With the playoffs a distant memory and the allure of the draft on the near horizon, it’s time to start turning our attention to the upcoming 2021 season. Although Orlando enjoyed a second consecutive trip to the playoffs this past year, the relative whimper with which they bowed out makes clear the fact that there remains work to be done. The offseason is the place where the next step begins.
Consistent improvement is the goal of any franchise, even though the methods of execution may differ. As the trademarked saying goes, however, “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, and to even the most casual of observers it’s clear that the Magic have a long way to go until they’re in pole position. So what should the team’s decision makers be aiming to do when free agency officially gets underway?
Well, that’s where Orlando’s Offseason Manifesto comes into play. Within I have outlined five simple goals that the team’s brass should prioritize when the phones start ringing and the chequebook starts singing. The granular details regarding how these outcomes are achieved isn’t the object of our analysis just yet; that time will come, but what’s important now is that these targets drive the decisions of the front office as they maneuver to put the side in a position to win when it counts in the seasons to come.
Five steps for a successful offseason. Let’s get started!
Priority Number One: Find Some Shooting
This won’t surprise anyone, but the Magic absolutely have to prioritise shooting this coming offseason. So much of the current NBA landscape is predicated on the ability to stretch a defense with the threat of shooting, and Orlando is simply a team that faces a talent deficit in this regard almost every night. That has to change.
I’ve noted it before, but the Magic were a particularly woeful three-point shooting outfit this season past. They finished in the bottom half of the league by every related metric, posting the 18th ranked three-point rate and finishing just 25th in terms of long range accuracy. The roster featured precisely one player who converted such looks at a rate above league average — Evan Fournier — and the removal of his contributions would require one to go back five years to find a team that collectively shot worse than Orlando. Ouch.
Fournier and Terrence Ross were about the only players on the team that would regularly bend opposing defenses. The gravity of heavy minutes players like Aaron Gordon, Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic was basically non-existent; Vooch, in fact, was one of the league’s most prolific wide open three-point bombers as his direct matchup often prioritized help elsewhere. The effect of these sagging defenders was a paucity of space inside the arc, with forays into the paint being met with greater resistance and off-ball movement restricted by the lack of clear cutting lanes.
Again, this isn’t a secret: the Magic need shooting in the worst way, particularly on the wings and in the backcourt. A look at the last few offseasons demonstrates just how little of a priority this has been for the front office: Isaac, Mo Bamba, Wes Iwundu, Melvin Frazier, Al-Farouq Aminu and Michael Carter-Williams are all obviously worthy of a spot somewhere on an NBA roster, but not one of them moves the needle for the Magic in the area they need to most see improvement.
For Orlando to have even a chance of sustaining their recent level of modest success they’re going to have to be more proactive in terms of fielding a team that can actually shoot the ball.
Priority Number Two: Shore Up the Backcourt
Heading into the offseason the Magic have the still unknown potential of Markelle Fultz and not a whole heap else. Although Fournier is almost certain to opt in to the final year of his contract it hasn’t happened just yet, and elsewhere DJ Augustin and Carter-Williams are both unrestricted free agents. There are some decisions looming.
If, as expected, Fournier comes back, the concern is primarily the position of point guard. Both Ross and James Ennis are capable of spending some minutes at the two, but behind the starter, Fultz, there isn’t yet anyone who can quarterback the team in the time he’s off the floor. It’s worth remembering that the former first-overall pick played less than 28 minutes each night, and although that number increased as the season picked up steam, there are still likely to be 16 to 18 minutes of point guard play required from the bench in every game.
Of the pair who finished last season in pinstripes, it’s fair to assume that MCW is the more likely to return. He plays dogged defense and is a favorite of Head Coach Steve Clifford, plus he figures to come at a cheaper price. However, he’s not really a point guard anymore at this point of his career, and would certainly be overtaxed as the first choice for this position off the bench. And although the Magic would likely also welcome back Augustin — who has compiled three pretty effective seasons since beginning his Orlando tenure with a dud — it feels like the machinations of the salary cap and the lure of a role on a stronger contender could lead him away from Florida.
Regardless of the holdovers that remain come the start of training camp, it’s clear that the backcourt has to be a priority for the Magic this offseason. They need a steady hand to guide the reserve unit, preferably one that can shoot the ball at a strong clip and even play some minutes at the two. They also need to find a reasonable third-string option for the end of the rotation, for those times when injuries inevitably hit. It’s likely going to take a combination of the draft and free agency to achieve it all.
