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The Orlando Magic Will be Humongous Fans of Lottery Reform

A bad team that refuses to outright tank, Orlando would happily accept looming changes to the league's current system.

by Michael Pina
Sep 22 2017, 4:21pm

Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski outlined a few new details about the NBA's latest proposal to reform its longstanding, ever-controversial lottery system. The most interesting tidbit revealed that the odds to leap into the draft's top three slots may increase for depressing-but-not-atrocious teams that aren't willing to lose games intentionally:

"Teams in the Nos. 7 to 10 range will have a greater chance of moving up into the top three picks, ESPN has learned, with No. 7's chances improving from 15 percent to 23 percent, No. 8 from 10 percent to 19 percent, No. 9 from 6 percent to 15 percent and No. 10 from 4 percent to 10 percent."

Forgetting all the connected side effects the whole proposal would have, this might be the most intriguing: stubborn owners and organizations that refuse to tank even though it's the smartest path towards eventual championship contention would fall into a more beneficial arrangement. Assuming these front offices are already shrewd in other ways, what this does is allow them to behave as they already were, maintain a short-sighted desire to compete for a playoff spot, and, if they fall short, have a better chance to land a special prospect than they otherwise have.

The Orlando Magic are the current poster child for this class: Routinely subpar but rarely terrible enough to propel them forward with something for their trouble. Since they traded Dwight Howard in August 2012, Orlando has had five lottery picks: 2nd in 2013, 4th and 12th in 2014, 5th in 2015, 11th in 2016, and 6th in 2017.

Last summer they packaged that No. 2 pick (Victor Oladipo) with the No. 11 (Domantas Sabonis) for Serge Ibaka's expiring contract. The No. 4 pick was Aaron Gordon, the No. 12 pick became Elfrid Payton, the No. 5 pick is (cue an intensely depressing trombone) Mario Hezonja, and the No. 6, taken a few months ago, is Jonathan Isaac, an intriguing rookie who projects to "only" become a valuable two-way role player—aka the exact type of guy they need to support the superstar they don't have. The draft is a crapshoot and hindsight isn't fair, and if Orlando played its cards perfectly they might have Devin Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo on their roster, but that's not the point.

This is an organization that badly wants in on the postseason but hasn't cracked it since they traded Howard and fired Stan Van Gundy. The 2017-18 season will be no different, but with several other teams either just as bad, worse off, or aggressively bottoming out—the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers, just to name a few—they aren't bad enough to slide down the standings.

Even when it's poorly allocated, they spend money hoping to see incremental improvement. This summer they added Shelvin Mack even though D.J. Augustin is already signed through 2020. Jonathon Simmons was awarded a partially guaranteed three-year, $18 million deal, while Marreese Speights and Arron Afflalo were thrown into the mix on veteran's minimum deals.

These pieces make Orlando better, but "better" in this instance still does not even sniff 40 wins. In the short-term, with Frank Vogel as head coach, the seeds of a multi-layered defensive identity are apparent. They're also antiquated. Even if Gordon somehow evolves into the franchise-lifting presence Paul George was, Vogel's plan to run back what gave him success on the Indiana Pacers is borderline useless in today's NBA.

© Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A Payton-Simmons-Gordon-Isaac-Bismack Biyombo lineup can, at its most switch-happy peak, be an uncrossable moat. And that's great. Preventing the other team from putting the ball in the basket matters, and can still bear a decent record when executed with force throughout an 82-game season.

But right now the closest thing Orlando has to a spark—Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, or Terrence Ross—isn't consistently hot enough to meld over the various (mostly spacing related) dilemmas guys like Gordon, Payton, and Simmons create.

If they maintain their direction with the somewhat-intriguing core they already have, an offensive pillar is necessary for this organization to not only qualify for the playoffs, but make a legitimate impression once they get there.

Lottery reform can't guarantee they land a marquee talent, but it does rationalize the path they're on and the strategy they've been committed to. Change to the system won't take place right away, but if it did, the Magic would smile as wide as any other team. ESPN's Kevin Pelton's projection has seven teams finishing with a worse record. If that held, Orlando's shot at jumping into a top-three pick would nearly leap from one in ten to one in five.

Every lottery team in the league would happily welcome a prospect talented enough to someday become a top-10 player. Orlando, a team that's had multiple bites at the apple since they traded away their franchise player, has positioned itself to take off if one lands in their lap. Again, anything can happen in the draft, and players like Booker, Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, George, etc. will fall outside the first few slots.

But, hypothetically, landing someone like Luka Doncic, Michael Porter, or Marvin Bagley, a prospect who can eventually tentpole an above-average offense and unlock easy opportunities for everyone around them, raises expectations and possibilities when compared to adding another specialist like Robert Williams or Jaren Jackson.

Without reform, Orlando would be destined to cycle through helpful role players, lowering their ceiling in this current life cycle until the new front office entirely renovated its current roster or decided to make a strategic shift in how they want to build their team.

With it, they have a more open opportunity to make real progress. A top-three pick would allow the athletic youngsters on Orlando's roster to accept responsibilities that better fit their skill-set; nobody would have to extend themselves into territory where they aren't comfortable.

Gordon can top out as more of a Scottie Pippen-like sidekick without any pressure to develop into a number one scoring option. He can expend a majority of his energy on the defensive end, too, covering the opposing team's top threat every night. Payton won't be pressed to score and can concentrate on facilitating, cutting, and wreaking havoc on the other end.

There are no guarantees, but the new lottery proposal would provide more hope for teams that just want to win, even if they don't know how.

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