By Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel
4:56 PM AKDT, August 11, 2012
Aggressive spending in recent years clogged the Orlando Magic payroll and hampered team executives' efforts to pair Dwight Howard with another star.
But what complicated things in the first place might provide the fastest path back to relevance.
Now that Howard is gone, sent Friday to the Los Angeles Lakers in a widely panned four-team trade, the Magic will attempt to copy the models used by the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Orlando executives will try to stockpile as much young, affordable talent as possible and develop that talent into stars.
There are two big problems with that strategy, however. It means the Magic will get worse before they get better. And even if they improve their odds in the draft lottery, they will require luck on top of skillful scouting, wise drafting and patient decision-making. That's why even Magic CEO Alex Martins acknowledges that bold moves in free agency might be necessary.
"We're not turning our back on free agency," Martins said. "We're just putting the emphasis on our draft that we feel should be the case."
The Magic could have enough salary-cap space to offer a maximum-level deal in free agency next summer, when Thunder shooting guard James Harden is scheduled to become a restricted free agent and Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith is slated to reach unrestricted free agency.
The 2014 free-agency period could pay more dividends for the Magic, who currently have committed just $29 million to salaries for the 2014-15 season.
Orlando then might afford two maximum-level salaries, and that summer's free-agent class could include the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, who has an early termination option, and the Memphis Grizzlies' Rudy Gay. It also could include the Miami Heat's Big Three, who hypothetically could opt out of their deals at that time but seem perfectly happy now in South Florida.
New general manager Rob Hennigan started his front-office career with the Spurs and the Thunder, and it's assumed that he will build almost exclusively through the draft instead of through free agency.
He insisted that's not necessarily the case.
"I think that we're pliable and we've set ourselves up to look at both avenues," he said.
"That was something that was important to us. I don't think you can ever get too parochial and say, 'This is the model we need to subscribe to.' We have a lot of flexibility to build through the draft. We have flexibility to build through free agency. We have flexibility to build through trades."
The Thunder are lauded as the most skilled practitioners of building through the draft.
But the franchise benefited from enormous amounts of luck. It won the second pick in the lottery in 2007 and selected Kevin Durant. A year later, the team chose Russell Westbrook fourth overall. A year after that, it obtained Harden with the third overall pick.
Oklahoma City executives deserve credit for scouting Westbrook and Harden well and taking them earlier than projected. But the Thunder also were fortunate that the Heat took Michael Beasley and the Minnesota Timberwolves took O.J. Mayo instead of Westbrook. In 2009, the Grizzlies infamously picked Hasheem Thabeet second overall, one spot ahead of Harden.
Hennigan said the Magic will be patient and seek to make "incremental" gains.
But how long will the DeVos family's patience last, especially if the Magic don't receive some lottery luck as the losses accumulate?
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