The NBA Playoffs have moved to the conference semifinals and the real contenders for the championship have emerged. These are the teams that have the formula locked down that have the pieces to the puzzle figured out. Whether that gets them to the ultimate goal of winning a championship is something to be determined in the next month and a half.
There are certain things that each of these teams have in common. Certain types of role players that become necessary to winning a title.
The obvious thing that each of these teams have, with some exception, is a superstar player. The Heat have LeBron James. The Spurs have Tony Parker. The Warriors have Stephen Curry. And the Thunder have Kevin Durant.
These are all players that can change the game just by their very presence on the court. Orlando had that in Dwight Howard. And having one of these players makes life all the easier as Howard made even teams of also-rans relevant in the Playoff race.
Orlando is banking on the Draft at the moment to get that kind of a player. More specifically, the 2014 Draft since it does not seem that there is that franchise-altering player in this year's draft.
That does not mean the Magic should not be looking for or have found the pieces that will fit the final puzzle and vision Rob Hennigan sees.
Already, Orlando has some intriguing young players that could easily become part of the Magic's long-term plans if they continue on their upward trajectory.
So what are these secondary pieces, so to speak, the Magic could amass as they wait for their next superstar to really kickstart the drive back to a championship? When you look at the teams that are still left in the eyar there are several similarities.
A big one is 3-point shooting. The Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, Heat and Knicks are all chock full of great shooters and were the top five teams in the league by 3-point field goal percentage. The reality of the current NBA is that teams have to be able to spread the floor and hoist away from long range to free up the paint and loosen up overload defenses.
Orlando is not full of shooters at the moment, as I analyzed earlier this month. As the Magic begin to rebuild and put together pieces, they will need to find some shooters to complement the slahers and ball handlers they have or will acquire.
The other thing you see in common among these teams are defensive-minded centers to anchor the paint. Joakim Noah, Chris Andersen, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut, Marc Gasol (the defensive player of the year) and Serge Ibaka are all great rim protectors who deflect penetration with shot blocking.
Again, Nikola Vucevic is a good rebounder, but he is not yet a rim protector. And he may not be that. The Magic likely need to find a defensive-minded player who can get up and challenge shots at the rim to pair with Vucevic. Of course, the problem is that with stretch-4s becoming prominent in the league, someone has to go out to the perimeter.
Last week, Zach Lowe suggested that a player like Shane Battier is one that championship teams need. That is, a player that takes the hyper efficient corner 3-pointer and then defend smartly. This was the role that Courtney Lee and Matt Barnes seemed to fill during the Magic's championship run in 2009 and 2010.
Here, surprisingly, the Magic already may have players in the fold who could develop into playing this type of role.
Last week, Zach Lowe of Grantland went searching for "the next Shane Battier" and included on his list of possible Battiers Orlando's Arron Afflalo and Maurice Harkless.
On Afflalo, Lowe comments how difficult it is to find these defensive wing players that fit their role perfectly. Afflalo was asked this season to be more than that, as he has been the last few seasons as his offensive game has expanded. Afflalo's defense has suffered as his offensive responsibilities have increased.
It does not help that Afflalo shot only 30.0 percent from beyond the arc this season and his field goal percentage has dropped steadily the last few years.
That does not mean Afflalo cannot be useful in the future. Afflalo, like most players in the league, need the right role and the right situation:
Finding this type of role player at the right time is tricky, personnel gurus say. It is sometimes best to find them after they've faced difficulty in trying to be something more, and are ready to accept their true NBA identities. Bowen was Bowen in part because he understood his role and never worked outside of it. Context is everything in the NBA. A New Age Battier can only be a New Age Battier if someone else is around to create all those 3-point looks on offense by running pick-and-rolls, posting up, and generally kicking ass. The Spurs have those players around Leonard; the Magic do not have them around Afflalo.
The more likely candidate for the Magic which Lowe suggests is Maurice Harkless. It is just too early, in his estimation, to figure out what kind of player Harkless can be.
You can certainly see a bit of Shane Battier in him. He is improving his 3-point shot and has the potential to be an athletic defender. He fits what the Magic want to do long term because of his youth and the way the Magic can groom him.
Harkless, of course, could be much more than a Shane Battier-type player. Orlando probably wants to see him become Thabo Sefolosha in Oklahoma City, or perhaps even more.
The Magic though, despite that 20-win season and those top lottery odds with all those implications, have some of the players they will need when the puzzle comes together. That is the hope at least.
As the Magic build their championship team, it will be important to figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together to make that final picture.