Hey y’all! Welcome to the February installment of the OPP Mailbag. This month I’ve taken questions from a bunch of different forum dwellers, used those to figure out the burning issues, and hammered out some initial thoughts in response. It’s been an exciting few weeks for fans of the Magic, with improved play on the court, the addition of Markelle Fultz, and Nikola Vucevic’s trip to the All-Star game dominating discussion.
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!
~ How should the Magic approach the offseason in terms of Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross? (Ramore)
Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross are almost unarguably the two most important players on the current Magic roster, with one anchoring the starting five while the other is the centerpiece of any bench unit. The playmaking and scoring they provide is essential for an offensively limited team like Orlando, and their veteran status makes them both important leaders to the club’s youth. The front office determined that the right course of action was to hold onto them through the trade deadline and that has seemingly paid off with a renewed playoff push. Assuming the team maintains their current momentum it makes sense to do whatever is necessary to bring them back next season, right?
Well, a more accurate answer would be … maybe. Both Vooch and T-Flight are playing on pretty team friendly contracts at the moment, and both will be looking for a significant upgrade -- in terms of dollars and years -- moving forward. For the Magic, their relatively tight salary cap situation makes this slightly more difficult than one might expect.
Of the two, Vucevic would seem to be the number one priority. Even though they drafted his ostensible replacement in Mo Bamba last year, the team is currently built around his skill set and talents in such a way that to remove him from the equation would basically require starting from scratch. Plus, as we all know, Bamba is nowhere near ready yet to step in and fill those minutes. Vooch is the current and the immediate future. Ross is maybe just as irreplaceable. However, the team would likely feel more confident in their ability to find his production elsewhere, either from internal development or in the free agent market.
So how does money muddy the waters here? Despite their current contracts ending the Magic will carry significant cap holds for the pair into the offseason, and until their situations are resolved the team’s hands will be tied. Re-signing both will also largely end the chances of Orlando making any significant free agency additions (although one might argue that they’ve already made that splash by bringing in Markelle Fultz). It’s a tricky tightrope that Weltman and Hammond will have to walk.
My guess? The Magic will do what they have to in bringing back their newly-minted All-Star. Somewhere in the vicinity of four years and $80 million seems fair for Vucevic, with as generous a frontloading of the early years as the cap will allow. Ross will probably be looking for something close to $15 million per year and, assuming the team is happy with how 2019 ends, there’s a good chance they’ll try to get something done for a number that keeps them out of the luxury tax. Accommodating both will be tight, with Ross the likely casualty if the math ultimately doesn’t add up for the Magic.
~ What’s the future of Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov? (Troll Wizard)
The respective situations for Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov feature both interesting similarities and extreme differences. Both are locked in for at least one more season at a comparable figure ($17 million for Fournier, $16.7 million for Mozgov), putting them firmly near the top of the list of Magic earners. Combined, the pair will likely account for almost a third of the team’s payroll in 2019/20. Both contracts are also probably pretty unmovable, at least in terms of bringing in an immediate roster upgrade.
Where things differ is with the on-court expectations. Mozgov is yet to play a single second for the Magic and likely never will. His most important attribute is the ability to wave a towel and not grumble about being plastered to the bench. To date that seems like a mission accomplished. He might hold slightly more value next season as an expiring contract, although that might be just as valuable for the Magic as it is a potential trading partner. The best guess is that he sees the contract out in Orlando.
Fournier, however, is a much more important part of the on-court puzzle. And it’s his play through the season’s first 50+ games that has the fanbase questioning what his future with the team actually is. His output has been down almost across the board in 2018/19, primarily as a result of deflated shooting numbers. By his standards he’s been cold from downtown, inaccurate inside the arc, and less successful getting to the free throw line. After improving his points per game output each year since he entered the league he’s currently down three points on last season’s mark. He’s had some nice individual moments, but it’s definitely been a disappointing step backwards for the French shooting guard.
