The Plight of the Magic: Do Some Teams Stay With Their Young Core For Too Long?

August 11, 2012.  That was a long time ago, right?

That was the day the Orlando Magic, after upwards of one year of drama, traded Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.  The take at the time: Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Moe Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Al Harrington, and Christian Eyenga.  The Magic also received a first round pick that ultimately became Elfrid Payton, a second round pick that became Romero Osby, and a $17.8 trade exception that expired, unused.  Fast forward from there: Afflalo was traded for Evan Fournier and Devyn Marble, and McRoberts, Harrington, Eyenga, and Osby were shuffled off the roster for various reasons, leaving Vucevic, Fournier, Harkless, Payton, and Marble the take from the trade, essentially.

From there, the Magic did what we say every franchise is supposed to do to build a winner: they patiently worked through the draft, trade market, and scrap heap market to build a young core.  Over the years, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, and Andrew Nicholson were added through the draft; JJ Redick was shipped to import a young Tobias Harris; and Dewayne Dedmon was a free agent find on the cheap.

The Magic were not impulsive, and always kept the future vision in mind as opposed to gunning for the short term (until the 2016 deadline: more on that later).  They did not seek the big “ticket sale” move in lieu of patient building.  And, it is easy to forget now, but the Magic core was one many were found of, in multiple circles.  Rob Hennigan, particularly after the Dwight trade, was praised as a shrewd planner who handled a tough situation incredibly well.

Nevertheless, this is now the Magic’s fifth season after dealing Dwight.  And, yes.  In a league were the vast majority of contracts are for four years or less (teams generally can only sign incumbent max free agents and designated young players to five year deals), a rebuild should not be expected to take in excess of five years to be successful.  Nevertheless, the Magic won 20-25 games in their first three post Dwight seasons, 35 games last year, in year four, and are now 10-14, or on pace for 34 wins in year 5.  This lack of success has come despite adding players like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, and an elite coach in Frank Vogel, this offseason.

With all due respect to Hennigan – who is every bit as smart as many basketball people believe – the post Dwight rebuild did not work.

So, what went wrong?  The Magic stuck with their young core for too long.

Typically, when a team that makes wildly poor “win now” decisions, fails, in epic fashion (we are looking at you, Brooklyn Nets), the response – appropriately – is to criticize that type of recklessness, and extol smart, sustainable long term franchise building.  However, too much of anything is no good, and that includes too much patience with young players.  After all, if there were a fool proof roadmap to developing title contenders, then why have only 11 teams won a championship since 1980?  Surely, well over eleven smart individuals have run franchises since then.

Indeed, building the smart, sustainable way guarantees nothing, from a results perspective.  In fact, the Magic show us that there can be a price to the smart, sustainable rebuild — not realizing when the time has come to cut bait on your younger core can have damaging effects.

Simply, not every draft building process pans out because not all talented young players become good NBA players.  The Sacramento Kings have had a top 8 pick annually since 2009. The Phoenix Suns stockpiled draft picks after dealing Steve Nash.  Neither has seen anything in the way of results.  The Magic are no different.

We all know that if you waste your trade assets or cap space on non-foundation players, you wind up stuck in neutral.  What gets underdiscussed is that the draft is no different.  Vucevic, Fournier, Oladipo, and Payton are nice players to start a franchise with – all have produced to an extent, all have displayed potential, and all have been model citizens.  However, none of those players were anything close to foundational talents for the Magic.  Role players like Harkless, Nicholson, Marble, and Dedmon?  Perceived high upside players in Gordon and Hezonja?  They provide more evidence that the Magic stockpiled multiple talented young players – just as many believe teams should do.  But none of these players appear to have superstar potential.

And that brings us to where the Magic went wrong. They waited until the 2016 trade deadline to make the assessment that their talented young players lacked a star in the bunch.  That created a problem that should have been addressed earlier.  While everyone loves young talent, on “cheap rookie salaries,” we forget that eventually, that young talent will hit the restricted free agent market, and will get paid – and paid nearly as handsomely as foundational stars due to the artificial max contract and all the problems it presents.

