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The Markelle Fultz trade deserves some skepticism

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The Magic were right to take a chance on a transformational point guard, but did they pay too much?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I promise, I’m not trying to lean into this whole “Orlando Magic Curmudgeon” theme I’ve written with this year. Truthfully, the Markelle Fultz trade is probably ok for the Orlando Magic. Still, when the terms were reported by various outlets, it raised a few red flags with me, some of the same ones I worried about back in 2017.

The reasons to be excited are obvious, and the upside is real. In the absolute best-case scenario, Fultz transforms the franchise from boring and mediocre to relevant playoff contender. The Magic’s point guard nightmare will be over. There’s even an in-between outcome where Fultz just is a solid rotational player.

But you know about that already. I’ll accept that I’m in the very small minority here, but I think Magic fans are too fixated on the upside and aren’t considering the risks and costs involved, no matter how small they might seem right now.

A brief reminder of the conditions of the trade:

The Thunder pick is top-20 protected and turns into 2022 and 2023 seconds if it doesn’t convey in 2020. The second rounder is...complicated, but basically it’s almost certainly the Cavs 2019 second-round pick, likely in the low 30s. Jonathon Simmons is Jonathon Simmons.

There were two major reactions to the trade that I’ll address. The first is the sentiment that the Magic had to take a chance, that’s it’s worth gambling on a player like Fultz. I agree with that! I have no issue with the Magic taking a long shot on a rehab project. Star power has been severely lacking in O-Town since the Dwight Howard heyday, and it’s a lot better than throwing a kajillion dollars at Bismack Biyombo in free agency. The objective is good.

The second broad reaction I saw was that this was a very low price to pay, mere “peanuts,” “basically nothing,” and so forth. This is a low-risk, high-reward sort of move. This is where I disagree.

Consider this hypothetical: would you have given up the Magic’s 2019 first-round pick, likely to fall in the lottery? Would you have given that and the Thunder pick? What if it was the deal as actually completed, plus another future first? The point is that, clearly, there is some price that is too much to pay for Fultz, some amount where the Magic would have to say “Sorry Philadelphia, we just can’t do that.”

Now let’s work backwards from there. Did the Magic pay the right price? To me, the deal feels like it’s just a little too much, like they could have included one less piece. Based on the rumors we heard throughout the year, it wasn’t even clear if Fultz could fetch a first-round pick on his own, and the Magic threw in a high-end second and a veteran wing.

It’s easy to dismiss each of those pieces as insignificant. “That Thunder pick in the 20s wasn’t going to get the Magic anything.” “A second round pick is nothing for a chance at a superstar.” “Jonathon Simmons has been garbage all year, he was just going to get waived anyway.”

That sort of thinking is short-sighted, though. Smart franchises don’t fritter away resources that way. We’ve all heard over and over about the second-round success stories of the NBA, the Draymond Greens and Manu Ginobilis of the world, but I won’t frame it that way. It’s more that, while each of those late picks wasn’t likely to get much on their own, if you take enough chances something good is bound to happen.

Even if you thought Simmons was about to wash out of the league, his expiring contract still held value. Maybe in another universe he turns into another second-round pick for the Magic, for a team looking for one more vet for a playoff push, followed by some cap relief for waiving him. One more chance for something good.

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

Really, half the problem with the trade isn’t about this trade specifically, it’s about a longer-term trend the team is following. Back during the 2017 draft, I broke down one of the first moves the current front office made, the very trade that got them the Thunder pick that was traded right back to the Sixers on Thursday.

My issue then was similar to the one I have now: it was a low-value deal in which the Magic traded the 25th pick in 2017 for what would probably be worse picks in 2019 and 2020 (or later). Absolute best case, they flipped 25th in 2017 for 21st and 32nd in 2020, and likely worse than that.

(As a hypothetical, if OKC and Brooklyn finished 2020 at the same positions in the standings as they are right now, those picks would end up being 24th and 46th, three years after the original trade).

That was an example of a low-value trade. Getting those other late picks three years later was just not very worthwhile, except that it gave them flexibility to make moves with them in the future (and admittedly, that flexibility came into play this trade deadline).

I fear the same is true of the Fultz trade. It’s another example of a trade that probably won’t go down in infamy like the Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris trades, but it’s just a little too expensive for my taste. Over time, those little inefficiencies add up. The Milwaukee Bucks swung a deal for Nikola Mirotic because they were able to throw four second-round picks at New Orleans. If the Magic do the opposite and give away tiny assets here and there, they suffer an opportunity cost.

That’s why it’s important to consider the upsides and the downsides. Sure, Markelle Fultz might be amazing. He also might literally never play basketball again. That’s a very real possibility! More likely than not, Fultz will never be a starter-quality basketball player. The Magic may have traded Jonathon Simmons and two picks...for nothing.

I can already feel expectations mounting too high. Fans are already looking forward to seeing him on the court, but what happens if his shot is still broken? Then the circus starts all over again, the rumors about strange shooting drills and mysterious injuries and bad advice and whatever else has conspired to sideline his career.

I’m not really sure Orlando is a good situation for Fultz. It’s been a very long time since an Orlando prospect has exceeded expectations. There’s plenty of recent history of players getting much better by leaving the Magic, not by joining them. To be fair, many of those players came and went under previous coaches and front offices, but I’m not super-encouraged by the results the last two seasons, either.

I’ll say it again: this trade is fine. It’s probably a small overpay. The franchise must be cautious, however, of how many of those small overpays they’re willing to take. It’s that sort of mentality that traps a team like the Orlando Magic on the treadmill of mediocrity, betting on the present by borrowing against the future. If things continue to go poorly, we won’t look back at this deal as “the one” that ruined everything, but death by a thousand cuts is still a way to die.