
Taking a quick look at prospective free agents, this is the order I would rank them taking into consideration Orlando's needs:
Brandon Jennings (if we go a different direction in the draft)
Kevin Martin (if the Thunder do not re-sign him, but he is similar to Afflalo)
As you can see, there's not much out there. Jefferson would be a nice upgrade over Davis, but he will be expensive. Orlando might be better to sit out this free agency period and wait until the summer of 2014.
That is when the true bonanza of free agency will occur. With names like Kobe and LeBron out there, perhaps Orlando can climb to respectability next season and sign a superstar for the 2014-2015 season.
After a careful look at the state of the program so to speak, not too much to be excited about in the near future. But, if Orlando can pull of a surprise trade or two, acquire a wily veteran, just maybe the Orlando Magic can be back in the playoffs before anyone expects it.