With the trade deadline fast approaching, it’s time to start thinking about the moves the Magic could, would and should make as they head towards the home stretch. Fire up the trade machine!
Well, let’s maybe pump the brakes for a second. The first instinct of many at this point of the season is to start concocting transactions, and who could blame them? It’s fun! But before we go down that rabbit hole (and don’t worry - we certainly will!) let’s take a moment to consider the key questions and related objectives that will be driving any front office decision making that takes place.
Dive in as we untangle both the short and long-term factors at play for the Orlando Magic this February.
Question one: Are the Magic all-in on the playoffs this year?
With injuries mounting and the business end of the season just around the corner, Orlando need to quickly determine how seriously they’re going to approach playoff basketball in 2020. Despite probably not performing to the expectations most had, the team still finds itself in seventh position in the Eastern Conference, in line with last year’s finish. If the season were to end next week they’d comfortably be a playoff team. But is that something they should be aspiring to and, if so, should they be looking to add extra firepower?
Before going any further, it’s probably worth pointing out that this decision may actually be made by teams other than the Magic. This season the East is so weak, so decimated by injury, ineffective team-building and the inconsistency of youth, that there may only be eight teams with legitimate playoff aspirations. It would be silly, of course, to rule anything out with so many games still to play, but it’s bleak at the bottom. Allow me to demonstrate.
For starters, go ahead and use a permanent marker to put a line through Atlanta, New York, Cleveland and Washington. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index -- a rating that aims to measure the strength of a team and act as a predictor of future performance -- has the quartet pegged as four of the worst five teams in basketball. From there, would you trust any of Detroit, Chicago or Charlotte to mount a serious push after the All-Star break? All three possess a record that is currently thirteen games below .500, along with point differentials that place them comfortably in the league’s bottom half. The Pistons are without Blake Griffin for the season, the Bulls are currently missing Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. (two-fifths of their opening night starting lineup), and the Hornets are genuinely relying on Bismack Biyombo (while also currently ranking dead last in BPI!). Ouch.
This means that the Magic may not even need to play their absolute best to secure a second-consecutive playoff berth. They may end up in the postseason effectively by default. With that in mind, should they be aiming to establish a roster capable of giving a first-round series a real shake?
It’s a tougher question than it initially appears. Simply emerging from the regular season creates a sense of energy and enthusiasm around a team that otherwise wouldn’t exist. As fans, we all want to see the Magic playing in truly meaningful basketball games. Given the choice between the playoffs or another round of ping-pong ball watching we’d nearly all be inclined to go with the former. But what if a team is just making up the numbers? What if there simply isn’t a conceivable way in which you could win more than a game or two at the expense of your first round opponent? Is it still then a wise decision to load up for an arms race that you’re only going to be seriously outgunned in anyway?
As it currently stands, there’s a huge discrepancy between the top six teams in the East and everyone else. If the season ended today Philadelphia would be the sixth-seed, with a 25-16 record that puts them five-and-a-half games ahead of the Magic. They already have a vastly superior point differential to Orlando, and despite some recent stumbles will likely trot out a starting lineup come playoff time that features multiple All-Star talents. The top four teams in the conference all sport a win percentage in excess of .640; the Magic would consider simply crawling up to .500 to be a success. Remember also that Orlando have a grand total of three wins on the season against teams with winning records. Is there any combination of trade deadline moves that could be made that would put the team in a position to topple a more fancied opponent?
Orlando has some very obvious flaws that would need to be addressed should they decide to swing for the fences this season. The injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu mean there’s a glaring hole in the forward rotation, a problem for which playing Khem Birch at the four isn’t the answer. There remains a dearth of outside shooting at certain spots, not to mention general playmaking and pick-and-roll deficiencies. The team needs more offensive firepower. It’s not clear how any roster maneuvering would sufficiently address these concerns.
Don’t get me wrong: there is definitely something to be said for simply making the playoffs. As mentioned previously, just being invited to the dance generates energy, excitement and enthusiasm, for both the players and fans. It’s an opportunity for growth and development, both individually and collectively. This resonates with particular strength for the Magic because of the extended rebuild the team recently suffered through. However, if they do decide to be active at the trade deadline in the hopes of improving on last season’s finish let’s not overlook the monumental task that sufficiently upgrading this current roster, in its uneven and injured state, would represent.
