On Thursday, Zach Oliver made the case that the Magic's best move as they approach the draft is to trade away the pick. The crux of his argument is that the draft, in this this season and at that spot, has little to offer a team looking to take the next step into the playoffs.
In one sense, I agree with him. I think, if Orlando can pull it off, turning that pick into somebody more immediately useful is a fine proposition. The problem, then, is how likely is that possibility? Is there a really solid trade that Orlando can swing without giving up too much in return?
In truth, as is usually the case in most of these "what-if" scenarios, is that the right answer is "It depends..."
If the Magic have someone they really, really like in the draft that falls to them, they should draft that player. If they find a killer deal that gets some extra value out of the pick, then they'll be happy to move it. Maybe an unforeseen opportunity pops up mid draft to take advantage of another team's eagerness to move up, kind of like the Sixers pulled off against the Magic who didn't want Elfrid Payton to slip through their fingers.
All I can do, then, is survey the current field and suss out the likely probabilities, and try to imagine what a good strategy is entering the draft and the rest of the offseason. When I break it down like that, the conclusion I come to is that the Magic probably will end up holding onto that pick.
The unfortunate reality is that the 11th pick just isn't terribly valuable. As much as we'd like the Magic to use that to snap up the perfect vet, there probably aren't going to be many opportunities to make that deal straight-up (using the Ilyasova contract to make up the salary cap difference). There's a few reasons for that, the first being--and stop me if you've heard this one before--the 2016 draft class is perceived to be weak. Whether that's objectively true, I couldn't say, but all that matters is that most teams believe it to be true.
The effect of that, as Zach argued, is that the Magic probably want to get out of the draft. The problem, of course, is that everyone wants to. In other words, Orlando is on the wrong side of the supply-and-demand curve. Not only will they have to outbid everyone else in the draft, they'll be competing with teams that arguably want to convert their draft picks into veteran players even more than the Magic do.
Consider a team like Boston, who constantly pops up in any kind of trade rumor that involves them getting a star player. Equipped with 5 draft picks, including the third overall, Boston is positioned to outbid anyone else in the draft.
This isn't the only way the Magic lack leverage. I mentioned the Ilyasova contract as a means to grease the wheels of a pick-for-player swap, an incentive for a team looking to clear up cap room by moving on from a player they no longer can afford. The issue is that everyone is getting, if my calculations are correct, roughly a kajillion dollars in cap room this season and the next.
Based on the salary data from Basketball Reference, only the Cavaliers stand to exceed the expected $92 million cap if nothing else changes (*cough* Kevin Love *cough*). Teams on the fringe who might need to clear up room to make a free agency signing include the Clippers, Spurs, Raptors, and Warriors. There are a few interesting, possible-gettable players on those teams, but with the exception of GM Doc Rivers, it's hard to imagine coming out ahead against any of them in a deal.
Y'know, one trade that comes to mind with the Cavs might not involve the draft pick at all. Turns out, salary-wise, trading Ilyasova for Channing Frye works out perfectly! Frye could provide the spacing the Magic desperately need while also offering some veteran--(descends into incomprehensible weeping).
All of this makes the Magic's most natural move an even weaker proposition. Now we're looking at the pick, plus the contract, plus one of the Magic's interesting players to get a reasonable deal done, and Magic fans already have a bad taste in their mouths from the Tobias Harris deal. I'm not saying it's impossible to find a realistic deal that Orlando can be happy about, but it's difficult to figure out exactly what that would be.
That brings us back to the draft. I agree with Zach in that the Magic may not be positioned right now to pick up another 19-year old project player. For better or worse, Orlando has decided we shouldn't plan for success to come two or three years from now. I'm not totally opposed to this plan, as long as it doesn't mean giving up another of their Tobias Harrises. That just makes a trade even more difficult to craft.
In sum, the Magic would like to trade their draft pick for a proven commodity, without giving up any of their important core pieces, despite everyone else also trying to trade their picks, AND while everyone has a bunch of cap room as another means to add said proven players. If Rob Hennigan can pull it off, then more power to him...but to me, this feels unrealistic.
Ultimately, that means that keeping the pick is the most realistic path moving forward. It's hard to guess how the Magic would like to use that pick, but my personal preference would be to make a move for need over value. That isn't how Hennigan has used his picks before, but without a top-10 pick available to him this year, it's possible that strategy could change.
If I were to offer a priority list of sorts, with my admittedly limited knowledge of the priorities of the team and even less knowledge about what other teams want, it'd go something like this:
1) Make a move to fill a need on the team, but without sacrificing the core members.
This is the ideal situation, but as discussed, it's pretty difficult to pull off in a trade. If no such trade exists, just use the pick to get a player who can help the team this year or next. As a random example, Wade Baldwin is a sophomore that offers shooting at the point guard position. He's probably not the best possible choice, but that's the idea I'm going for.
2) Find some value for the pick.
If there's really nobody that interesting available, I'm generally a fan of trading down. Trading for future picks isn't as common as in the NFL, but if such an opportunity arises, I don't think it'd hurt.
3) Take the highest upside player
If nobody is available to fill a need, and nobody is making a good offer for the pick, another project is the best option left. Frank Vogel did good work with Myles Turner this year, so a lot of mock drafts currently expect the Magic will take somebody like Skal Labissiere. Giving Vogel his own up-and-coming player to work with and build up, someone he has a choice is selecting, is a reasonable way to invest him in the franchise's success moving forward.
All of these strategies, of course, depend on what the Magic expect to come from free agency. If they already have some commitments--erm, sorry, if they expect certain players may be very interested in signing the team but haven't spoken to them yet because obviously nobody would tamper in the NBA, that would change their priorities entering the draft. If you somehow knew Al Horford was a lock to come to Orlando, for example, that makes trading Nikola Vucevic a much more palatable proposition.
I think Zach's suggestion to trade the pick is the best outcome, should the opportunity arise. Unfortunately, that possibility isn't the most realistic expectation, and the Magic should plan accordingly.