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OPP’s Orlando Magic Mailbag: Volume I

If you had to pick between Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, who would you choose? Our answer is below...

NBA: Orlando Magic-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hey y’all! Welcome to the January installment of the OPP Mailbag, a new and (hopefully) regular feature for the site going forward. This month I’ve taken questions from a bunch of different users, used those to figure out the burning issues, and hammered out some initial thoughts in response. We hit on topics past, present and future, with trade speculation ahead of the upcoming deadline being an obvious starting point.

The responses aren’t exactly the analytical deep dive that some of OPP’s other columns are, but that’s intentional: the aim is to keep the conversation flowing like it would if we were watching a game at the bar, so be sure to sound off in the comments with your own opinions.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive in!

~ What moves might the Magic make ahead of the trade deadline? (Mattlock687, djlove, Ramore)

Orlando Magic v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Things are definitely heating up in this regard, with the recent report of Orlando’s interest in Maverick’s guard, Dennis Smith Jr. As it currently stands, everything points to the Magic being key participants in the trade deadline action, likely as motivated buyers aiming to end the franchise’s playoff drought.

However, this is where it gets tricky. The Magic aren’t exactly flush with assets, which makes it difficult to come up with realistic trades that are more than just a sideways move. One would have to imagine that any of the recent lottery picks -- Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba -- are off limits. Nikola Vucevic is indispensable if the goal is a first round playoff series. Hopefully ghosts-of-Oladipo-past serve as a reminder not to give up on a guy like Aaron Gordon, who is only getting better and on a team-friendly contract. If these guys are off the table, what has the team actually got left to dangle?

Terrence Ross and Jonathan Simmons are popular names to chuck into the trade machine, but any move involving T-Flight would also have to replace his shooting, while Juice has played so poorly this season that the return is likely going to be minimal. Evan Fournier has been in a shooting slump, so getting equal value in return is a difficult proposition. D.J. Augustin is basically the only point guard that can be trusted to play and his absence would create a gaping chasm on the roster. In terms of a meaningful trade, everyone else is filler at best.

Orlando does have its first rounder this year, but it’s an asset the team would more than likely be keen to hold onto. Unless it’s inclusion in a deal is going to secure enough talent to make the playoffs a certainty -- and nothing in professional sports is certain! -- it’s probably not going to be worth it.

Still, there are moves to be made should the opportunity arise. It’s no secret that the team needs another point guard on the roster, preferably one that will hold the role in the seasons to come. Expect to keep hearing names like the aforementioned Smith Jr., along with D’Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier and Frank Ntilikina. Outside shooting and wing playmaking should also be a priority for the team, which could lead to rumblings like Rodney Hood, Rodney McGruder and Kent Bazemore.

There is also, of course, the ‘blow it up’ option if the front office decides to tear it all down and start again.

All of this is a long way of saying that if the Magic want to make a real splash in the trade market they’re going to have to give up a meaningful piece, one for which an argument to keep could easily be made. Maybe that piece is Vucevic, who would slot in pretty well at Los Angeles, Washington or Dallas. Maybe it’s Gordon, who would certainly attract interest from Indiana, Dallas and Utah (among others) should he be made available. It could be Augustin, who would help any number of teams bound for a deep playoff run.

It feels like an absolute certainty that the Magic will make moves ahead of the deadline. For now, we’ll keep reading the tea leaves in a bid to unravel the mystery of what they may be.

~ Choose one: Aaron Gordon or Jonathan Isaac (Troll Wizard)

NBA: Orlando Magic-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A great question, and one that is likely at the front of any Magic fan’s daily internal debate. There’s mounting evidence to suggest that the pair of Gordon and Isaac are more effective apart than together, so shipping one out and hitching the wagon to the other makes sense. But who do you keep?

A common danger when it comes to talent evaluation is to favor the unknown. Potential is nebulous, and this difficulty in measuring precisely what you have usually skews to optimism. We envision the best case scenario, set both the ceiling and floor higher, predict further growth for skills already evident, and fantasize about those that may yet develop. The benefit of the doubt is extended, willingly and often without reservation.

In terms of this mailbag question, it means my heart is saying Isaac but my head is saying Gordon.

Okay, it’s not quite like that. In a truly perfect world the pair would both blossom right here in Orlando, developing in their ability to play alongside each other as a whirlwind of defensive terror and scoring outbursts that leverage their abundant athleticism. But, as we know all too well, this ain’t a perfect world, and I think the smart bet is Gordon.

To break it down simply, Gordon has shown more to date and is evidently possessed of more of the skills and talents that will help him flourish as a legitimate NBA starter. Both can defend in one-on-one matchups to a high level, but it’s Gordon who has had more success translating this to the team scheme, and who is the one asked to go against the opposition’s most dangerous wing. We also know that Isaac’s shooting is poor and his offensive game basically non-existent, whereas Gordon continues to become more dangerous at this end of the court. Gordon’s a better rebounder, ball-handler, and playmaker.

