It’s been over six years since the Magic traded Dwight Howard. Since that time the Magic have waded in the water of the NBA basement and NBA mediocrity. They’ve made great decisions like drafting Victor Oladipo, and really bad decisions like trading Victor Oladipo. They drafted Aaron Gordon and then drafted Mario Hezonja. It’s all amounted to a whole bunch of inconsistent bleh.
This year has been a bit different, showing an encouraging glimpse of light down a long dark tunnel. At 17-20 the Magic are still bleh, but the East has gotten top heavy and the Magic have positioned themselves to battle for the final playoff spot. Many teams on that playoff brink choose to go the opposite direction and embrace the tank; however; after six years of bad basketball, competing for a playoff spot is necessary in changing the losing culture that started with the departure of Stan Van Gundy.
Learning to win is an integral part in developing a young team, but winning a lot of games isn’t what is important this year. The key to ending the rebuilding process will be patience and maybe even abandoning a playoff push by cashing in on expiring assets.
John Hammond took over as general manager in early 2017 after leaving the Milwaukee Bucks. It was in Milwaukee that Hammond earned a reputation for targeting a very specific type of player in the draft. From Giannis, to Thon Maker, to Larry Sanders, to John Henson; Hammond went after long, athletic, switchty guys. He‘s started to do the same thing in Orlando by selecting Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. Bamba and Isaac project as long athletic defenders who can play inside out on both offense and defense. Through Bamba and Isaac, Hammond has begun building the identity for the future of the team. The problem in the present is that they’re both raw prospects that haven’t yet contributed all that much to winning.
The Magic’s record this year, while encouraging, is a bit of fool’s gold for the fan base. Orlando is winning more games than they have the last few years but they’re doing it with veteran players like Vucevic, Ross, Fournier, and Gordon. Gordon was just locked up long term and while not an ideal fit with Bamba and Isaac, he’s both versatile enough to make it work for now and young enough that he’s a positive trade asset. Vucevic and Ross (both in contract years) are both fairly young assets on value deal,s but they’ll both unrestricted free agents in July and they may both price themselves out of Orlando’s long term plans. Even if you could get Vucevic on another value deal, the front office has to ask themselves if it even makes sense allocating that money into a position that your last two investments occupy.
The roster balance is something that the Magic need to figure out. In a league over-saturated with point guard talent, Orlando is a mess at the position. Relying on a thirty-one-year-old DJ Augustin at PG will only get you so far, and as a Bulls fan I can say pretty confidently that relying on Jerian Grant to get you anywhere will only lead to disappointment. The Magic do have options to improve the spot. They can address the position in the draft with someone like Darius Garland or they can look to cash in on some of these young win now assets and improve the position in season. The benefit of cashing in now is two-fold. You can get some plus assets for the future that may turn into core members, in exchange for players that are on expiring deals; and in the short term you may take a step back to better your draft odds.
With the trade deadline about a month away I came up with a three-teamer between Orlando, Boston, and Dallas. The goal is to get the Magic a young point guard that fits their cores time line, get Boston a player that balances the roster and gives them a playoff threat in their title quest, and get Dallas some pieces that fit around Luka that will help them secure a playoff run without damaging their future.
As I wrote in my Celtics column, Boston has too many guys who need minutes in their lineup. Stevens has struggled to make the backcourt minutes work. Getting Vucevic in exchange for Rozier and Baynes allows them to clear that log jam and upgrade the center spot. Vucevic and Horford can both stretch the floor, work in the post, and initiate offense as high level passers. Start them together and then stagger their minutes so you have one of them on the court at all times. I like Baynes, but Vucevic is someone who defenses have to guard.
Rozier gives Dallas a point guard with playoff experience that’s a little feistier on defense than Dennis Smith and can serve as a secondary ball handler, as well as, an athletic shooter in Ross that would thrive getting open looks next to Luka. Anything Simmons could give you is a bonus.
Smith Jr. gives the Magic a young uber athletic point guard who will push the pace for an athletic roster while offering some backcourt shot creation that fits the timeline of Bamba, Isaac, and Gordon. Matthews replaces Ross’ 3&D role as an expiring contract and Baynes comes in as a veteran bruiser to back up Bamba and Isaac as their frames fill out. The Magic get a young long term piece at a position of need who fits with the roster and allows them to keep their future financial flexibility.
What the Magic shouldn’t do is make a short term move to get the eighth seed or overspend on a mediocre vet with their exceptions in free agency. As it stands now the Magic will have a ton of cap room in 2021, and while Orlando may not be a marquee free agent destination historically (though that T-Mac guy was pretty good), if they draft and develop well they’ll be an attractive spot as a warm weather city with no state tax.
I trust that Hammond will be patient and stick to his plan. Target his type of players and play the long game. It’s hard to be patient in the NBA when you’re losing. If the Magic wan’t to turn their long term outlook around they can’t afford not to be.