The Magic absolutely can make the playoffs this year. In fact, I’d say it’s way more likely than not. But it’s not crazy to suggest that some deliberation about whether or not a combination of win-now moves changes the equation in a way that’s actually worth surrendering assets or flexibility -- or both -- moving forward.
Question two: Does the front office believe in this roster moving forward?
We’re inching ever closer towards a point with this current roster where very real and potentially hard decisions will need to be made about the front office’s commitment to it. Is the framework for a sustainable contender actually in place? Can this side win with the key cogs that are already in pinstripes? And how might this influence any moves made in February?
There’s something to be said for healthy skepticism regarding such questions. Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon have been in place for six seasons now, and despite a relatively consistent trajectory of improvement, both individual and collective, the triumvirate haven’t yet risen to any great heights. This wouldn’t be a huge problem, except for the fact that it feels like as a unit they may have already reached a ceiling. Add to this the sizable chunk of the salary cap that the trio now represent -- a shade under $65 million this season, good for almost exactly half of the team’s $131 million dollar payroll -- and one can see how further improvement is going to be hard to come by. And this is without wading into the murky waters of negotiation regarding Fournier’s future.
Sticking with these players is also going to incur other costs. It’s not long before the Magic will have to contend with extensions for their rookie-contract lottery picks Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz. Current key contributors in DJ Augustin and Michael Carter-Wiliams will either need to be re-signed or left behind. Free agency options will be limited to mid-level additions further down the rotation. Something somewhere on the roster is going to have to give.
So if you decide that the roster as currently constructed isn’t the one that’s going to lead the side to the fabled land, when and how do you move on? Are the Magic best served cutting bait now? Should they be maneuvering for future flexibility? Or perhaps taking a flyer on low-risk, distressed assets that won’t help the side win now but could pay off down the line? Or do you ride it out until the offseason, armed with a greater level of knowledge about your team and potentially open to more opportunities?
This is also where the status of veteran players like Augustin and Terrence Ross becomes tricky to confidently nail down. If Orlando are aiming for the playoffs this year, then of course it makes sense to keep them and their valuable skill sets around. However, if the front office determines that the team has a clearly limited ceiling that will necessitate a makeover in the near future, wouldn’t it be smarter to move them now to teams with championship aspirations looking to bolster their own rotation? Isn’t this the course of action most likely to deliver a return that gives the Magic the best chance moving forward?
We tend to think about the trade deadline as a moment when team’s can make additions that will set them up for postseason success. But it’s also an opportunity for a perceptive side that recognizes their own limitations to get ahead of the game and do some pre-draft maneuvering. In which camp would the Magic reside after an honest and objective appraisal?
So what’s the verdict?
If it’s not already apparent, let me be perfectly clear about two things: Firstly, I believe that, as currently constructed, the Magic are a playoff team. It’s true this year, and if the status quo were to remain it’s also probably true next year. Secondly, the playoffs are fun! Personally, I’m never more excited about basketball than when Orlando are competing in the postseason. In a perfect world I’d never have to worry about lottery odds ever again.
But … is it wrong to want more? Is it foolish to be willing to accept short-term pain for long-term gain? Would effectively punting on this season and simply letting it play out as the basketball gods intend be a smart sacrifice if it could potentially deliver a brighter future?
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Moderate success, particularly when sustained, is an admirable goal, and one that many teams would be happy to be grappling with. Only a couple of seasons ago I would have accepted a deal with the devil for just that. However, the competitive urges inevitably ask for more. To improve. To be better. To reach the summit.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the current Magic roster won’t be winning any championships. Watching the team get back to the playoffs last year was an awesome experience, even if it was apparent from (almost) the outset that the Raptors had them outclassed. And while I’d like to see them back there again (and again and again) I can’t help but wonder if short-term moves to shore up this season’s squad will ultimately make it more difficult in the long-term for the team to do more than just arrive at the base camp.
My hope: that the Magic front office approach this trade deadline knowing that while they’ll more than likely make the playoffs again this year, the team needs to be unstitched in some capacity to enable it to ascend to greater heights. As such, moves have to be made with the future health and viability of the franchise as the top priority.
Of course, it’s theoretically possible to achieve this while also boosting the side’s immediate chances. But that’s a tough tightrope to walk, and it feels a little greedy to be demanding both.
How the Magic handle this trade deadline should tell us plenty about how the front office views the roster that they’ve constructed. Let’s just hope that in navigating the next few weeks they don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.