After three years of collecting assets, acquiring prospects, cashing in on lottery picks and, of course, losing lots of games in the post-Dwight Howard era, the Orlando Magic entered this season with serious playoff aspirations. General Manager Rob Hennigan was hoping that his franchise was fully in sync with the “Thunder model” one his previous employers, Oklahoma City, had used to construct a perennial contender out West.

That Thunder team, however, caught lightening in a bottle by selecting a handful of superstars in consecutive years to turn a 23-win also-ran to a 50-win powerhouse in the span of a single season. Hennigan’s Magic franchise hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. Instead of rapid ascent toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Orlando, now in year four of the post-Howard era, seems headed for a perplexing, post-rebuild limbo. And because of this sputtering reboot, the Magic are providing us with an interesting case study on team-building in today’s NBA.

Redefining the expectations of the “Thunder Model”

Though associated closely with Oklahoma City’s(/Seattle’s) incredible turnaround that netted them superstars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, this approach is basically a common sense path for rebuilding clubs. Get bad, get the high draft picks that net future stars and hope to land a franchise-altering talent. There’s no denying that teams lacking a competitive foundation have to go this route.

Yet as the clubs that are aggressively diving into the lottery (Hi Sixers!) in hopes of salvation are finding out, that part about landing an elite young player isn’t as all that easy. In news to no one, finding a Durant or Westbrook is hard, finding two of them is damn near impossible. Just looking back at this past decade (2010 and on) and subjectively assessing the lottery, it’s easy to see how difficult it is to land a future megastar.

In 2010, the draft produced John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Paul George. The following year, the highlights were Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. 2012 was another year with just three game-changing talents in Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond. The 2013 draft of Anthony Bennett acclaim, looks to be a dud as only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to possess real star potential. The two most recent drafts are obviously harder to assess, but there are five players -- Andrew Wiggins, Rodney Hood, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis -- that seem to be consensus studs-in-the-making (and I’m sure Hood is debatable).

Add it up and over this six year span, there are 15 players on track for varying degrees of stardom. That’s roughly three players per given draft (roughly in line with years prior to 2010) capable of being a franchise-changing player. Even more disconcerting for teams aggressively pursuing those top lottery spots is that five of those players -- George, Thompson, Leonard, Antetokounmpo and Hood -- were taken 10th or higher in their respective drafts.

You don’t need to be a mathematician to see that the odds for a team like Orlando, who has spent the past three summers adding four top 10 picks to their roster (Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja), aren’t in their favor -- even if they do everything right. This isn’t to say that one of those young players won’t become a star, but it’s looking extremely unlikely that the Magic have a Thunder-esque upside within that group.

Though it’s not exactly a fool’s errand to expect at least one bonafide star given the Magic’s path, NBA teams should still be prepared for a similar end point -- a collection of promising, young pieces that will be at least a notch below a truly elite player. And that outcome that should cause teams to reassess their expectations and path forward from multiple forays into lottery-land. Because a team full of players just good enough to get you beat also tend to get coaches and executives fired.

Fit and the Inevitability of Time

Part of the problem facing Orlando has to do with one the most undervalued factors in the NBA today: fit. Oladipo, Payton, Gordon, starting center Nikola Vucevic and the recently traded Tobias Harris are all interesting, young prospects in a vacuum. The issue for the Magic, is that this eclectic group of youngsters have been jammed together with a total disregard for how their skillsets overlap. And while it’s easy to lay that at the feet of the team’s architect, Hennigan, it’s almost an unavoidable result of this scorched earth rebuilding policy.

When teams get as bad as the Orlando did once Howard was sent packing, they dive headfirst into asset collection mode. Any young player from Vucevic to Evan Fournier, is brought if the deal is right. Like the lottery, it’s just playing the odds. Acquire enough young talent and something good is bound to happen -- until it doesn’t.

This is the other drawback of not landing a franchise cornerstone during a rebuild like the Magic’s. Where a team like Dallas has ripped up and rebuilt their roster on the fly for years around Dirk Nowitzki, Orlando doesn’t have a focal point. There is no dominant player with a clearly defined skillset so there can’t be a plan in place to build a cohesive roster around it.

It’s a vicious circle that’s started ever since acquiring Vucevic in the Howard deal. The Magic had to acquire him because Howard was gone. Then the team had to draft Oladipo, a penetrating guard with a shaky outside shot, the following summer because they didn’t what Vucevic was. Then Orlando could feel free to take a positional enigma (Gordon) and another guard with shaky outside shot (Payton) because they didn’t know what Oladipo would be. And on and on it goes until you get to the present day filled with questions about how these pieces can coalesce into something greater.

