Forty-eight wins in a basketball season is pretty damn solid. The mark was good enough for third place in this year’s admittedly ridiculous Eastern Conference. It’ll get you in the Playoffs most seasons, and is generally a record to be proud of.
But 48 wins loses roughly 100 percent of its panache when split between two teams in a given season. This past year saw the Jazz (25-57) and Magic (23-59) combine to get there. The Derrick Rose-less Bulls won the same 48 on their own.
Orlando and Utah were rewarded with top-five picks in Thursday’s Draft, coincidentally in sequence. They selected Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum, respectively.
On the surface, there’s not a whole lot to see here. Bad teams stunk it up for a year, drafted quality prospects and the NBA’s worst-to-first cycle is hopefully now in motion.
Only neither team is going through the usual motions that most teams at the top of the Draft (Cleveland, Charlotte, Sacramento, etc.) usually do. They’re doing it better and smarter; embracing a real, true-to-its-name rebuild.
At pick No. 12, the Magic selected Dario Saric. That selection originally belonged to New York way back when the Knicks owning picks was still a thing, but was forwarded to Orlando through Denver in the Dwight Howard deal. Saric was later flipped to Philadelphia for point guard Elfrid Payton, who was picked two slots earlier. Orlando sent Philadelphia its own 2017 first-round pick (which the Magic acquired for Howard) to grease the deal.
Eleven slots later, the Jazz nabbed Rodney Hood. That pick first belonged to the Warriors, who shipped it to Utah last year.
For the Jazz, the selection of Hood brought a rebuild that started more than three years ago one step closer to completion. At the beginning of it all, the Deron Williams trade returned the team an assortment of players, future picks and short-term contracts.
Today, we know the final package looks like this: Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke, who was acquired by pairing what was originally the Nets’ pick with Utah’s own 2013 first-rounder and moving up in last year’s Draft.
The Jazz remained competitive even without Williams temporarily. In their first full season following the trade, Utah snuck into the Playoffs, and managed 43 wins the following year. Simply, the Al Jefferson-Paul Millsap duo was good enough to keep the team afloat, and some young pieces were developing around them.
But a year ago, Utah faced another franchise-changing decision. Jefferson and Millsap were both free agents. The team had Bird Rights on both—nobody could offer either guy more money than the Jazz could on the open market. Wisely, though, the Jazz made the most difficult choice a small-market team (which has only managed to lure one big free agent in the last decade: Carlos Boozer, ’04) can make. They let their stars walk away for nothing.
Jefferson and Millsap went East to Charlotte and Atlanta, respectively, and the old not-flashy-but-tough-to-knock-out Jazz effectively died. Utah was left with no players to show for the duo, but they did receive one pretty huge perk: loads and loads of cap space, which was only accentuated when Mo Williams’ $8.5 million came off the books simultaneously.
The Jazz used the new-found breathing room brilliantly. Golden State badly needed to shed the expiring contracts of Andris Biedrins ($9 million) and Richard Jefferson ($11 million) in order to sign Andre Iguodala, and Utah was more than willing to absorb them into its ample cap space for a year. The price? A pair of future first- and second-round picks.
One of those four picks has now materialized into Hood, a borderline lottery prospect who fills a dire need on the wing. Millsap, Biedrins and both Jeffersons are all now gone, but Hood, the first tangible product from last summer’s tough decision, figures to stick around for a while.
Alongside him, Utah can continue to add through the Draft. They control all of their own picks going forward and have three more still owed to them by Golden State. They’ll have decisions to make on restricted free agents Enes Kanter and Alec Burks next summer, and Derrick Favors’ 4-year, $48 million extension begins this year, but they’ll have plenty of cap flexibility moving forward. That’s what happens when Hayward, 24, is your oldest player whose rights are controlled long-term.
About a year and a half after Williams was traded to the Nets, Orlando ripped a page out of Utah’s book. When Howard trade rumors were at their peak, it seemed the Magic were destined to acquire Brook Lopez and a flurry of first-round picks for their big man. But Lopez was about to hit restricted free agency, and Orlando felt uneasy about signing him to a max extension.
GM Rob Hennigan surprisingly pulled the trigger on a different deal—one which didn’t land them a marquee name to sell to fans or the media. No guaranteed top picks. No cap space to retool quickly. Nowhere near equal value on the court in the short-term.
Instead, Orlando got a weird mish-mosh of veterans (Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Josh McRoberts), recent draft picks (Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless) and future picks which seemed somewhat unappealing at the time (the lesser of Denver’s two 2014 first-rounders, a 2017 first-rounder from the Lakers and a protected Philadelphia pick).
Two years later, the narrative of that deal has changed completely. Howard left LA after one miserable season and the Lakers were left empty-handed. All that remains of the trade for the Sixers is Jason Richardson’s upcoming $6.6 million salary in the final year of a deal he signed with the Magic in 2011. Most importantly, Orlando has turned a former nightmare into damn-near an entire starting lineup.
