Lessons Orlando Magic can take from Playoff teams to take rebuild to next level

Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting helped the Orlando Magic score a surprising win over the Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke's 3-point shooting helped the Orlando Magic score a surprising win over the Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports /

The incredible thing about the NBA is that every year is a clean slate.

There is always an opportunity for teams that missed the playoffs to improve both internally and externally in hopes of finally becoming the next NBA powerhouse.

The mutual departure of Steve Clifford as the Orlando Magic’s head coach is the exclamation point on a season rife with tribulations and misery.

Thankfully, the Magic have several team-building blueprints to follow among the current crop of NBA playoff teams which could serve as a foundation on which the Magic can turn this trying season into a stepping stone for prosperity.

The Orlando Magic are beginning a long-term rebuild with their young talent. The playoffs are showing the various paths they can follow and how quickly they can succeed.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman acknowledged as much too when asked about the team’s ability to bounce back quickly after seemingly hitting this rock bottom. Weltman knows that the right draft pick — such as the one that catapulted the Memphis Grizzlies or Atlanta Hawks into playoff contention or the right veteran added to a burgeoning young group such as the Phoenix Suns.

Today, we will look at a few teams that have seamlessly transitioned from rebuilding to playoff contenders in a few seasons to determine what common threads they share that the Magic can incorporate.

Phoenix Suns

Until very recently, the Phoenix Suns were in the midst of one of the worst stretches in franchise history. Having missed the playoffs in 11 seasons and suffering the worst record in the NBA from the 2016-19 seasons, the Suns were known more for their off-court dramas and Devin Booker’s love life than anything on the actual basketball court.

Signs of a change began to appear in the 2020 bubble, where the Suns went a perfect 8-0 and showed that players like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton were on the cusp of taking the Suns toward legitimacy.

The 2020 offseason saw general manager James Jones bring in a bevy of veteran players to buoy the young core — the most important pieces of note being a future hall of famer in Chris Paul and solid veteran role player in Jae Crowder.

To say the Suns improved would be underselling the job done by the organization. The Suns finished the 2021 season as legitimate title contenders spearheaded by incredible two-way play.

Booker and Ayton’s development has been one of the main storylines for the Suns this year. Devin Booker was deemed an “empty calorie” scorer for much of his young career and whispers of Deandre Ayton being a bust were becoming louder as players like Luka Doncic took the NBA by storm.

The Suns have positioned themselves to compete for a title quickly. Once they found their star player, they were finally able to put the pieces together and are reaping the rewards.

Atlanta Hawks

Up until the middle of this season, it seemed as if the Atlanta Hawks were dead in the water in terms of their playoff hopes.

At 14-20 and on the outside of the play-in tournament, the Hawks made a bold move in firing coach Lloyd Pierce and replacing him with former Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan.

Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks /

Atlanta Hawks

Natee McMillan inherited a team headlined by very young pieces in flame-throwing point guard Trae Young and explosive big man John Collins.

Almost overnight, McMillan reshaped the Hawks’ fortunes — the team closed the season as one of the hottest teams in the league and ended the season as the 5 seed.

The Hawks’ quick turnaround is credited to a few key factors. The most important of which is a focus on specific shot selection and an emphasis on defensive rebounding.

Since his hiring, McMillan has stressed the idea of shooting either early or late in the shot clock. Practically, this meant looking for a transition three or layup early in the shot clock if available. But, if not, regrouping and looking for a good shot rather than panicking and chucking up a shot.

The Hawks rebounding advantage is exemplified by the stellar performance from Clint Capela, who averaged a league-leading 14.7 rebounds per game and has set the tone defensively for a team with notoriously sub-par defenders like Trae Young.

The Playoffs have become the coming-out party for the Hawks, as they have taken people by storm with their brash and exciting play led by Young but amplified by a strong supporting cast catered to Young’s play style.

Memphis Grizzlies

Like the Orlando Magic, the Memphis Grizzlies had been struggling for several years to find an identity in the aftermath of the deconstruction of the iconic “Grit ‘n Grind” teams of the early 2010s.

Since the 2017 season, the Grizzlies were embroiled in their own semi rebuild as franchise icons like Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were jettisoned to reconstruct the team’s foundation with a younger core.

Tied with the Magic for the average age of players on the team, the Grizzlies are a young yet fundamentally sound team that are led by explosive second-year guard Ja Morant and versatile new-age big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis Grizzlies /

Memphis Grizzlies

The key to the Grizzlies’ success lies in the players who surround the two cornerstone pieces  — players such as Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson and Grayson Allen are all savvy “veteran” (Brooks and Allen are both young players that entered the NBA after multiple years in college) players who have defined roles that they fill with tenacity.

Emblematic of their young team, the Grizzlies are among the top 10 in pace for the year and are among the leaders of assist percentage (62.8-percent) and assist to turnover ratio (2.03) — signs of an exciting and unselfish team that thrives on the transition and passing.

What lessons can the Magic take from these teams?

Some of the key takeaways we can derive from the development of each team is the importance of incorporating veteran players to accentuate the skill sets of the young cornerstones. While there is only one Chris Paul, teams like the Atlanta Hawks and the Memphis Grizzlies have been able to get impressive contributions from veterans to support their young cores.

These veterans assist the younger players in both understanding the game as well as simplifying their roles by having competent, knowledgeable teammates shouldering some of the burden.

In addition, all of the teams mentioned were successfully able to synergize their rosters with a game plan that could highlight the strengths of each respective roster.

For example, the Hawks were able to capitalize on the preternatural shooting and passing ability of Trae Young by designing an offense that catered to both his trigger finger and passing savvy in case Young would be unable to shoot a quick triple.

As mentioned before, the Orlando Magic are in an enviable position where many of the team’s core players are both incredibly young and incredibly cost-effective. In addition, the Nikola Vucevic deal netted the Magic an additional lottery pick in the following draft which may be conveyed in the top 8. Two potential top 10 picks in addition to the roster already in place will mean this team next year will be young and they will be electric.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

With that being said, being young and electric does not equate to a good basketball team and I believe this is where the front office needs to begin planning free agent targets as well as defining the roles of their players.

As the roster is currently constructed, there are a glut of viable starting options at both the point guard and center position and it will be crucial for the coaching staff to begin assessing roles for each of these players so a hierarchy can be established.

By establishing this hierarchy, the incoming coaching staff must establish a scheme that will be able to take advantage of these young players.

A model that resembles the Grizzlies’ pace and passing is a viable direction given the young age of the players and the transition talents of players like R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke.

The Magic will have some room under the cap this upcoming offseason, enough to target a few mid-tier free agents. One of my personal targets the Magic should acquire is Josh Richardson — a 3-and-D wing player who can legitimately guard guards and forwards and will be able to supplant any of the three young point guards the Magic have defensively. Although Richardson has struggled with his 3-point shot the last few years.

The Magic must be aggressive yet intelligent with their free-agent decisions this year — a key thread among the teams we highlighted earlier in this article is that none of these teams broke the banks for “franchise saviors.” Each team signed players who could improve upon the foundation built upon by the young core at a cost-effective price.

Targeting specific role players will allow the Magic to improve upon specific areas they believe their young players will need assistance in while simultaneously giving the Magic instant production during these developmental phases.

Jeff Weltman can finally align the Orlando Magic how he wants. dark. Next

All in all, the Magic have all the tools necessary to become competitive as soon as next year, it is solely on the general manager and coaching staff to create a viable plan to ensure this vision comes together.