It’s no secret that Orlando intends to play an active role in the trade market as the league approaches the February deadline, and there’s little doubt that this team has room to make some changes and correct what’s widely considered a mismatched roster.
Nothing comes cheap, however. As much as I might want the Magic to trade Jeff Green for Paul Millsap straight up—seriously, I’d drive to Atlanta myself to arrange it if that was what it took—it’s going to take a sacrifice to make something happen.
Unfortunately, the Magic aren’t exactly stockpiled with a bunch of players the league desperately wants. After all, if they were in that situation, they probably wouldn’t need a trade so much, would they? Serge Ibaka is a halfway-decent asset, especially given how much his shot’s improved throughout the last month. Evan Fournier’s name doesn’t come up much, but given the shallow state of the shooting guard position in the league, surely somebody could stand to acquire a strong 3-point shooter like him. Nikola Vucevic has been a topic of trade discussions for two years now, a stretchy center with occasional 3-point range. Jodie Meeks might be interesting.
The rest of the roster is pretty “meh.” D.J. Augustin has been hot and cold all season, the CJs aren’t turning heads, Biyombo already looks overpaid, and Hezonja might already be a bust. Green is...well, let’s just hope somebody else becomes the latest team to pin their hope and dreams on a version of him that doesn’t exist.
And then, of course...there’s Aaron Gordon, the Magic’s #1 trade asset, better than any player or pick they own. There are some specific teams that might want Ibaka more (e.g. Toronto, a team that needs firepower to compete with Cleveland this season), but a majority of teams are going to be more interested in a high-octane, super-athletic prospect that has a ton of room to grow at just 21 years old.
There might be some kind of big deal out there involving Ibaka, the Magic’s 2017 first rounder, and the hypothetical Laker pick, but to get a real blockbuster trade going, Orlando has to consider throwing Gordon into discussions.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to argue that the Magic should look hard to find a good Gordon deal. On the contrary, there are very few situations Orlando should even consider including him in a trade. Let’s break this down into a few different scenarios the Magic might find themselves in.
If the Magic are preparing to start a full-scale rebuild...
...they clearly should hold onto Gordon. He’s still well within the age range of players the Magic would acquire in the next draft, and he would fill in nicely as the leader of those incoming young prospects.
It’s not like Orlando has a strong reason to move on from him, anyway. The way the current and upcoming CBAs are set up, Orlando should be able to retain him for at least another five years, probably more. He still has All-Star potential—for example, FiveThirtyEight.com’s preseason CARMELO projections suggested he’s a “Future All-Star”—and has demonstrated improvement despite playing under four coaches in three seasons, with a constantly shifting role amidst that chaos. Given a little more stability, Gordon should grow into a fine starting-caliber forward.
And if it doesn’t work out? Well, it’s not like his trade value stands to get any worse over the next few years, unless he really tanks hard. There’s plenty of time to trade him later if need be.
UNLESS...someone blows the Magic away with an offer including multiple picks or young players. It’s not especially likely, but if Orlando was given the chance to pick up two extra lottery picks this draft (or maybe a promising player and a good lottery pick), and they were already planning on tanking anyway, then they’d have to at least think about it. Part of the problem with Orlando’s situation right now is that there’s no obvious “reset button,” no massive trade looming to trigger the rebuild the same way they did with Dwight Howard, so if someone’s willing to put together a crazy deal for Gordon, it may be tempting enough to take.
If the Magic are trying to sneak into the playoffs...
...they should still hold onto Gordon. Despite being as young as he is, and in just his third year of professional play, he plays a critical role for the Magic, especially on the defensive end as the only above-average perimeter defender on the roster.
Case in point: his one-on-one efforts to contain James Harden on Friday, who only shot 5-15 on the night and gave up six turnovers. The most striking moment of that matchup wasn’t actually when Gordon was on the court, but when Green had the solo assignment against Harden in the final seven seconds of the first half. Harden drove to the basket like it was nothing, the only time he was able to score that effortlessly the entire night. Without Gordon there to check him, The Beard probably goes off for 30 instead of 14.
More importantly, it’s clear that the long-term health of the franchise can’t be sacrificed any more than it already has. That might be a tough pill for the front office to swallow, given that they’re likely on the hot seat if the Magic keep struggling, but the fans are still reeling from the series of “win-now” moves the franchise made last season that didn’t lead to any wins. It’s one thing to move an Ibaka or a Meeks, guys with shorter contracts or smaller roles, but Gordon is in a different category.
UNLESS...the move fixes a major issue in the long-term. It’d never happen, but we’re talking about something like “Aaron Gordon for (healthy) George Hill” a move that sets Orlando up in the long term at the point guard position. I’m not even sure I’d want them to make that trade straight up, if it were legal, but there’s some logic in securing the position that’s troubled Orlando the most throughout the rebuild. In short, a move like this has to stabilize the franchise in a big way to be worthwhile.
If the Magic have an opportunity to get a big star...
...then maybe they should consider it, but they probably still shouldn’t trade him. For one, the specifics of who is available make it so that few of these deals would be worthwhile for the Magic. Paul Millsap, for example, is an excellent and criminally underrated player. Even though the Magic would struggle to squeeze him into a rotation that already has Ibaka, Vucevic, and Biyombo, he’d surely make the team better.
Problem is, he’s a free agent at the end of the season. Taking a half-season flyer on Millsap is great if you’re swapping Ibaka for him (never gonna happen), but not so much if it’s Gordon has to be sacrificed. Even if the Magic could bet that they could keep him around if they made the playoffs...well, let’s just say that’s a pretty dangerous bet.
Most of the rest of the stars in the league are either totally untradeable young talents like Kristaps Porzingis, or fully entrenched with their current franchises like Klay Thompson. Realistic trades are always difficult to conjure up, but those involving star players are the most challenging to imagine.
UNLESS...they somehow knew that the player was absolutely going to stick around for a few years, ideally long term. For a player like Millsap, there’s no legal way to make that kind of guarantee, but if they had reason to believe it was a sure thing that he’d extend, then that kind of deal gets a lot more enticing. Finding a star has been Orlando’s singularly most important quest, one which they’ve more or less been unable to complete. Having that guy on the roster makes everything easier, from roster building, to attracting free agents, to...well, winning basketball games.
The only other sorta-kinda-realistic target is DeMarcus Cousins, a significant risk on his own merits, but a player with undeniable talent. Even that deal gets tough for Orlando to put together when you consider it’ll take, at a bare minimum, Gordon, Vucevic, and a pick. The true price is probably more than that. Does that put the Magic in a position to succeed long term? It’s a tough question. Personally, I’m “pro-Boogie trade” as far as those things go, but there’s a lot of moving parts to consider.
Long story short, there are precious few situations where the Magic break the glass on the “Emergency Aaron Gordon Trade” compartment, at least as long as they’re acting rationally. My biggest fear is that somehow Gordon gets traded for Monta Ellis, so that Orlando can have a “true scorer,” or someone who “makes his own offense,” or *vomits*.
(My second biggest fear is that they do the same thing, but for Rudy Gay.)
Giving up Gordon is a move the franchise can’t take lightly, not after moving on from nearly every one of their other prospects, sometimes in exchange for basically nothing. Rob Hennigan has made plenty of good trades with the Magic, but after last season’s moves, he can’t afford to make the Aaron Gordon Trade a bad one. In that context, the safe thing, and the smart thing, is just to keep the young talented basketball player around for a while.