This is the question Magic fans and, really, the whole organization has to address during these down times.
There are plenty of jokes (I am guilty of it too) about the Magic's tanking and draft prospects. It is a pretty straight dismissal of any and all of the Magic's chances to do anything this season. It has reminded many of the Heart and Hustle team and hope has seaped in that maybe, just maybe, something really special could happen in Orlando.
Of course, that would not include coming anywhere near winning a championship. No one is prepared to say this Magic team is close to that goal. And that was something we might have been able to say based on Dwight Howard's presence alone — he is that good.
That leads to the inevitable question every team that does not have a championship team faces: are we going up or going down? Is Playoff experience important for this team's growth? Or is a Playoff berth merely the lost opportunity/asset of a high draft pick?
The Magic are in that strange place after the Dwight Howard trade.
Orlando is on its way down. This is not a team in need of Playoff experience to take that next step. This is a team that is past its way out. This is a team destined for that dreaded middle.
The Magic are now part of that awful race to the bottom that characterizes the NBA today. If you are not heading up, you are heading down. And the quicker you get to the bottom, the more ping pong balls you get and the chance to really change your franchise's fortunes.
The Magic though it seems are not quite at the bottom. Sure, the predictions claim the Magic are one of the least talented teams but this is still a team full of veterans and potentials. The optimist in Magic fans (certainly in me) believes the team still can win and surprise. That is certainly possible. The Heart and Hustle team was built to clear cap space without any care for the results of the 1999-2000 season. But that team had some veterans and had some young players willing to work (an on contract years). It was a perfect storm and things worked.
It is hard to say if that can be caught again with this team. Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington all represent players who have been in the NBA for a very long time. They have all experienced success throughout their careers. And they all will play their hardest every night and try to win. Losing is not something these players are comfortable with.
Fans will expect the Magic to play hard every night. Jacque Vaughn will expect his team to play hard every night.
This is not a question of effort.
This is a question of getting the Magic back to a championship level as quickly as possible. Some of the trade seemed to prevent that. Orlando brought in veterans on moderate contracts that may be tough to flip. It seems like it will be at least two years before the Magic have the cap space to go after free agents to bring in that superstar player to help the team close that potential talent deficit and begin the ascend back toward the top.
This creates a major conflict within the fan. The short-term goal is and always should be winning. But the long-term goal is positioning the team to win a championship. Following the Oklahoma City and San Antonio model that Rob Hennigan appears to be bringing to Orlando, that means drafting well. And there is no faster way to do that then to win the lottery.
Thus the race to the bottom in the NBA.
So when Josh Cohen of OrlandoMagic.com asks whether it is better for the Magic to sneak into the 8th spot in the East or to land a top-3 pick in the Draft, it is a legitimate question for Magic fans to ask themselves. This is not something Orlando fans have had to think about since … 1992, or maybe even 1999.
As a franchise, Orlando has not had the frame of mind fans are attributing to this team in a very very long time. Even the 2000 team was built to be scrapped immediately to bring in the free agents necessary to return to the Playoffs. The Magic have typically had a short-term view of things. The Tracy McGrady trade to Houston brought in an all star in Steve Francis with the hopes of keeping the team competitive while Dwight Howard developed. Instead of potentially going after free agents or building for the future — and finding that second star — through the Draft, Orlando was so focused on reaching the Playoffs that it committed to players long term chasing that dream.
More than anything the change Rob Hennigan is proposing is a shift away from short-term thinking to long-term building.
The question Magic fans may have to face though if the team overperforms is whether it is better to sneak into the postseason and hold on to that little piece of glory or whether it is better to lose. No fan wants their team to lose. It is counterintuitive and the fact that we even have this discussions during and even before the season, is a sign that there is a broken system in the NBA with regard to the top pick in the draft.
This is the beginning of the building process. It is tough to tell a fan that what happens on the floor this year will not matter. Orlando could be hovering around .500 and Hennigan could be met with the difficult decision of moving a veteran for better future positioning or more cap room, sacrificing a playoff spot. Are Magic fans ready to accept this kind of choice? Is the DeVos family?
There is no reason not to expect this team to outperform its extremely low expectations. I tend to think they will. The Playoffs will in all likelihood be out of reach. But are the Magic as an organization ready to accept some form of losing and be patient? Are the fans?
that is the real question as we enter these next few seasons.