After the departure of Tobias Harris last season, the small forward spot has been a bit of a revolving door in Orlando. Though Evan Fournier did his best, it was his first time playing the position and it became clear that he could not be a long-term solution.
With the Magic clearing cap space, and GM Rob Hennigan repeatedly asserting that the team will be aggressive in free agency, small forward seems to be the largest area of need.
Let’s take a look at the potential targets that could turn into long-term investments this coming offseason.
The Big Three:
In the first tier of small forwards sits one man: Kevin Durant. It would take a special team and an ideal situation to lure the Slim Reaper away from his happy home in OKC. Realistically, the Magic are not that team, and it would be wasted breath to say he could end up in Orlando.
In this relatively average free agency class, there are three small forwards that fall short of KD but still stand head and shoulders above the rest. Landing one of these three would put the Magic on a short track to relevance in the league.
1. Nicolas Batum
Last team: Charlotte Hornets
As I detailed earlier this year Nic Batum would be the ideal free agent target for the Magic.
Batum’s combination of offensive and defensive versatility is extremely hard to find in the league. The Frenchman can handle, pass, shoot, defend, and rebound with the best of them, as well as run the offense surrounded by shooters.
Unfortunately for the Magic, teams around the league took notice of the crafty swingman’s breakout season last year. Retaining him remains the Hornets’ top priority, and as Evan Fournier told me in April, he thought there was "No chance" of prying his friend Nic Batum away from the Hornets.
Batum is included on this list because it seems that suppositions went out the window long ago in this unprecedented offseason. Charlotte has eight free agents to tend to this offseason, and Batum is a lock for the max. With a re-engineered Magic roster, as well as a proven winner in head coach Frank Vogel, the proposition has changed in Orlando. What’s to say the answer will still be the same?
2. Chandler Parsons
Last team: Dallas Mavericks
If Hennigan and Company can land Parsons, this offseason will be considered an overwhelming success.
It would be a homecoming of sorts for the pride of Lake Howell High School in Winter Park. From his childhood in the Orlando area, to his college days as a Florida Gator, Parson has many fans in the City Beautiful. If the team reached success with Parsons leading the way, he would no doubt be regarded as a hometown hero.
The 6’9" sharpshooter checks nearly all of the boxes in terms of positional needs. First and foremost, this means he’s a scorer. Parsons is reliable from beyond the arc, never dipping below 37 percent since his rookie season. He is a jump shooter that still remains efficient, hitting 49 percent of his shots last season.
This type of player would perfectly complement the roster by pairing with Evan Fournier to create a deadly one-two punch from beyond the arc. It would also make Elfrid Payton more effective by both compensating for his lack of shooting and giving him another player to kick out to when he drives to the bucket. By replacing Victor Oladipo with Serge Ibaka and Parsons, the Magic could turn from a woeful shooting team to at least the middle of the pack.
He is viewed as a "strong recruiter", who could be instrumental in getting another piece to Orlando. It took a soap-opera-like drama to stop Parsons from bringing Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan to Dallas last year, and it would be a reasonable bet to think he’d have similar resolve after choosing his next stop.
There are a few concerns with Parsons that make him a bit of a gamble, especially at the max contract that he will surely demand. Parson has a troubled injury history, resulting in him playing him in fewer than 67 games in three of his five seasons so far.
Parsons is also not the most athletic player. When combined with his injury history, this means that he can be defensively liable at times. Though his combination of size and shooting do make him versatile, his lack of athleticism means that he would not be ideal for any of the fast lineups that the Magic hope to run next season.
3. Harrison Barnes
Last team: Golden State Warriors
Well, here we are.
For years, I’ve been among Harrison Barnes’ biggest detractors. He’s managed to ride length, athleticism, and upside his whole career – from his status as a number-one high school recruit to his days as a starter on one of the premier college basketball teams in the country. He then went seventh in the draft, won a championship, and will now command a high salary in free agency.
All of this based on what he could be one day.
For Barnes, it’s time to prove his worth, especially coming off of the worst three games in the biggest series of his life. In the midst of the Warriors historic Finals collapse, Barnes shot a woeful 5-of-32 from the field as the Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit to upset the reigning champs.
