The Magic hit reset (again)

Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are anchoring the latest Orlando rebuild. Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The Magic have lurched since trading Dwight Howard four summers ago. They scored well on most of their key rebuilding moves, including the Howard trade, but they never picked high enough in the right draft to nab the tentpole superstar who would define their on-court style.

In trying to microwave the rebuild, Orlando blew cap space on veterans who contributed nothing and dealt away one young core player -- Tobias Harris -- for two retreads who stayed only as long as their shouting coach benefactor. (Other young players who didn't fit Orlando's vision -- Ryan Anderson, Maurice Harkless -- were tossed away for almost literally nothing).

The win-now moves got them only a little closer to pseudo-contention. Orlando is the only team to rank 16th or worse in both points scored and allowed per possession over each of the last four seasons, per NBA.com. Philadelphia's old regime sees the star-less mishmash and thinks: "This is why we trusted the process."

In related news, that regime -- including deposed GM Sam Hinkie's hand picked management team -- will be mostly gone by the end of August, league sources say. Even owners with high pain tolerance grow impatient. The Magic entered this summer with a mandate: Add defense-first veterans in their mid-20s who could lift their young core and grow under Frank Vogel -- the team's fourth head coach in 18 months, and a great accidental hire after the Vic Mackey debacle. Climb up to 45 wins, and perhaps an outside free agent will bat eyes at an intriguing team in a sunny state with no income tax.

"This is the longest period of time for our franchise not to be in the playoffs," said Alex Martins, the team's CEO. "Our fans deserve a winning product."

To rival executives, the Magic still look aimless after a frenzy of transactions sloughed away 10 of the 16 guys who logged at least 200 minutes last season. They paid a backup center, Bismack Biyombo, starter money after sniffing around a similar deal for Joakim Noah, per several league sources. In a league low on two-way wings and oversaturated with big men, Orlando swapped Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka -- even though they had Aaron Gordon entrenched at Ibaka's position. Then they paid Jeff Green $15 million.

"It feels like a whole new team," Gordon told ESPN.com.

"I guess the rebuilding process wasn't going as well as they wanted," said Nikola Vucevic, the presumptive starting center.

Magic brass know how it looks from the outside: too many guys jostling for minutes up front, and only a single proven full-time wing in Evan Fournier -- re-signed, by the way, on a knockout five-year deal. But from that chaos, the Magic hope they unearthed an identity.

"If Serge Ibaka weren't here, Aaron Gordon would be my power forward," Vogel said. "But Serge is here. Aaron is going to be playing [small forward]. We are going to put the ball in his hands a lot. We're going to use him like Paul George."

That would make the Magic huge and mobile -- especially when they have Gordon, Ibaka, and Biyombo on the floor together. Those three can switch on defense, pound the glass on offense, and form a six-armed rim-protecting hydra to fix Orlando's glaring weakness. The Magic are plotting a counter-revolution. "In today's small-ball NBA, we think we can beat the [expletive] out of teams in the paint," Vogel said.

Gordon is stoked to stretch his skill set. "I'm gonna be like a third guard," he said. "I'll have a much bigger ballhandling responsibility, and I'm all for that."

The notion of Gordon as primarily a wing is almost shocking, and a massive organizational risk. He can't shoot (yet), and he has very little NBA-level experience as a primary ball handler. Playing Gordon and Ibaka at the forward spots takes them further from the rim on defense, reducing the fear factor of their shot-blocking.

Gordon's limitations on offense didn't matter as much when he played power forward, with three perimeter guys around him. He grew comfortable there last season as a hoppier and less refined version of Draymond Green; he finished better at the rim, drew more free throws, zipped canny passes and cut his turnovers.

There are people within the team who think that by midseason, it will be clear Orlando's best lineups feature Gordon at power forward and Ibaka at center -- sort of a problem given the $30 million per year invested in Vucevic and Biyombo.

Meanwhile, groups lumping Gordon alongside two traditional bigs and Elfrid Payton, perhaps an even worse shooter than Gordon, could barf up bricks as defenses strangle the lane. With the rim walled off, the Magic have settled for a ton of midrangers and struggled to earn foul shots.

"We might have to win games 68-65," Vogel said, laughing.

