The Orlando Magic concluded the second-worst franchise win mark in the organization's 24-year history, a 20-win season. The last time the team won 21 games in 2003-04, they ended up with the No. 1 overall selection, but this year the prospects for the first pick just aren't as exciting as they have been in years passed.
And yet Magic fans really have no reason to fret.
Forwards Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris became late-season reasons for Magic fans to continue watching as the team proceeded to lose its final three games by an average of 20.6 points per affair.
Over the course of the season's final month, the Magic became a vulgar disaster of futility against teams like the (John Wall, much improved) Washington Wizards and NBA's second-worst Charlotte Bobcats.
But quickly rewind the season to mid-December, before the Christmas chaos and Glen Davis' season-ending shoulder injury (which wasn't billed to be a season-ender at the time), and the picture looked drastically different...
Why did the Magic initially vastly out-perform expectations?
The Magic were 12-13 and riding a four-game win-streak after their victory on Dec. 19 over the Washington Wizards. Orlando was still relying heavily on veterans like Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson and the main trade chip from the Howard deal, Arron Afflalo, who would all fade due to injuries as the season went on (and Hedo even had the bizarre PED positive tests).
The Magic were ransacked by injuries, and ended up starting fourth-string caliber guards like E'Twaun Moore and Beno Udrih by the finale, a backcourt which shot 4-of-14, while surrendering 30 points to Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli—and topping it off with three assists and four turnovers, combined.
You can only find combos like that on rebuilding or expansion teams, so welcome to Orlando.
But, back to that juncture at which the Magic were radically defying expectations as a .500-ish level team. Jacque Vaughn's Orlando Magic still were harboring talents the team had acquired in recent deals, which would soon begin to give Magic fans a different reason to begin tuning into the broadcasts. The Magic proceeded to lose 49 of the next 57 games to finish with 20 wins.
As the face of the franchise began to undergo its plastic surgery, the Magic found themselves plummeting from mediocre marks to pathetic ones in all major statistical categories. Orlando eventually finished ranked No. 27 in the league in Offensive Rating (101.6), while ranking nearly as bad defensively at No. 25 in defensive efficiency (109.1).
Remarkably, Magic faithful continued to support the team in its state-of-the-art "Howard House" that Rich DeVos proudly built for his club. Somehow, the Amway Center still helped the Magic finish in the middle of the pack in league attendance.
But, by the end of the season, attendance wilted. And the team had begun to rely heavily on its youngest players.
What did it mean to be led by three very inexperienced prospects with so little help?
The Magic were producing anomalous stats that rendered the pure three-man nature of this team all too apparent.
Quickly summarizing a game which I live blogged here at Bleacher Report:
In the Magic's 102-84 loss to the Chicago Bulls on April 15 (2013), the Magic's starting frontcourt of Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic provided a very respectable night of production, shooting 20-of-42 from the floor (47.6 percent) for 53 total combined points, while their six teammates combined to shoot just 11-of-32 from the field and managed just 31 points.
That telling stat makes it pretty clear that when the Magic were without their veterans, as they were down the stretch in the 2012-13 season, they are a team whose prospects are almost entirely reliant upon three youngsters they acquired all within the last year.
Vucevic and Harkless were surrendered by the Philadelphia 76ers (in addition to all-universe defender Andre Iguodala) in a move that the 76ers now regret on so many levels as they acquired Andrew Bynum from the L.A. Lakers in the four-team deal that sent three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard west to play in the purple and gold.
How do GMs like Rob Hennigan find guys like Nikola Vucevic?
Vucevic's per-minute production as a rookie in Philadelphia revealed his upside pretty clearly. That Moneyball principle has become more common in the era of advanced metrics and more in-depth video scouting. When guys are doing great things in small sample sizes, GMs are learning to determine whether it is more trend or mirage.
To that end, Maurice Harkless was a little less definite as a prospect, and the same applies equally so to February's trade-deadline acquisition, Tobias Harris. Harkless was originally on the Magic's draft board, but he went four picks too early to Philly and left Hennigan with his consolation prize in power forward Andrew Nicholson.