Importantly, it’s worth pointing out that Gordon also has one other clear edge: experience. But in his case the particular basketball skills of his that are starting to flourish were always evident to some degree. With Isaac, to make the same such projections would run counter to some of what we’ve seen from him on the court and verge into the territory of wishful thinking.

Isaac may yet grow into a capable starter and key contributor, but at this stage it’s a bet based on the speculation of potential. The gamble with Gordon, however, is that his already strong play could further blossom and he establishes himself as one of the league’s top 40-to-50 players. For mine, the choice is clear.

~ What’s the Dwight/Stan era alternate history? (Mattlock687, Ramore)

NBA Finals Game 4: Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

*wipes tear from eye*

Okay, this one is going to be tough.

As we all know, in 2009 Magic coach Stan Van Gundy surrounded Dwight Howard with deep threats and playmakers all over the court, the team riding the good times all the way to the NBA Finals. They returned in 2010 with an even deeper roster and (in my eyes, at least) championship favoritism, but unexpectedly bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston after dropping the first three games of the series. At this point, the wheels kind of fell off, and first round exits followed in the next two seasons.

Then Stan was gone.

And, shortly thereafter, so too was Dwight.

I still firmly believe that the Magic should have won a title in Van Gundy’s and Howard’s time. The ‘09 series against the Lakers was a missed layup away from potentially looking very different, and it’s hard to understate the impact of the Jameer Nelson injury. In 2010, they were absolutely stacked and ready to go one step further, but stumbled against a veteran Celtics team they had somewhat overlooked in anticipation of a rematch with LeBron and the Cavaliers. It feels like one of those years where six times out of ten they probably win it all. But it wasn’t to be.

Salary cap hell, big swings that didn’t pan out (hello, Agent Zero!), Big Baby, and a diminished-by-injury Howard meant that the championship window slammed shut quicker than anyone expected. We didn’t know it at the time, but 2010 was it for the Stan/Dwight contender combo, with everything else to come merely a prelude to the world’s most awkward post-training interview.

If the Magic had managed to win one title during this stretch, it’s probably safe to assume that things don’t pan out the way they did. Because of the roster construction and aging nature of some of the key personnel I can’t talk myself into a sustained run or a dynasty. But I can see an alternate history that we look back on today with a little more fondness.

I also probably would have bought that Hedo Turkoglu jersey with the NBA Finals patch that I stared at on Ebay for a month.

~ How would you evaluate the job done by the Magic front office? (Sun Shine Slim 111)

NBA: Orlando Magic-Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Slim actually fired off a bunch of questions, all of which could loosely be tied together as an evaluation of those tasked with constructing Orlando’s roster. The focus was split across both the Hennigan and Hammond/Weltman eras, so we’ll try to unpack and compare each as we go.

When Rob Hennigan came on board, his job was the deconstruction of a perennial playoff contender that was coming apart at the seams, and to begin the rebuild in earnest. He did about as well as anyone could have expected with the Howard trade, and generally showed a deft eye for talent evaluation when it came to the draft. The main inhibitor to his success in this regard was, more than anything, luck and circumstance; Orlando missed out on some potentially transformational players thanks largely to the number they drafted at. Not every pick was a home run, but he consistently played what was in front of him pretty well.

His main missteps came when it was time to shift the rebuild into a phase of competitiveness. The Serge Ibaka and Tobias Harris trades backfired spectacularly, he made some disastrous and redundant free agent signings, and he misread the new financial climate when the salary cap spike hit, handing out some contracts that immediately aged pretty poorly (Fournier is an example here; I think he’s largely the player the Magic envisioned when they re-signed him, but the dollar figure isn’t quite the bargain they thought it would be). This combination of errors facilitated his exit from Florida, and it’s hard to give his time as Orlando’s General Manager anything other than a failing grade.

Jeff Weltman and John Hammond have now been on the job for the better part of two years, essentially tasked with piloting the franchise through Rebuild 2: Electric Boogaloo. Things have moved at an almost glacial pace under their leadership, with evaluation the name of the game to this point. However, we’re starting to see the shifting of gears in this regard.

Charting a course from the team’s initial rebuilding attempts to the new plan has been a complicated process, and one with some missteps already evident. They undoubtedly botched the Mario Hezonja situation, losing the former lottery pick for nothing after failing to pick up his fourth year option. They’ve twice drafted players best suited to a position currently filled by an above-average NBA starter, while also punting on some later picks when talent is still available. The whole thing has been a bit inauspicious, in fact.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to offer an absolute evaluation until they’ve had the chance to execute their vision (hint: the vision is wingspan). At the moment they’re hampered by an awkward fit of past, present and future, but it’s one that will likely generate some clarity in the coming months as the team becomes more active in the trade and free agency markets. Let’s mark this one as incomplete at the moment and cross our fingers.

And that’s it for the first edition of the OPP mailbag! I’ll aim to be back with a second installment in the lead-up to the trade deadline and the All-Star break, hopefully with a few other voices in the mix as well. I’ll see you back here then!