Two weeks ago I looked at the moves the Magic made this offseason, ranking them in terms of the success they could potentially deliver the team in the years to come. It was a solid if unspectacular period of wheeling and dealing by John Hammond and Jeff Weltman, who faced both cap limitations and the awkwardness of the Eastern Conference playoff bubble. Should the team continue to roll on in the tank of rebuilding, or swing for competency?
The trades, signings, re-signings and draft picks are obviously the transactions we end up analyzing and evaluating, ultimately holding them responsible for any success (or lack thereof!) that the team enjoys. But what about the misses? The plans that don’t come to fruition? Today I’m going to consider the things that were a distinct possibility but that, for whatever reason, didn’t happen.
It’s a ranking of the moves the Magic didn’t make.
This time, instead of moving through the offseason particulars from first to worst we’re looking at things in reverse. Top of the list is what feels like the biggest misstep, and we’ll wrap things up with consideration of what was a whispered long-shot. Regardless, all of these moves had the potential to put the team a little closer to a winning product, either this season or in the near future.
Before we start, it’s worth noting both the subjectivity and the uncertainty of discussion like this; we can never be sure what talks were had behind closed doors, nor can we know precisely how much the team kicked the tires on certain ideas. Still, it’s an interesting exercise to consider what might have been. Let’s dive in.
1. Failed to land a starting point guard
This feels like the most egregious misstep of the Magic’s offseason. Point guard play was already a point of relative weakness for the team last season and they did very little to address this concern moving forward. In 2017-2018, D.J. Augustin was mostly competent yet uninspiring, and there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that his play made the game all that much easier for his teammates. The development of the young forwards and centers on the roster would certainly be more effectively facilitated with a competent floor general, but Orlando heads into this season without a definitive NBA-level starter at the position.
So, what happened? The front office went big at the draft, stocking up on wingspan instead of court vision. Jerian Grant is intriguing and will be given every opportunity to earn minutes, but it’s probably even-money odds that his time in pinstripes never amounts to much. Isaiah Briscoe is a nice flyer, but it would be unfair to expect much from him beyond a role deep at the deeper end of the bench. For better or worse -- and it’s probably for worse considering it’s an odd numbered year -- Augustin returns as the starter.
Is this a move the Magic failed to make? Or were they hamstrung by a non-existent market and lack of opportunity? To be fair, it’s probably a little of both. For one hot week it seemed like central Florida was going to be the location of Isaiah Thomas’ Brinks truck reclamation project, but little came of the maelstrom beyond an increase in Twitter activity for Magic fans. Another popular name thrown around before the calendar flipped to July was Fred Van Vleet, but it doesn’t seem like that was ever even a vague possibility. No real trade options ever eventuated, and the team steered clear of any of the young combo guards that were to be found on the open market. The only action to be found was inaction.
These days more than ever it’s true that the roster building process isn’t complete come training camp. Still, the fact that Orlando wrapped up the offseason without addressing the team’s most obvious flaw seems like a cause for at least mild concern.
2. Didn’t use the MLE
Failing to pin down a starter at the point is almost certainly the non-move that’s going to hurt the team the most this coming season. However, the inability of the the front office to find a way to meaningfully employ the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (approximately $8.6 million) has the potential to be just as much of a setback.
Going into free agency the Magic were in a slightly tricky situation given that they’re not yet playoff ready, but also in need of genuine improvement on the court. Realistically, there’s no signing that would have come in at this cost and vaulted the team into immediate contention. Still, there are multiple directions they could have gone had they chosen to spend this wad of cash.
This money could have been used to plug an area of weakness for this coming season, like the aforementioned deficiency at the point. In fact, any sort of playmaker with the ability to generate good looks for teammates would have been handy. Offering the entirety of the exception for a veteran fitting this description would have been a solid move. If such an option wasn’t realistic, a calculated offer to a young piece with the potential to grow alongside the current core would also have been a move worth making. Succinctly, there were options.
The Magic weren’t going to find a long term starter with this money, but it feels like they may have missed an opportunity to at least add a player worthy of a role in the rotation.
3. Held onto expiring veterans
Orlando heads into this season with a couple of players on the roster who are unlikely to be around beyond 2019. Names like Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, known quantity veterans with expiring contracts, don’t project as on the same timeline as the team’s youth. This means that it’s likely they’ll be moved on before the trade deadline rolls around in February, regardless of how they perform in the season’s first half.
As such, some argument exists to suggest that the team should have cut the respective cords over the summer, even if the return wouldn’t have induced cartwheels among the faithful. Keep in mind, as long as they stick around both Vucevic and Ross will take some minutes away from the younger players on the roster. It’s possible they might have been attractive options for a team in the playoff mix looking to address specific needs. As it stands now though, the longer the process of moving on takes the more short term the rental is for a prospective buyer; this, of course, makes for a smaller return. Timing is key.
Ultimately, veterans with a limited future in Orlando are a tough piece to fit into this season’s puzzle. It’s a potential headache that the Magic may have been able to avoid with some wheeling and dealing in July.
4. Said goodbye to Hezonja
Mario’s fate in Orlando was essentially sealed when the team declined his fourth year option, so it’s no surprise that he moved on with a one year deal in New York. Still, this one stings a little. In the second half of the season Hezonja was able to take advantage of various injuries, enjoying a solid uptick in production across the board. Admittedly he was still some ways off, but he did look to be closer than at any other point in his career to living up to the potential he promised as a lottery pick. Now if that does ever happen it won’t be in pinstripes. It’s a sad result for a union that originally projected to be a step towards basketball relevancy.
5. Didn’t trade up
We’ll never know how seriously this was considered or how likely a deal was to being struck, but once the Magic were slotted in at six whispers began about the need for them to vault up as a means of securing the player they had at the top of their board. Most of the discussion centered on two names as possibilities, those being Trae Young and Luka Doncic; interestingly, that pair ended up being flipped between Atlanta and Dallas in a deal similar to what some Orlando faithful would have been envisioning.
The difficulty for the Magic was likely the fact that they lacked a sure-fire desirable asset to partner with their own lottery pick. They wouldn’t have wanted to give up any of their own future firsts, and as outlined above the market for some of their mid-tier veterans was undoubtedly cold. With Jonathan Isaac presumably off limits it means the cupboard was -- and remains -- bare. It’s hard to kill the front office for not making the move to trade up, but it sure is easy to dream of what might have been.
The offseason is just about done and training camp isn’t all that far away. In fact, before you know it we’ll have 82 games worth of basketball to obsess over and dissect. But what might we be expecting had things gone slightly differently this summer? There’s no way to know for sure, but it feels like the Magic left some moves on the table. Let’s hope any associated regret doesn’t linger.