While Nicholson had a fair rookie year, it is Harkless—the original target of Hennigan—who has proven to be everything they tried not to rave about leading up to the draft.
Now that they have Harkless under contract, they're a lot less shy about making it clear they have a special talent who they feel can eventually evolve into a lockdown defender who can still put the ball in the basket at a decent rate.
As I tweeted to Harkless on April 19:
3Guard Rotation @33Trigger
@moe_harkless I feel you're our new Stacey Augmon. He had a nice NBA career in ORL and was a great defensive player like you are.2013-4-18 17:49:18
Those types are rare enough in the NBA to have serious value to a lot of contending teams, and the Magic know that in Harkless they have a glue guy who can be valuable many years from now when the team begins to peak, since Harkless is a fresh 19 years of age and a one-and-done talent from St. John's University.
What makes Tobias Harris a unique and potentially franchise-changing talent?
Harris was a one-and-done at Tennessee, too. On FanSided blog Presto In the Paint, I explained the significance of what it means to make the quickest leap possible given David Stern's "one year removed from high school" rule he instituted much to the chagrin of the players association, fans and even analysts. Summarizing the significance and implications of one-and-done players, I wrote:
Essentially, one-and-dones are the closest thing we still have to high school guys leaping to the Association, and while Harris had displayed some of his immense scoring talents in the SEC at Tennessee, going from averaging 15.3 points per game in the NCAA to putting up big numbers as a starter in the NBA is a leap pretty tantamount to just coming straight from a major prep school.
The fact that Harris was able to successfully make the jump and overcome a number of doubts on the part of scouts that he could thrive in the NBA (otherwise he would have been at least a lottery pick), and that Hennigan saw this as a likely scenario, proves the value of having a GM that can recognize the high upside of even the guys who see minimal minutes.
Read more on Presto In the Paint
Harris had shined in garbage time, but what can that even mean? Surely posting a PER of of 13.0 this season in 325 minutes with the Bucks wasn't enough to clue everyone off that Harris had superstar potential. But somehow it did Hennigan.
There were the signs, as I pointed out when he was obtained on Feb. 23 for Presto In the Paint:
Harris shot 68.1 percent in the basket area as a rookie in Milwaukee (via ESPN Insider), and his ability to finish well at the basket may make him best at the small forward position. In a Carmelo Anthony-like fashion, he could back down a lot of small forwards and become a go-to player in the Magic's second unit, where scoring has been a problem for the Magic...At the very worst, he'll be an instant offense type of guy off the bench.
Harris is starting to draw some pretty lofty comparisons, and one that seems quite favorable is to compare the former Volunteer to Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. Both are classic "tweeners," and both are so uniquely gifted with a combo of strength and speed, that being a couple inches shorter than most of the guys at the 4-spot doesn't matter much at all.
Harris is following the path of Anthony and many forwards in today's era who have no true defined position.
Harris may never come to occupy a Melo-role within the Magic's offense, but then again, at this point he very well may. He had two 30-point games in the month of the 2012-13 season—against Washington on March 29 and vs. Milwaukee on April 10—and the Magic won those games by no coincidence.
If Harris can play like he did in the Bucks game, in particular, when he added 19 rebounds and five assists while also hitting the shot that forced it into overtime (a play which could have won it; he failed to convert the four-point play for the win and the game went to the extra period), the Magic will have games like that Milwaukee contest, when the potential of the team glimmers far more than in the dreadful affairs like the Bulls game mentioned already.
What does the continued success and development of the frontcourt mean for the Magic moving forward?
The Magic's talented combo forward's big-game potential and heroics show that Hennigan has found the type of talent that would go top-three if entered into a draft like this year's. Harris was the gem of the J.J. Redick deal.
The Magic have Harris and Harkless burgeoning in their first meaningful minutes already in central Florida, but full due must be given to 5-man Nikola Vucevic.
