At first, when I was trying to put together an Orlando Magic free agency preview, I was gonna go for the typical list of potential targets, maybe spice it up with a “Target, reach, backup plan” sort of format. In fact, I’ve already got a list out there on the internet, for anyone who happens to read some of my High Quality Content elsewhere.
I ran into a few problems, though. First, I don’t think anyone really, truly knows what the Magic are going to prioritize this summer. I’m not even sure the front office knows yet. The persistent message has been that they’re still planning to win as many games as they can, but how much are they really willing to pay to make that happen? If they want a high-quality free agent (like, actually high-quality, not “Let’s give Jeff Green $15 million just because”), how much more long-term money do they have to throw away?
Complicating all of this, of course, are looming decisions on the fates of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. Do the Magic lock them up for extensions now? Do they ride it out one more year? For Payton in particular, do the Magic know enough to decide whether he’s their point guard of the future?
Zach Oliver laid out all these questions and more in his own free agency preview. With all this uncertainty, Magic fans have but one request for Weltman and Co.: Whatever you do, don’t ruin everything.
To that end, here’s the three most important Orlando needs to keep in mind to prevent total disaster.
Don’t sign Bismack Biyombo to a $68,000,000 contract
Don’t sign long-term money, especially BIG long-term money
More than anything, the Magic need to maintain flexibility moving forward. The worst thing they can do is lock themselves into a bunch of money next season and then find themselves in a position where they have to make sacrifices.
Say, for example, that the Magic decline to extend one or both of Payton or Gordon this offseason, and they in turn decide to blow up to near All-Star levels. Now the Magic definitely want to keep them, and they’ll have to pony up to do it in restricted free agency, but that’s ok because they’re locking up a promising young core, right? Too bad they gave Joe Ingles a backloaded $45 million over three seasons. They’ll still be able to pay those guys, but they’ll be staring down the luxury tax with little way of avoiding it.
We think about Biyombo’s contract as a big sticking point, but smaller deals hurt, too. The Magic will still be paying D.J. Augustin over $7 million dollars in 2019-2020, and while that might be a small percentage of their cap, it’s basically dead money being paid to a player who figures to be especially low-impact for the remainder of the contract.
The opposite reality is very possible, too: the Magic may decide to blow everything up and start the re-rebuild in earnest, and that’s a lot harder to do with a bunch of garbage contracts tying down the cap sheet. Win-now or win-later, the Magic are in no position to dole out big money right now.
Don’t worry about spending all your money: cap space is an asset, too.
Because of the long-term obligations on the books, the Magic don’t have the same level of wide-open space that other teams like the Sixers and Kings do, but Orlando could still position themselves to absorb bad contracts from other teams in an effort to rebuild their pool of assets.
This is one of the lesser-discussed mistakes of the previous regime: after giving up Tobias Harris for cap space in the form of Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, the Magic struck out in their long-shot free agency aspirations. They could have sat on that space, use it to absorb bad contracts. In another universe, a Magic-Lakers trade involving Mozgov, Russell, and Vucevic isn’t so different from the Lopez-based version the Nets pulled off.
Instead, they dumped a lot of that space into Green’s massive contract. The money didn’t matter that much, since it was on a one-year deal, but the short term opportunity cost still existed. Did Orlando lose out on chances to make the team better in the long term because they chose to pay other players in the short term?
With the projected salary cap continuing to shrink, cap space is becoming more and more valuable again, and the Magic would be wise to maintain some of that space, if possible.
If you take a chance on a short-term, high-upside player, don’t get too attached
Aside from the aforementioned opportunity cost, Jeff Green’s contract wasn’t all that damaging. Sure, he didn’t nearly play up to the level of a $15 million player, but the season would have played out the same way if he was getting paid $10 million or $20 million.
The real damage came during the season, when Green was granted the role of “steady veteran,” when in reality his play was among the worst on the team, perhaps second to Mario Hezonja’s miserable season. That’s where that $15 million price tag starts to hurt: does the coaching staff put the same faith in Green if he’s an end-of-the-bench player making the minimum?
If the Magic take another shot on a player like that, they can’t let him get in the way of the rest of the team. Say, for example, a Tyreke Evans comes along. Evans decides he could be the next Lance Stephenson under Frank Vogel, and accepts a 1-year, $14 million deal. On the surface, that’s fine: the Magic take a chance on a high-upside player at a position of need, and it doesn’t hurt them long-term.
The danger comes if Evan flops mid-season. At that point, the coaching staff has to be willing to cut bait and reduce his role for the sake of the team. Avoid the sunk cost fallacy, and don’t sacrifice even more minutes that could be going to other important players.
The best course of action for the Magic this offseason may be to take no action at all. It’s boring, even a little disappointing, but it’s safe, and it sets them up to keep building themselves back up in a controlled manner.
There’s value in keeping things the same, too. Continuity has been in short supply in the post-Howard era, and the Magic are entering the offseason with the same coach for the first time in years. Let’s see how it plays out with the same group, and make the big moves after that.