As the ball officially gets rolling on the NBA’s free agency period, the Orlando Magic got their biggest piece of work done quickly.
Needing to come to terms with All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, the Magic made sure not to wait, locking down their man in the middle to a reported four-year, $100 million pact. Keeping Vucevic was something that the front office led by Jeff Weltman had said they wanted to do, and it was no secret that Vucevic wanted to be in Orlando as well.
Now, with the deal all but signed — players can officially sign deals agreed to at the conclusion of the moratorium period on July 6th at noon Eastern — the Magic can shift their focus elsewhere, like re-signing super-sub Terrence Ross, and improving their overall bench depth.
I think the signing was necessary for the Magic. Without Vucevic in the fold, it’s very possible that players like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac wouldn’t continue to develop the way that they have. Vucevic’s gravity pulls defenders away from the basket, and opens up lanes for Gordon and Isaac to use their athleticism for get to the basket.
Taking a big step backwards, after the massive step forward they took this past season, would be a shot in the gut to the Magic’s young players. They wouldn’t continue to get the experience playing in those high-pressure, late season games they so desperately need.
While I understand the questions that this brings up about Mo Bamba, the man the Magic picked sixth overall last season to be the presumed future starting center, it will likely be a positive for him as well.
Bamba simply isn’t ready to play starters minutes at the NBA level. He still needs to add more weight to his frame to be able to bang with bigger centers in the league, and he has to get comfortable with the speed of the NBA game. After missing the second half of his rookie year with a fracture in his lower leg, letting Bamba progress at a slower pace should pay off in the long run.
We’ve seen how just throwing young players out there and expecting them to thrive as gone poorly in the past for the Magic. The likes of Victor Oladipo, Maurice Harkless, and Tobias Harris have seen their games grow exponentially since they all moved on to new teams, something that likely would not have happened with the position they were put in with the Magic.
Young players need to be held accountable for what they do on the floor, and that’s something that coach Steve Clifford does, and will continue to do, which will help Bamba in the long run.
While the contract could make things hard for the Magic to make improvements in free agency in the short term, it’s important to note that the Magic likely wouldn’t have been able to secure a commitment from a player who would make as big of an impact on the team as Vucevic will. And, as we saw with the contract that Gordon signed in free agency last summer, so much of it comes down to how the deal is structured.
If the Magic are able to front load the deal, with eight percent decreases each year, they’ll keep some flexibility as the deal ages, and it would make the deal easier to move if Bamba does take the big step forward they hope he does and is ready before the conclusion of the deal.
Keeping Vucevic also likely means the team will keep Sixth-Man Terrence Ross, pushing them even closer to the luxury tax line. It is important to note that, while they could go into the season above the luxury tax line, that doesn’t lock them in as a tax team. They could make moves throughout the season to get back under that line, if they are in fact in danger of being above it.
Ultimately, bringing back much of the same team from last season is what’s best for the Magic. They’re betting on their guys getting better internally, and that Vucevic will be able to replicate the production he had last season.
For the first time in a long time, the Magic are holding onto their incumbent All-Star center in free agency, and not watching him walk to a new team.
That’s a victory for the Magic, who now have to shift their attention to Ross, and improving the bench around their flame throwing sixth man.