Priority Number Three: Draft For Talent (Although there’s a but…)
The NBA draft is only a few weeks away, and for the Magic it might well be their best chance to add a player that figures to be a part of the long-term roster moving forward. Orlando’s front office will be selecting from the fifteenth slot, which isn’t a bad position to be in; most experts are projecting the talent pool as a smaller elite tier alongside a sizable middle class, which bodes well for a team on the edge of the lottery like the Magic. Nailing the pick should produce a reliable cog for the franchise machinery.
As noted, the Magic have some obvious areas of deficiency that have to be addressed at some point, namely shooting and the point guard position. However, that’s not to say that those considerations should be solely driving the decision making process on draft night. As a fringe playoff team without an obviously upward trajectory Orlando needs to remain in the business of talent accumulation, which means nabbing the most favorably ranked player available, regardless of position or potential fit.
Ask yourself, does any player in pinstripes have a vice-like stranglehold on a specific position in the Magic’s rotation? There are incumbents, sure (Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier), as well as those that the front office are obviously backing to eventually take a leap (Fultz, Isaac and Okeke). But it can’t be said with absolute confidence that any of those guys are the long term answer. Orlando needs to keep swinging if they’re ever going to escape the middle.
The good news for the Magic is that there will be plenty of shooters and ball-handling guards available in the range they’re looking at. Chances are that the team’s needs and the available players will align anyway, allowing them to draft for both talent and fit at the same time. Still, the prevailing wisdom needs to be that high ceiling trumps immediate need.
But … it would be nice if they could avoid picking up another power forward.
Priority Number Four: Trade Someone
Decisions are looming. The combination of consecutive playoff appearances with the unfortunate injury to Isaac may make the status quo a more attractive option for some, with a reasonable chance at the postseason likely to be generated by simply running it back. But does that put the Magic any closer to meaningful contention down the line? Do we really need more evidence to agree on what this core is capable of achieving together?
It would be dangerous for Orlando to think that 2021 presents an opportunity to extend the evaluation of the current roster before going for it again next offseason. This time next year Fournier will be an unrestricted free agent whose exit threatens to leave the Magic empty-handed. Gordon will be one year closer to his own free agency and therefore less desirable as a piece on a cost-controlled contract. And Vucevic will be another year older and a little less likely to return to his previous All-Star form, another declining asset in terms of valuation within the league.
The longer the Magic wait to pull the trigger on any deal, the less they’re likely to wrangle in return for the player they eventually decide to part with. Word around the league is that the desire of other teams to trade for some of the players on Orlando’s books has already waned, a view reiterated on a recent podcast by Zach Lowe based on his conversations with front office executives. The likely chaos of a potentially incredibly short offseason, however, might just help the Magic whip up some robust interest in what they have to offer.
It’s basically impossible to envision a future where Orlando is playing high-stakes basketball late in the season and all three of Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier are still on the roster. The last six years have provided plenty of evidence as to the potential ceiling of this triumvirate, and it’s likely that the team is already jammed up against it. Any such move would almost certainly result in short-term pain, but this must be weighed alongside the possibility of long-term gain.
The Magic won’t be raising any banners in 2021. But they can make moves now that position the team to have a better chance of doing just such in the years to come. The front office must find a way to strike before it’s too late.
Priority Number Five: Chart a Course
Ultimately, this final priority is a direct continuation of the previous one and a combination of each talking point discussed already. More than anything, the Magic need to find a way to move out of the NBA’s middle class in the years to come, and to do so in a way that signals the type of basketball they plan on playing moving forward. What’s going to get the team off the treadmill of mediocrity?
Orlando obviously underwent a pretty significant rebuild in the post-Dwight years but, as it does for many teams who tread a similar path, the time for a soft reset is now here. They didn’t land a generational superstar in the draft or free agency, nor did they manage to bundle their assets and secure one in a trade. As it stands the team has little reasonable possibility of finding that top tier talent, not when they’re up against the cap, selecting in the middle of the draft, and coming to understand the ceiling of the players already on the roster.
However, that’s not a compelling reason to accept the inevitability of the side’s current circumstances. The front office has to now figure out how they can position the team to break free of the status quo. What moves will make the Magic more successful two, three, even five years down the track?
Roster construction in the NBA is a gamble at the best of times, requiring cold calculation and the embracing of risk in equal measure. Remember, though, that any gamble can ultimately be won, but only if you take the chance in the first place. In what already has the feel of a transitory season for the Magic, the team’s decision makers must maneuver in a way that will successfully move this side forward.
Shoot their shot. Plot their path. Chart their course.
The time is now.