So why this guy?
Barnes would be a gamble in an expanded role, but Orlando is in dire need of three things that Barnes can do well. The Magic need a physical small forward that can defend the three, one of the deepest positions in the league. They need a rim-running player to match with Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka, and Elfrid Payton for the Magic version of a "Death Lineup".
Both as a franchise historically, and as a current front office, Orlando has had difficulty signing big-name free agents. With an unsure direction, and all three of the team’s co-captains from last season being shipped off before Summer League, Orlando may need to gamble on an unproven asset if the market is barren.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Orlando’s needs are length, athleticism, and upside.
As a floor-spacing three with a championship pedigree, Barnes knows what it’s like to win in the postseason. With experience defending the league’s elite, he could fill a much-needed hole in the lineup.
Because his name has been on the basketball radar since he was in middle school, it’s easy to forget that Barnes is only 23-years-old. There is no doubt that the best basketball is yet to be played in Barnes’ career.
Though he is far from ideal, the Magic have a spot to fill and money to spend. In order to retain Ibaka, the team needs to win now. If everyone is off the board, Barnes is the last stop before the murky third tier of free agents.
The Third Tier:
Though not a long-term solution, all of these players have desirable qualities. If the Magic either score big at another position of need, or totally strike out, one of these players could fill a gap.
Last team: Atlanta Hawks
Bazemore represents a very high risk/high reward in free agency. Coming off a breakout season in which he scored 11.6 points per game with Atlanta, Bazemore will hit the market at a bit of a heavy price tag. He would be a great pairing with a larger profile free agent due to his ability to score, which Orlando is in dire need of. Starting Bazemore, however, would result in the Magic having a 6’7" shooting guard and a 6’5" small forward. That’s a bit counter intuitive.
Last team: Boston Celtics
This defensive-minded swingman would fill several holes at once, as long as he is paired with a capable scorer. A versatile player that can give you 30-plus minutes a game, Evan Turner has salvaged his reputation as a draft bust by becoming a solid sixth-man for Boston.
Last team: Memphis Grizzlies
Stephenson flourished under Frank Vogel as a member of the Pacers, could it be time for a reunion?
Stephenson is a multi-dimensional forward that helped the Pacers come within two games of the Finals. In his best season, 2013-14, he racked up five triple-doubles to buoy the offensively challenged Pacers. For a single season, Stephenson was able to create offense, spread the floor, and rebound. Those days may be behind him, as he has found limited success since – bouncing between three teams in two years.
Stephenson is known as a troublemaker, and this Magic front office has stayed clear of guys with that reputation, but his history with Vogel leaves some room for speculation.
Last team: Los Angeles Clippers
Magic fans got a taste of the explosive forward during his season-high 30-point outing against Orlando last year. At age 29 its unlikely that he has much more growing left to do, but he could be a serviceable plug-in for a team in search of something better. He is athletic, and decently well rounded, but overall very average.
If the Magic fail to sign a starter-quality small forward in free agency, the current depth chart would slot Aaron Gordon into the three. Though he has the size, speed, and athleticism to defend the position, his lack of shooting ability would send the team to the prehistoric age of basketball.
Though the "triplet towers" of Nikola Vucevic, Ibaka, and Gordon would be formidable on the boards, the lack of three-point shooting would be less than ideal in the modern league. Maybe the budding star out of Arizona will be able to shoot the lights out one day, but it likely won’t happen next season.
Hezonja is essentially the opposite of Gordon when it comes to playing small forward. His natural shooting stroke is pure, but his lack of experience leaves him looking lost at times – particularly on defense. Though Hezonja would help floor spacing, his shot is streaky and far from consistent.
On the defensive end he would get bodied by larger forwards and crossed up by swingmen. Just like Gordon, Hezonja has the potential to be a quality starter one day. That day will almost certainly not be next season, however.
With money in the bank and expectations on the court, the Magic season may be decided before it even begins.
In this whirlwind of an offseason, the biggest challenge is left to overcome: finding the one missing piece on the starting roster. In this class of small forwards, the Magic will either find their franchise altering player or their biggest regret for years to come.