The Magic are betting that the Ibaka/Vucevic combo brings enough shooting to open the floor for Payton and Gordon -- and that sliding Oladipo's minutes to Fournier and Mario Hezonja brings a major upgrade in shooting. They envision Gordon acting almost as a center at times, cutting for dunks as Ibaka and Vucevic spread the floor -- a role inversion the Magic toyed with in certain lineups last season:

Orlando might end up disappointed. Ibaka and Vucevic are good shooters, not great ones. Vucevic hit a sizzling 48 percent of midrangers last season largely because teams are fine giving him those shots to clog up Orlando's driving lanes:

That might change if Vucevic shoots 3s, and Vogel wants him to try -- especially from the corners.

"I won't put that on him if he's not comfortable," Vogel said, "but I do like the idea." (Vucevic has always been cautious about venturing beyond the arc).

Ibaka shoots plenty of 3s, but he dipped to 32.6 percent last season on mostly wide-open looks. Without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to suck in defenders, Ibaka might face an uncomfortable choice: jack semi-contested 3s he can't make, or use his timid off-the-bounce game to skitter by defenders closing out on him.

That shaky playmaking imperils the Ibaka-Biyombo combo, about which the Magic are giddy. That duo will menace teams on defense. But swapping out Vucevic cramps Orlando's spacing, and both Ibaka and Biyombo were among just 16 rotation players last season who averaged one or fewer assists per 36 minutes.

It is hard to run a functional NBA offense with two non-passers, regardless of what position they play. Over the last nine seasons, no pair who dished so few dimes logged even 1,000 minutes together, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Zoom out to 1.5 assists per 36 minutes, and the Ibaka/Steven Adams duo appears. But they mooched scraps from two of the league's half-dozen best players. Payton runs the show in Orlando, and teams are going to duck way under picks against him until he proves he can hit open 18-footers at a rate that actually scares people:

"That's a challenge," Vogel said. "I'm not going to hide from that. It's Elfrid's third year. That has to develop into a money shot."

If Payton can't get to the rim, he gives up the ball -- and transforms into a Rajon Rondo-level liability no one bothers to guard, neutering Fournier's crafty pick-and-roll game:

The thicket of bigs has drawn most of the scrutiny, but the Magic are really betting just as heavy on the remaining four members of their under-25 core: Payton, Gordon, Fournier and Hezonja. With Ibaka and Biyombo playing heavy minutes, they will need more playmaking from all four -- and much better shooting from the first two. Good luck. Hezonja looked confused as a rookie; he shot a ghastly 34 percent out of the pick-and-roll, mostly on pull-up 2s, and turned the ball over on 27 percent of those plays -- the sixth-worst rate among 178 players who finished at least 50 of them, per Synergy Sports. But he's rangy and skilled, and he should grow into a quality wing with a smooth stroke.

The potential playmaking void is one reason the Magic are in no rush to trade Vucevic despite the logjam, league sources say. They might need his post game, and especially his passing. Last season, Vucevic quietly morphed into one of the league's best passing centers. He assisted on 16 percent of Orlando's hoops while on the floor, a tidy number for a big man; only five centers racked up more potential assists, per SportVU tracking data.

Orlando is confident they can give everyone enough minutes. They didn't sign a fourth traditional big; if Vucevic, Biyombo, and Ibaka combine for something like 80 minutes per game -- say 30 apiece for the starters, and 20 for the backup center -- that would still leave 16 minutes for small ball with Gordon at power forward. Green is strictly a backup on a one-year deal, a fallback after Orlando cringed at three- and four-year contracts for wings like Evan Turner and Solomon Hill under the cap spike.

There is even some hope Vucevic and Biyombo might share the floor for a few minutes on some nights, with Vucevic spotting up around Biyombo's rolls on the rim -- and Biyombo defending quicker power forwards on the other end:

"We will explore that," Vogel said. "It won't work against a lot of teams, but it might work against some." It didn't work against anyone when the Magic experimented with a poor man's version in the Vucevic-Dewayne Dedmon pairing. I'm pessimistic it will function well enough on either end.

