Most of the rumors surrounding the Orlando Magic in the days leading up to Thursday's NBA trade deadline pertained to Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, two players on the fringes of Orlando's rotation after initially looking like part of its young core. They stayed put, as did the rest of the Magic, as Orlando elected to sit out the deadline.
But we shouldn't downplay Thursday's significance simply because Orlando didn't make any deals. Indeed, the pending free agency of Tobias Harris, arguably the Magic's second- or third-best player, looms large over the team's future.
Instead of doing what the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz did with Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter, respectively, Orlando held on to its restricted free agent. The Magic will have the right to match any contract offer Harris receives over the summer, and while he probably won't get a max-level contract, he'll certainly get upwards of eight figures per year, possibly with a trade kicker or lucrative incentives designed to make that offer more difficult for Orlando to match.
While we aren't privy to which deals availed and did not avail themselves to the Magic, it's reasonable to assume the Magic could have found value Thursday for Harris: he's posting a career-best 17.4 points per game on 46.5 percent shooting, with 6.6 rebounds. Those are excellent numbers, especially for a player at age 22: on a per-minute basis, few NBAers post similar numbers at that age or younger, according to basketball-reference.com, and even fewer of those players man the wing, as Harris can. In some ways, Harris is a singular talent. Not a transcendent player, by any means, but one who impacts the box score with his rare skill set.
And that's why the Magic's decision to bet on themselves is the right call. They risk losing Harris for nothing--or for next to it, in a sign-and-trade deal--as a free agent. And, make no mistake, that's a big risk. But the reward--locking up a productive and versatile player's prime years--could pay off even more.
Once the 2014/15 season concludes, the Magic will have completed the third season of their rebuild. Flipping Harris for another asset--be it a player with more years of team control on his contract, or a future first-round Draft pick--would only set the team back. There's something to be said for stockpiling assets, sure, but there's even more to be said for hanging onto the ones that've paid off. That's how teams transition from rebuilding to building, from lurking on the fringes to leaping into respectability.
Orlando made one step forward before the season began when it inked Nik Vučević to a long-term contract extension. It made another tentative step Thursday by not dealing Harris. And come July, it ought to take another full step by locking Harris in to a long-term deal.