Orlando Magic lessons from The Last Dance: Find a star and go for it

Anfernee Hardaway was the Orlando Magic's big gamble to take their next step to a title team.
Anfernee Hardaway was the Orlando Magic's big gamble to take their next step to a title team. /

The ESPN documentary The Last Dance has the whole NBA world buzzing. For rebuilding teams like the Orlando Magic, the lessons could help them grow.

No rebuild is alike. Each situation and each system of growing a team from the ground up is different. How one team enters a rebuild and how they get out of it is constantly different. It is impossible to repeat history. And no matter the team (except maybe the perpetually attractive Los Angeles Lakers), there are danger points where the whole project can collapse.

Looking back at the successful teams provides a small road map, but no situation perfectly maps or tracks the same. The Orlando Magic know this looking back at how they built their successful teams and how they struggled — even in the last six years — to repeat that.

But there is a universal truth. A truth that is evident whenever you look at how teams build championship contenders — no matter the salary cap rules in place or any other secondary factors — they find their star and then they have to do whatever they can to quickly support him. The clock is always ticking.

The first two hours of ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance have taken over the entire NBA world. It probably would have done that if it aired when originally planned in June, but with the coronavirus putting the NBA season on hold and keeping everyone at home, it was a welcomed and needed distraction.

It was good, especially this time of year when the whole basketball world would have been watching the playoffs together, to have the whole NBA world having a shared viewing experience.

There will be plenty of fond memories and revelations forgotten that come up in the course of the 10-hour documentary. It is a comprehensive look at one of the best players and teams in league history.

Through its first two episodes, the documentary has detailed how Michael Jordan rose to prominence and what drove him to greatness as the Chicago Bulls organization started to break at the seams from competing egos, interests and visions for the team’s future. It was a picture of what creates a championship window and how organizations and players stare down its demise.

The second hour detailed how vital it is to find the right supporting case for a star player and how important it is to value those secondary players to keep the ship steady. Scottie Pippen’s dissatisfaction with his contract situation was part and parcel of larger problems within the Bulls.

The Last Dance is at this point about greatness as much as it is about a ship that has clearly started to sink. With only one way to get rescued.

There are very few players with a singular talent like Jordan. But his arrival in Chicago is a lesson that every fan and NBA team can intuit.

A star’s league

This is a star’s league. And acquiring or drafting a star player is the first step to any team having a chance to win at a high level.

One player can have an incredibly large effect on teams. That is just the truth about basketball.

Before Michael Jordan arrived in Chicago in the 1984 Draft, the Chicago Bulls had just two playoff appearances in their previous seven seasons. They had one playoff series win in that time, a 2-0 series win over the New York Knicks on the Reggie Theus-led team in 1980.

But the Bulls did not have much traction. As The Last Dance detailed, the indoor soccer team playing at Chicago Stadium outdrew the Bulls.

Jordan changed all that instantly. That is what a player with star power can do. Getting him at the third pick — and Jerry Reinsdorf all but admits if they had finished second they would have gone with conventional wisdom and stayed drafting the big man in Sam Bowie — was a small stroke of luck. Jordan was destined to be successful wherever he ended up.

The Orlando Magic know what power a star can have.

Winning the draft lottery in 1992 gave the Magic the rights to draft Shaquille O’Neal and one of the biggest stars in league history. The expansion franchise quickly became playoff contenders, going 41-41 in his rookie season (just like the Bulls suddenly became playoff juggernauts when Jordan arrived).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

For the modern Magic, this star search has been an all-encompassing frustration and search. It seems like since the Magic traded away Dwight Howard in 2012, the team has been searching for its next star.

They first hoped to get it through the draft, selecting Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon to try to fill that role. Victor Oladipo would develop into a star elsewhere after four promising but frustrating years. He might have become a star, but unlike Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy McGrady or Dwight Howard — the truly great player sin team history — his stardom was not apparent.

Entering this year, the expectations and hope was for Aaron Gordon to take the “star leap.” But he struggled with injuries early in the year and his offense has been inconsistent. While he has shown lots of promise yet again in his last 10 games, his skills have not coalesced.

Certainly, the Magic know that if they want to be a true contending team, they will need a significant upgrade in talent. They will need to find a top-end star. Maybe that is Jonathan Isaac, maybe that is someone they can draft or maybe that will come in a trade down the road.

Orlando is trying to build and rebuild in a way the team has never done so before.

But that is also something the Bulls had to navigate in building their championship team in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Seeking help, no matter what

The Chicago Bulls knew by the end of his first year they had something special in Michael Jordan. They knew it for sure after his stellar playoff turn in his second season against the Boston Celtics.

One of the more famous quotes from the second hour of The Last Dance came from Magic Johnson. He said they all knew Jordan was coming, he just needed help.

The Bulls decided to use the draft to do that. They zeroed in on Scottie Pippen and were willing to trade key players to make sure they got their guy. That risk was the right call.

The lesson from that is once the foundation is in place, a team should have no fear to go after the players they want, even if there is a fear of taking a step back in the short-term. Teams have to be bold and aggressive to attack and improve their roster, especially when it comes to the draft.

It takes some bravery and assuredness to make the bold move that can put the team over the top. The Magic might well be at this point currently.

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In building the team’s championship team in 1995, the Magic aggressively pursued their chosen player, smartly using the top pick to extract more draft assets from the Golden State Warriors to trade down for Anfernee Hardaway.

Even in 2004, the Magic traded up to get Jameer Nelson, a player who proved key in the Magic’s 2009 and 2010 seasons.

It takes a smart move to go get your guy as the second player to help a star get over the top. It is necessary to supplement a rising team. Go find the player that fits and do what it takes to acquire him.

Success or failure of an entire project can hinge on this selected player as much as the star at the center of it all.

The current Magic do not have a true star to build around. But there is at least some grumbling that with the Magic’s positioning, they need to be willing to make some expenditure to go get the guy they really want.

This takes smart scouting and bold decisionmaking to do. Teams have to make short-term sacrifices to make long-term gains.

If there is a player at the top of the draft, for instance, that Jeff Weltman really likes, he should expend what he has to expend to acquire him. Of course, that then ties Weltman’s success to whatever player he puts all that capital into.

Go for it

The Orlando Magic are undoubtedly facing an incomplete picture today. They do not have that apparent star quite yet, the one thing that everything revolves around for a team’s ultimate success.

But to be successful requires an understanding of who your team is. It takes understanding the ways and the players that will make it better. And when there is a clear player out there that will make the team better or you identify such a player, you go out and get him.

At some point, a team has to take the risk and go for it.

The Bulls were there after two seasons in the playoffs with Jordan at the helm. They gave up a lot for Pippen to get their guy. And that investment paid off with one of the greatest runs in NBA history.

Some might believe this is a step Orlando has to take now. But taking this step also requires patience and foresight to identify that player.

If that player is not out there, patience is still the best path forward. It is the NBA, everyone seems to hit the trade market once every three years.

There will surely be more lessons from the greatness of this Bulls team to come in the next four weeks. The documentary has been a breath of fresh air.

Next. Orlando Magic, Michael Jordan brought the best out of each other. dark

But the greatest lesson of all is understanding how much fortune and luck come together to make a championship team. It needs everyone working in the same direction. And if that is not happening, things can seemingly fall apart quickly.