It also makes it difficult to handle the the stage of the rebuild where the team starts to complement their core with veteran free agent signings, like Channing Frye. After all, which piece of the puzzle should the team look to complement? Because their backcourt struggled shooting, a stretch big like Frye made sense for both Oladipo and Payton. The problem is, Frye (who obviously wasn’t a great signing in general) isn’t a big help on the defensive end of the floor, the end where the slow-footed Vucevic could use some assistance. It’s been impossible to stress fit for Orlando because they lack a defining piece to complement. Instead they just have to reach for broad team needs (shooting) and hope for the best.

Now in time, these things could possibly sort themselves out. Oladipo, Payton and Gordon could become competent marksman from the 3-point line. Hezonja could also emerge as a starter on the wing and move Oladipo back into a supersub role. These are all realistic outcomes, but they also require one thing that happens during long rebuilds filled with multiple seasons filled with brutal losses: time.

This campaign, technically year four of the post-Howard era, was supposed to be the Magic’s return to playoff relevance. It’s partly why the Harris trade happened. In time, Harris and Gordon could have meshed and become some type of hybrid monster at the forward position. But when you want to start accumulating wins right now, you go get two veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings.

This is the elephant in the room for all aggressive rebuilds. In theory, losing in order to receive the opportunity to select promising young players for multiple drafts then flying up the standings as those prospects mature into studs is a fine idea. In reality, losing is miserable. And after a couple of seasons of toiling around in the abyss, owners want some gratification -- just look at how things are turning out just two and a half years into Sam Hinkie’s “Process” in Philadelphia.

In a vacuum, the Magic’s young core could work out and become pretty damn good. If you took a time machine to an alternate future where Hennigan kept Oladipo, Payton, Vucevic, Gordon, Harris and Hezonja together for eight years following Oladipo’s selection in the 2013 draft, they’d maybe have one of the best winning percentages in the league. But eight or so years is a really long time in the NBA, especially for team owners that aren’t exactly spring chickens. Life is short, so why would teams -- from the owner on down -- want to spend it watching their teams win 68 games over three seasons, like the Magic did?

The Pacers and Settling for Good Instead of Great

In the four season prior to Paul George joining the Pacers, the team never finished with more than 36 wins. In his first year with Indiana, they won 37. In the following three seasons, the Pacers took off, never finishing with a winning percentage below .600 while making two straight Eastern Conference Finals. After a down year following George’s catastrophic broken leg, Indiana has bounced right back into the playoff race with a 32-29 record.

The Pacers, partly because of the uncertainty surrounding George’s return from that horrific injury, have been and will likely be mostly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, aside from those two conference finals appearances of course. This year they will mostly be just a footnote in another team’s path to the Finals. Yet team’s run since 2010 isn’t a bad outcome when you compare it to the vast majority of the league. If you offered a Magic fan the Pacers last six years as their next six, I’d have to believe they’d jump at the offer. And it was all achieved without Indiana toiling at the bottom of the standings in an attempt to hit a lottery home run.

What the Pacers did is simply stay content with being mediocre and hoping that the luck teams spending multiple years trying to land the top pick in the draft need, struck them in the form of a Paul George. Because the fact of the matter, is both routes require a degree of luck to make it work. Orlando didn’t seem to beat the odds to land a star (though again, the jury is still out on those kids) and were actually unlucky to have one of their picks come during what may go down as one of the weakest drafts this century. The Pacers, on the other hand, lucked out and nabbed a player that was arguably a top 15 talent with the 10th overall pick. Though to say the team was fortunate to draft George doesn’t factor in all the intangible things -- a competitive environment, solid vets, reduced expectations, etc -- that could have altered George’s trajectory as a player.

It may not be as simple to say that Indiana’s route is an inherently better path, but it’s hard to find an argument that it’s a worse, especially since it seems like Orlando may wind up being stuck in the same limbo -- only after years of some truly dreadful, uncompetitive basketball to get there. But perhaps how you view efficacy of these strategies is more reflective of who you are. One option offers more consistency with smaller peaks and valleys while the other could either get you to the top of the mountain or leave you hanging off the edge of a bottomless crevasse.

What will be interesting to see going forward is not just how Orlando ultimately fares, but how their fate impacts the decision-making of other teams. While the Sixers are obviously taking this rebuilding path to an extreme, Orlando’s route is pretty much the standard for team’s looking to bounce back after a massive teardown. So while the Magic may not make an enthralling impact on the court this season, their progress, or lack of it, going forward could have an intriguing effect on the NBA and its fans.