Five years ago, two major pro sports franchises in Florida began to bottom out and started a rebuilding process that has exhibited no signs of bearing fruit.
The NFL Jaguars and NBA Orlando Magic have been ugly mirror images of each other, compiling abysmal win percentages of .212 (17-63) and .321 (132-278), respectively, during that time period. Both have tried changing coaches and overhauling the front office without seeing any substantial improvement in their record.
At this point, the only significant difference between these struggling franchises, separated by a mere 141 miles, is the Jaguars have some hope of a quick turnaround from last year’s 3-13 disaster. In an NBA where the gap between the haves and have-nots is much wider, the floundering Magic appear hopeless for the foreseeable future.
The beauty of being in the NFL is quantum leaps in a short period happen on a regular basis. In the last 14 seasons, 21 teams have either made the worst-to-first jump or advanced to a wild-card playoff spot after finishing in last place. Eleven of those teams made the postseason despite winning four or fewer games the previous year.
There’s no cookie-cutter formula for the quick turnaround, though in many instances it involves a new quarterback, like the New Orleans Saints acquiring Drew Brees (2006) or the Indianapolis Colts drafting Andrew Luck (2012). Other times, the arrival of a new coach such as Andy Reid in Kansas City (2013) or Pete Carroll in Seattle (2010) provides the spark for sustained success.
Few are targeting the Jaguars as playoff-bound in 2017, but it’s certainly not completely out of the question, depending largely on how much first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette can ease the offensive burden on quarterback Blake Bortles.
Where hope floats for the Jaguars is their defense now has a foundation to be more of a force in generating turnovers and a pass rush. By acquiring promising players through the draft (Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue) or free agency (Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson) in the past 16 months, the facelift to Todd Wash’s unit gives the Jaguars a chance to be relevant.
In the NBA, it takes bad franchises a lot longer to show real promise, though there are exceptions when a star veteran (LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett) or a No. 1 pick (Tim Duncan) align with the right organization to ignite an immediate transformation.
But in most instances, being a bottom-feeder in the NBA is like being in quicksand. Take the Magic: there’s no genuine optimism of Orlando becoming a playoff team any time soon. Not in a small market where there’s no star player or proven coach/front-office guru to orchestrate a revival.
The way the NBA is structured, turnarounds for struggling teams are far more difficult, and many times impossible. The Magic have a couple decent young players in power forward Aaron Gordon and shooting guard Elfrid Payton, and some see long-term potential – a poor man’s Kevin Durant? — in recent first-round draft pick Jonathan Isaac of Florida State.
The problem is, entering the NBA upper crust is a brutal challenge without at least one superstar and another threatening to get there. Even bad teams have scorers, but the Magic – no drafted player since Dwight Howard in 2004 has made an All-Star team — are severely handicapped by the lack of a legitimate impact player and constant turnover in leadership.
Drafting Howard was the most important factor in Orlando climbing out of the abyss of 21-61 the season before his arrival. Within five years, the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals. No such lifesaver was there when the organization blew up in 2012 after Howard’s departure and coach Stan Van Gundy being kicked to the curb.
It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances in the NBA to become good overnight. In the Magic’s history, it might have never happened without a draft lottery ping-pong ball delivering Shaquille O’Neal, Howard and Penny Hardaway.
As things stand now, Orlando is probably looking at another two or three years before entertaining the notion of printing playoff tickets, which usually requires nothing more than a .500 record in the Eastern Conference.
Now it’s no slam dunk the Jaguars will be making any postseason appearances either, but in the summer of 2017, the optimism level is significantly higher because the NFL is designed for teams to have rapid recoveries.
This isn’t about trying to stick anything to the Magic. The NBA is just a different beast when it comes to a franchise climbing up from the bottom rung of the league ladder.
The Jaguars are lucky in one sense. In the NFL, hope is rarely a long way off, but you still got to push the right buttons and not stink at quarterback.
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