They packaged two of the picks acquired for Howard to land Payton on Thursday. Vucevic is a double-double machine, Harkless a quality piece still only 21 years old. Afflalo was flipped recently for Evan Fournier, who has shown a natural scoring ability in limited minutes over his first two seasons. They still have the future Lakers’ pick in their back pocket, which will eventually complete the Howard deal.
On top of it all, the team managed to turn JJ Redick’s expiring contract into Tobias Harris during the ’13 deadline. And, of course, in the process of Orlando’s young core developing, they’ve lost a ton of games (43-121 last two seasons), turning their own post-Dwight draft picks into Victor Oladipo and now Gordon. The team still may not win many games, but we can start to see what’s being built: a long, strong defensive squad which will move like a freight train in transition.
By my count, over two years they’ve piled up four probably really good guys (Oladipo, Vucevic, Payton, Gordon), three rotation guys at worst (Harris, Harkless, Fournier) and a wild-card future pick that could sneakily be a high choice (Kobe Bryant’s contract expires in the summer of 2016—who knows what the Lakers will look like during the ’16-17 season). That’s eight real assets—seven already tangible—in exchange for two expiring contracts and all hope of competing in the very near future.
The team’s books are comically clean moving forward—it’s possible Oladipo will be the team’s highest-paid player next season at under $5 million. They could buy out Jameer Nelson’s $8 million upcoming salary and carry $2 million in dead weight for it, but they’ll likely keep him around for now.
(PS: Sunday night’s John Salmons/Lou Williams trade had to have made the Magic very happy. Salmons has a $7 million salary in the upcoming season, but only $1 million of it is guaranteed. That was appealing to the Hawks, who can now cut him and essentially pay only that $1 million to get Williams’ $5.5 million off the books. Teams like Boston, Chicago and the Clippers will need to make similar deals if they want to free up cap room this summer. Nelson’s contract works the same way as Salmons’, and Toronto forced Atlanta to cough up a real prospect in Lucas Nogueira as the price of doing business. Don’t be surprised if Nelson’s partially guaranteed deal is the center of a similar trade in coming days. It would be a shrewd way for the Magic to acquire yet another asset—I wonder what Boston would surrender to rid themselves of Gerald Wallace’s two years and $20+ million.)
Orlando has some money to spend right now, and could try to pry away a restricted free agent like Greg Monroe this month. But if Gordon Hayward actually lands a max contract this summer, then the RFA market will likely go haywire and teams and fans alike should probably just find a safe place to hide out until the next CBA takes effect.
Next summer, Nelson and Harrington’s contracts will be gone, assuming they don’t flip one for a long-term contract before then, opening up even more spending money.
Kenneth Faried and Utah’s own Enes Kanter will be restricted free agents, and their current teams might be wary of matching a pricey offer sheet. Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard will be RFAs too, for instance, but it’s unrealistic to think that Cleveland and San Antonio would let them walk, respectively, for nothing.
Maybe they’ll set their sights on a bigger fish—LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Lopez could be out there as unrestricted free agents—but Orlando won’t be the only team offering those guys big money. Perhaps DeAndre Jordan, set to hit unrestricted free agency at age 26 a year from now, could be their guy. Orlando could also try to package some pieces together in a trade if they’re not confident about luring a free agent they like.
There are about a million routes the Magic can take going forward, and they all look pretty sweet. Orlando has elite prospects, massive cap space, attractive trade chips, absurd verticals and a smart front office that has preached patience and is beginning to see it pay off.
Other teams have been paying attention.
Philadelphia traded its best player, Jrue Holiday, during the Draft last season, and the rewards are starting to take shape: Nerlens Noel, Saric and the return of their ’17 first-rounder. They also acquired a pair of second-round picks in exchange for Spencer Hawes’ expiring contract at this year’s deadline. The barren roster lost a ton of games, and landed Philly the third pick in this year’s Draft, where they selected Joel Embiid. The team has has very little money committed long-term—they’ll be patient with their cap room, waiting in the bushes for the right time to strike.
The Bucks may be in the early stages of a similar rebuild, but their roster construction makes it harder to map out. Larry Sanders’ lucrative extension is about to kick in. John Henson will be due a new contract a year from now, and Brandon Knight one year later. If they’re not committed to those guys, now is the best time to move them. But they’re all still young, and Milwaukee could keep them in the fold and hope for a fairly quick turnaround.
The Knicks would be wise to blow their roster up, beginning with a Carmelo Anthony sign-and-trade to bring in some youth and draft picks (Carlos Boozer’s expiring contract, Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott and picks?). They’d have gobs of cap room in a huge market next summer, along with the newfound building blocks, but I’m not sure they’re willing to admit defeat on the Melo front.
Still, it seems owners are growing more patient, and teams are learning that floating between the late-lottery and getting smoked by No. 1 seeds in the first round of the Playoffs doesn’t do any good. Smarter GMs are making plans for further down the road, and it’s paying off one piece at a time. The Jazz and Magic understood that moving a fan-favorite star was the only way to improve drastically, even if it meant flashing some miserable basketball for a few seasons. The rest of the League’s middling teams should embrace the same idea.