That said, Fournier is almost certainly more valuable to the Magic going forward than anything he might bring back as the centerpiece of a trade. Shooting numbers, particularly from deep, are unsurprisingly volatile, and it’s a safe assumption that he’ll experience some bounceback in this regard next season. If BIG remains the envisioned future then Orlando will need shooters in the worst way around that triumvirate. Fournier fits that bill. Even with the frustrations that his game possesses -- an inclination towards hero ball, occasionally sticky fingers, some poor shot selection -- he has a skill set that the Magic require. Fournier might not be the absolute best man for the job, but he’s competent and he’s already our man. Expect to see him stick around.
~ Assuming Markelle Fultz lives up to his potential, what additional pieces do the Magic need to be a perennial playoff team? (Mr.Hoss)
If Markelle Fultz lives up to his potential the Magic are well and truly on their way. With all that has happened since he was drafted first overall by the 76ers in 2017 it’s easy to forget just how much of a ‘can’t miss’ prospect he was considered to be. If that’s the ceiling he reaches Orlando have a multi-time All-Star on their hands.
Building around a player of that caliber should be relatively easy, even for a franchise that has recently struggled just trying to get onto the treadmill of mediocrity. Fultz was dynamic as a playmaker in college, and he’ll give the Magic the first player of that type that they’ve had in quite some time. Considering the salary cap crunch that the team is facing in the coming years, perhaps the best news is that the team already has a number of the right pieces to put alongside him.
Fultz did a lot of his damage out of the pick and roll during his time with the Huskies, and in Nikola Vucevic he has a ready made partner. As a big who can both roll and pop after the initial screen he’s a perfect complement. It’s also conceivable to see this sort of action working in limited quantities with Aaron Gordon. Elsewhere, shooting will be a necessity around the young point guard. Evan Fournier’s career averages suggest he could be a nice fit as a backcourt partner, but the team will still want to add more on the wings. The Magic may also want to push the pace a little to take advantage of Fultz’s strengths in the open court, so athleticism and hustle become another two important characteristics to look for.
Counting on potential to manifest can be a sucker’s bet, but it’s one that Orlando desperately need to pay out. Fultz, Isaac, Bamba, even Gordon: the roster is littered with young players yet to reach their imagined ceiling. If even just a couple of these guys develop in the expected way it’s easy to envision the Magic as a regular lower-seed playoff participant. You can see why the front office made the trade deadline gamble.
~ Has Nikola Vucevic’s amazing season catapulted him into the top 10 of all-time Magic players? (Mr.Hoss)
You know what? If he wasn’t there yet he almost certainly is now. The Mount Rushmore picks -- Shaq, Penny, T-Mac, Dwight -- are settled for the time being, while the solid consistency of players like Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, Darrell Armstrong and Jameer Nelson also ensures them a place. That only leaves two spots up for grabs, with Vooch battling against the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Dennis Scott.
Of those names, I like Vucevic second to only Turkoglu. The Montenegrin big man has gotten better every single year during his Orlando tenure, culminating this season in a slam-dunk All-Star case. He was always adept at scoring around the basket, but he has since stretched his range beyond the arc, shown improved footwork when handling individual defensive assignments, developed as a team defender, and emerged as a legitimate playmaker out of the high post. He’s one of the best centers in the league, and a dependable model of consistency for a Magic franchise desperately hoping that it’s time to turn the corner. 20 and 10 is now the norm for a player who is now scoring, passing and rebounding more effectively than ever.
The biggest knock against Vucevic’s Orlando resume is the losing. Whether one wants to put that down to circumstance or culpability is largely up to the individual, but the raw output is now probably enough to overcome that argument regardless. Seven straight years of solid production for a team navigating the murky depths of a rebuild is still valuable, even if it hasn’t yet paid off with a trip the playoffs. Fingers crossed that this is the year.
Okay, that’s it for today’s mailbag installment! There were a couple of questions I didn’t get to, but that was a deliberate choice (spoiler: they’re related to longer columns I’m already working on). We’ll circle the wagons again in mid-March when, if things break right, the Magic will be in the midst of their first serious playoff push in years. See you then!