Everyone is happy in July, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out when the games start. Orlando didn't pay Biyombo $70 million to back up Vucevic for 15 minutes a game. That would be lunacy. Vucevic is not ready to cede the starting spot, or his role as the team's alpha dog.

"I believe I will be the starter -- the best player on the team, and the guy who has been here the longest," Vucevic said. "I'm not taking anything away from Bismack. I just believe I should start."

Vucevic acknowledges the cap leap has created an awkward situation in which his presumed backup earns $5 million more than he does . "Do I wish I were a free agent now?" Vucevic asked. "Yes. But I can't do anything about it. I'm happy guys are getting paid, and in the normal world, it's still a lot of money. I mean, I'll never spend all that money."

Rob Hennigan, the team's GM, called Vucevic shortly after the Biyombo signing to reassure him, but also declined to promise Vucevic he would remain the starter, the two men say. The Magic believe one unintended consequence of a full-on rebuild is young players walking into minutes without any competition, and then feeling entitled to those minutes going forward. The team wants everyone, including its cornerstones, to feel pressure.

"We have competition for minutes at every position," Hennigan told ESPN.com, "which we view as conducive for growth."

It wouldn't surprise me if the Magic tried Vucevic off the bench at some point. The league has arrived at an interesting near-consensus that post-up brutes who struggle on defense work best as reserves. They don't need studs to create shots, and first-line enemy offenses feast on them. It's feasible that Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, Jahlil Okafor, and Vucevic all spend time as reserves. Enes Kanter is already a backup, and the Grizzlies tried to coax Zach Randolph into that role last season. Some folks in Chicago privately wished they could convince Pau Gasol to live that bench life.

Vucevic's shooting makes him a more adaptable player, and if the minutes-juggling upsets someone, the Magic should explore trades. They need another reliable wing to flank Fournier and Hezonja; with Jodie Meeks' future unclear, they are one injury away from disaster. It's hard right now to trade bigs for wings and receive equal value -- one reason Sam Presti, the Thunder GM, was smart to flip Ibaka for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

Shedding one big salary would also give Orlando wiggle room to upgrade in free agency over the next two summers. They will have cap space next July as long as Ibaka's smallish cap hold is on the books, but things get tight -- like, luxury tax-level tight -- if they bring him back at the max, keep all their core guys, and sign one decent free agent.

The money crunch hits every team that spends a half-decade in the lottery. Great prospects get expensive once their rookie deals expire; you eventually have to shed someone. Utah is staring down this dilemma, and the Magic have already addressed it by dealing Harris, Harkless, and Oladipo -- with the latter up for a mega-extension, and (for now) seeking the maximum salary, sources say.

Going from bad to good is hard without a top-15 player. The Magic have mostly drafted well, and trades involving Howard and Fournier -- controversial at first -- bore fruit with time. They were the first team hot on Kristaps Porzingis, a potential foundational star, and missed him by a single pick.

If there's a fair criticism, it's that Orlando, for whatever reason, hasn't leveraged its cap space and second-tier assets as well as teams like Boston, Houston and others did during their rebuilds. When you're lifting yourself from the muck, you have to make every asset count. Boston magicked Isaiah Thomas from nothing by using every tool -- roster spots, trade exceptions, the desperation of rivals -- to net extra goodies. Thomas lured Al Horford, and the Celtics are poised for another salvo.

After all that hoarding, Boston is having trouble slicing its roster to 15 players. Again: You have to shed at some point, especially when you plop a bunch of veterans atop your young core. But the Magic in too many cases sold low and early. Meanwhile, they overreached on contracts that became sunk costs; D.J. Augustin's four-year, $29 million deal might join C.J. Watson's contract in that pile.

They are still due one first-rounder from the Lakers, but unless they make Gordon available at some point, they don't quite have the goods to compete in an auction for a disgruntled star.

Still: This is a solid team that should hit a baseline improvement just through maturation and coaching. That growth may include a more wrenching trial-and-error process than higher-ups expect, one that could result in major roster churn. To rise from the middle over the next two-plus years, Orlando will need either a mega-leap from one young player or an injection of outside talent -- and maybe both.

That is the hard reality for at least two-thirds of the league. The Magic rebuild didn't conjure a superstar, and management decided it was time to get daring. Now they just have to sort it all out.