"Vucci Mane" as ESPN Orlando Magic True Hoop blogger Eddy Rivera (@erivera7) often refers to him, is a very talented and long big man whose talents greatly exceed what you may guess they would be if you just saw him walk into a room in street clothes.
Vucevic will need time in the weight room to work on that. He has to fill his frame out and tone up a lot, and gain the kind of strength that could enable him to be like the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year who he said he is modeling his game after, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, a high-upside comparison which was first suggested by Grantland's Brett Koremanos.
The former USC Trojan will have a lot of work to put in to achieve Gasol's level of success, but Nik has keyed in on an excellent role model for his game given the similarities between the two players' skill sets: both are excellent passers, very ambidextrous around the basket with very soft touch, and both have a knack for the game of basketball that can't be taught.
The fact that the Magic were able to pry a talent like Vucevic, who ranks No. 2 in the NBA in rebounds per game in just his second season, while the 76ers traded for a guy who they thought would be the second best center in the league in surrendering Vucci Mane, is pretty laughable, but certainly not so for 76ers faithful.
The Magic are hoping these kind of fortuitous acquisitions continue to unfold, and given the fact that we can rightfully conclude that none of them were shot-in-the-dark lucky guesses by Hennigan. Lightning doesn't strike three times like that.
"So, how many years until the Magic are back in the playoffs?"
Magic fans must be cautious not to set the bar too high and then be ready to chase Rob out of town because he botches a pick or two, makes a bad signing, or even trades away a fan favorite (J.J. Redick received one of the grandest "welcome back" ovations in Magic history).
Rob Hennigan was a deadeye shooter in his Division III college career; but even the most deadeye free-throw shooters miss from time to time, so a botched pick won't be the end of the world. Expect one, in fact.
The Magic will look to what is currently in place, and likely look to fortify the positions at which they have fewer long-term options. Jameer Nelson is 31 years old, and his contract will expire in two seasons, with a team option for a third that is unlikely to be picked up.
"Mighty Mouse's" final two years could be spent mentoring a guy like Trey Burke or Michael Carter-Williams, should Hennigan in fact decide that either the Michigan floor general or the 6'6" Syracuse product could eventually be the true answer for his team for the long run.
The Magic are fairly certain they want Harkless, Harris and Vucevic around for that long-term run. While it's not yet clear whether Harris is really the franchise savior the short sample size we have to go on may indicate, he is a very good player, and the Magic will have bigger chances to make more significant splashes.
Hennigan hasn't even yet had his chance to use his first lottery pick, nor to tender his first max contract. Given how his first three major acquisitions have worked out, in addition to some other solid additions like the aforementioned Nicholson and Norfolk State alum Kyle O'Quinn, Magic fans can feel fairly confident that the best is definitely yet to come.
The window on the rebuilding project is a wider one than most fans have patience for, but it's encouraging to know the Magic could rank No. 15 in league attendance with a 20-win team.
No, we said "When?!"
By the summer of 2015, the Magic will have heaps of cap room and a host of free agents to spend it on (including Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, among others) and their coveted selection from the rich 2014 draft class, in addition to what they already have and all other pieces added like their 2013 lottery selection.
If that sounds like a lot of possibilities, that's only a good thing. The Magic could reasonably be on the verge of being taken seriously again as a dangerous playoff threat to a contender by the 2015-16 season.
Until then, Magic fans can take pride in watching who may go down as the best GM in franchise history do his thing and build the Magic towards their first successful Finals trip after losses in 1996 and 2009. With Vucevic, Harris and Harkless, the threat of having to wait 13 years between Finals appearances should seem a little less imposing.
Advanced Stats accurate as of the conclusion of the 2012-13 NBA season. All are sourced from ESPN and Basketball-Reference.com.
Brett David Roberts is a team featured columnist at Bleacher Report and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Illustrated's blog network affiliate FanSided's Presto In the Paint, a blog devoted to the Orlando Magic. Follow Roberts on Twitter @BDRHoops