Welcome to our summer series entitled "The biggest mistake in franchise history," where we examine some of the greatest regrets of every team in the NBA. We tackled the Detroit Pistons last time and today, let's take a look at the Orlando Magic.
Since the Orlando Magic traded their franchise superstar Dwight Howard in 2012, they've practically been stuck in a rut. After nine years of disappointing draft picks on top of disastrous asset management and failing to develop their young core, Orlando remains at rock bottom. Their biggest mistake in franchise history is their inability to rebuild the right way.
Bust after bust
In the NBA, the process of rebuilding seems to look easy:
- Draft the right pieces with your picks every year.
- Be patient with them.
- Develop their game and continue building a roster around your core.
The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are the best examples of how to build organically successfully.
While it may look like a simple and linear process, that doesn't mean teams can't screw up. After all, drafting the right players will always be a hit or miss, and it takes intelligent asset management skills and a robust development program to be successful — most of which the Magic have failed to do from 2012-2019.
When Howard departed from Orlando in 2012, the Magic drafted the following players in the next following eight years:
2012 picks: Andrew Nicholson (19th overall) and Kyle O'Quinn (49th overall)
2013 picks: Victor Oladipo (2nd overall) and Romero Osby (51st overall)
2014 picks: Aaron Gordon (4th overall) and Dario Šarić (12th overall)
2015 picks: Mario Hezonja (5th overall) and Tyler Harvey (51st overall)
2016 picks: Domantas Sabonis (11th overall traded to OKC), Stephen Zimmerman (41st overall),V and Jake Layman (47th overall traded to Portland Trail Blazers)
2017 picks: Jonathan Isaac (6th overall), Anžejs Pasečņiks (25th overall traded to PHI), Wesley Iwundu (33rd overall), Ivan Rabb (35th overall traded to Memphis Grizzlies)
2018 picks: Mohamed Bamba (6th overall), Melvin Frazier (35th overall), Jarred Vanderbilt (41st overall traded to Denver Nuggets)
2019 picks: Chuma Okeke (16th overall), Talen Horton-Tucker (46th overall traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
Other young prospects acquired: Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Kyle O'Quinn.
Based on the list above, it's safe to conclude that the Magic didn't hit the jackpot in any of their draft picks. It also didn't help that in 2016, the Magic traded Oladipo, Sabonis (who both eventually became All-Stars in different teams), and Ersan Ilyasova for Serge Ibaka, who never wanted to be in Orlando in the first place. Ibaka eventually left the Magic after 1 year, and the team then traded for Terrence Ross, and 1st round pick — a move that set them back for years.
Since then, the Magic also hired 6 different coaches in 5 years since 2013. The organization had no stability, proper development program, culture, or system to rebuild correctly. It was also tragic that Orlando didn't prioritize their young core, as their coaches would give more minutes to the veterans instead of their rookies and sophomores. On top of that, the team also let go of Harris, Harkless, and O'Quinn.
A glimpse of hope
In 2018, it seemed like the Magic finally turned a corner with the leadership of head coach Steve Clifford, who specialized in developing players. Clifford instilled a disciplined culture and team concept system that Orlando desperately needed. Led by Nikola Vucevic, Gordon, Issac, and Bamba, their defense skyrocketed to 8th in the league in 2018.
It also helped that Vucevic blossomed into an All-Star as he averaged 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game in 52% shooting from the field and 36% 3-point shooting in the same season. The Magic eventually experienced their first winning season in years as they improved their record to 42-40 and made the Playoffs not only just in 2019 but also in 2020.
Unfortunately, Orlando couldn't keep it up in the following seasons, thanks to 2 ACL injuries to Issac and Bamba. To add insult to injury, Marquelle Fultz also tore his ACL in 2020 at the start of the season when the team had a 6-2 record. Talk about bad luck.
Looking into the future
The Magic eventually let go of Vucevic and Gordon as they entered another rebuilding phase. However, this time, Orlando might have finally found their core after drafting Cole Anthony in 2020, Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner in 2021, and Paolo Banchero in 2022.
Is this the time the Orlando Magic finally learn from their mistakes and rebuild the right way? Nothing is inevitable, but there's no denying that the young talent on their roster looks promising. Only time will tell if Orlando finally learns from its long decade of incompetence.