The consequence of that?  Orlando simply could not afford to pay all of its young talent – it would have capped itself out without a foundation player.  So Orlando began to pick some players to move forward with, and deal others.  That cascaded into the root of Orlando’s problem: by waiting to deal their young players until they had multiple years of experience, the Magic did not obtain optimal value.  Young talent has less value the more it ages, because it becomes more expensive, and because teams begin to value it based on actual production as opposed to theoretical potential.  Indeed, Danilo Gallinari was once the centerpiece in a trade for prime Carmelo Anthony.  Eric Gordon was the focal point of a Chris Paul acquisition.  And Brook Lopez was once seen as capable of fetching prime Dwight Howard or Chris Paul.  No offense to Gallinari, Gordon, and Lopez, who have all had between decent and good careers, but none – despite not diminishing substantially since 2011 (especially Lopez and Gallinari) – is coming close to fetching a star in a deal today.

So the Magic, by waiting until 2016 to decide to move on from much of its young talent, did not get the value it would have gotten if it proactively made that decision in 2014 or 2015.  Want to know why the Magic had to deal the 11th pick in the draft with Oladipo just to get Serge Ibaka?  Because the Thunder knew that they had to pay Oladipo $21 million annually to retain him.  An Oladipo deal earlier than the 2016 draft would have yielded a better price.  Oladipo was, after all, the second pick in the draft, and played well in Orlando (albeit in a weak draft).  An earlier deal puts the Magic in the market for a star or close, or a high draft pick – as opposed to not even being enough to net Ibaka without dumping the 11th pick in the draft.

Tobias Harris?  It once took Redick to pry Harris, and Harris produced in Orlando subsequent to being dealt.  However, all he netted for Orlando was Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, low level pieces since parted with.  The Pistons needing to pay Harris $64 million to keep him impacted his value.

Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless?  They brought nothing in by walking out the door.

Now where do the Magic stand?  They have some nice young pieces, under contract, but still lack a star.  With Vucevic, Ibaka, and Bismack Biyombo up front, the Magic have a significant roster imbalance.  Payton has not yet proven that he is a reliable lead point guard – with all due respect, too many starters are discernibly better at the moment.  And the Magic, at 10-14, are likely to go five seasons into the post Dwight era without a single playoff appearance to show for it.  There is also no apparent path to title contention.

The Magic should serve as a lesson for other young rebuilds.  Sure, players take time to develop.  But stockpiling youth does not automatically bring future success, even if the acquired youth is talented.  If the ceiling for young players begins coming apparent in year 3, and even year 2, and a young core is not likely to become elite, teams need to make that assessment quicker than the Magic did, to maximize return value.  The Magic, with all due respect, could have, and should have, known earlier on that Oladipo and Payton was a starless backcourt and clumsy fit, that a Vucevic-Harris-Gordon-Oladipo-Payton young core lacked the type of elite talent necessary to compete.  An earlier assessment would have bred more return value in deals.

Other teams should take note of this.  If the Sixers believe any of their youth are not part of the vision surrounding Embiid, the time to act on that is now.  If you are the Heat, where does Justise Winslow fit in over the next three years?  He will never have more value on the market than now unless he takes a leap. Buddy Hield?  His struggles at the older rookie age of 22 need to be a consideration now, while teams believe they can still salvage him.  The Suns were late here, but they should consider getting value for Alex Len rather than overpaying him or watching him walk, and for their younger players, the evaluation has to start now.

There is no hidden secret to effectuate flawless team building.  You have to get foundation players, and get them all at a time where they all are thriving.  Almost all thirty teams are well managed, and luck plays a huge role in building a contender.  Like or dislike any recent winner, and you will find strokes of luck in their rose.  Nevertheless, determining whether young players are or are not in the fold before they approach free agency and their value drops is a tool that teams should employ more often.

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