2022 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Cleveland Cavaliers chased improvement

Darius Garland developed into an All-Star and gave the Cleveland cavalier permission to chase a better team. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Darius Garland developed into an All-Star and gave the Cleveland cavalier permission to chase a better team. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

For NBA teams, developing young talent is a crucial key to future success.

For the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, both small market teams, success rests solely upon the development of their youth with very little chance of getting big-name free agents (minus players opting to return to deliver a title to their hometown).

Drafting well, developing a young core and adding a coach to lead the ship into the play-in/playoffs is the plan but it is certainly easier said than done. And while everyone envisions a straight line to get there — tank a few years, collect talent, win the Lottery and grow — things rarely work out that cleanly or clearly.

Teams will get one piece of the puzzle and spend years trying to find the missing piece. The Magic are in that boat of teams trying to figure it all out.

Entering next season, nobody is giving the Magic a chance to make any noise, but if they learn from the success the Cavs had last season, then they may be closer than people think.

The Cleveland Cavaliers jumped into the play-in tournament last year and made an improvement the Orlando Magic should strive to recreate.

The Cavaliers became the darlings of the league, using the development of a young player in Darius Garland and a shrewd trade to acquire Jarrett Allen to bolster their front court along with a transformational draft pick in Evan Mobley to vault into the playoffs. The Cavaliers jumped from a woeful 22-50 to 44-38 this season.

It likely would have been better if not for a season-ending injury to veteran guard Ricky Rubio and then another injury to All-Star center Jarrett Allen. The Cavaliers fell from comfortably in the playoffs to a frustrating loss in te final Play-In Game at home and missing the playoffs entirely.

How the Cavaliers got there is a path any team could dream to follow.

After LeBron James left again in the summer of 2018, Cleveland entered an immediate rebuild and started making moves for the future. They re-signed Kevin Love to a four-year, $160-million contract extension, and began to build through the draft.

The Cavs drafted Collin Sexton with the eighth pick which they got from trading Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics back in 2017. In the 2019 NBA Draft, the Cavs chose point guard Darius Garland which set them up with a franchise player to build around.

And in the 2021 NBA Draft, Cleveland got their third central piece when they drafted big man Evan Mobley out of USC.

The Cavs capitalized on three lottery picks by choosing Mobley, Sexton and Garland. That formed the basis for the team’s sudden surge (and this year was played largely with Sexton out due to a leg injury).

Prior to Franz Wagner, the Magic have not seen that kind of instant production from a lottery pick in years. The Magic have not gotten the boost form a young draft pick coming into their own so quickly.

It is easy to say the Magic need to simply draft better, which they do, but the main point is what the Cavs did on top of those picks to help with the development.

The Cavaliers only had 22 wins in the 2021 season and were still picking in the top five. They were stuck in the lottery and accumulated only 60 wins total in three seasons. That can be a very frustrating place, and it is where the Magic sit right now.

So how did the Cavs claw their way out? Turing to this past season, a lot of the Cavs’ decisions began to pay off.

They had two players named All-Stars, a rookie of the year candidate, a most-improved player candidate, Kevin Love had a career resurgence coming off the bench in 70 games this year, and they overcame a season ending injury to Sexton early in the season.

The Cavs did not just withstand that injury to Sexton with the team they already had, they got aggressive in the trade market.

They got Caris LeVert for a bargain in a trade from the Indiana Pacers after repackaging a few draft picks and sending over Ricky Rubio, who had just just suffered his own season-ending knee injury.

The Cavs also got Lauri Markkanen in a sign-and-trade with the Chicago Bulls back in August. Both Levert and Markkanen proved valuable additions as each averaged 30 minutes per game for the Cavs and provided some much needed depth.

The Cavs’ aggression to add undervalued young players paid off in the 2021 season when they acquired Allen, helping transform the team’s big rotation. Hitting on those deals continued to create the chemistry the team needed to shock the NBA world.

light. Related Story. Evan Mobley had stellar Rookie Year, despite ROY snub

The Magic, just like the Cavs, have to build through the draft and trade for players that teams are not that high on because getting franchise-changing players in free agency is not an option at this point.

Orlando should take a page straight out of Cleveland’s book and trade for players with great value that teams are willing to dump for almost nothing.

The Magic were one of those teams beginning a rebuild and getting rid of their core to start over back at the 2021 trade deadline. But they have moved past the point in the rebuild where they can stay quiet in the trade market.

Flipping the script and becoming buyers instead of sellers is where Orlando will find a foundation to speed up the development of guys like Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony. Even Mo Bamba, Johnathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz could benefit because it is not like any players from the Cavs were lost in rotation. Just about half of the roster averaged double digits in points per game.

Orlando played this hand in 2019 when the team acquired Fultz at the deadline. Obviously, it has not panned out to the level it has for Cleveland. Some of that is to injuries of course but they should stay willing to try that option again, especially when you consider how well it has worked for the Cavs (even through injuries of their own).

The Magic should not be discouraged and need to continue to swing for the fences because their inability to do that in the past is what has led them to this point.

Bringing teams back hoping they improve shows complacency within a franchise and it is actually what Cleveland did from 2018 to 2020. Front offices can wait years for a team to get better or healthy and they might not achieve either, then you find yourself back where you started.

There is no standing still in the NBA. The Cavs certainly did not and got the right mix of players to help their young roster grow.

From an outside view it may seem like the Cavs simply built through the draft and waited for their young talent to develop but they were about as aggressive as the could have possibly been with the trades they made which is the missing piece that is eluding the Magic.

Looking ahead the Cavs will want to continue to build off of their success from the 2022 season.

And even losing two play-in games and not being able to compete in a seven-game series leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, the Cavs exceeded all expectations and had their most successful season since James left. Nobody was predicting that they would be the number one seed in the east at one point during the middle of the season.

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If the Magic follow the aggressive playbook that the Cavs did, then they could be the team surpassing everyone next year.