And so it both begins and (largely) ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
If you’ll excuse my mangling of Eliot’s desolate poem, such a statement would seem to be a pretty apt explanation of what the Magic achieved in the first 48 hours of free agency this year: a series of largely incidental moves that will leave the needle untouched, and that collectively do little to satiate the core of a fanbase agitating for something more. Even though an impact transaction (again) failed to materialize, let’s take some time to unpack what did go down, with a focus on what it means for both the coming season and beyond.
Our first indication as to how free agency might go for the Magic came in the twenty-four hours before the starting gun sounded, with the team making the decision to extend a qualifying offer to Gary Clark but not Wes Iwundu, and declining their third-year option for Melvin Frazier Jr. It was a clear goodbye to two former second round picks, but a signal of intent to bring back Clark after a 24 game sample.
Of the small opening maneuvers, it’s the decision to move on from Iwundu that could certainly be second guessed. While obviously a player with limitations he is one that has definitely made steady progress throughout his short career, emerging as a deep bench contributor who could be counted on to give solid effort and hold the fort when injuries struck. Most strikingly, he was the rare example of a second round pick that actually hit for the Magic, the team’s only success that late in the process since Kyle O’Quinn in 2012. It might have been worthwhile to keep him around simply as a reminder to the front office that these selections actually do have some value. Instead, he heads to Dallas on the veteran’s minimum.
The free agency frenzy began in earnest for the Magic with the addition of a pair of new faces to the roster: third-year wing Dwayne Bacon on a two-year pact (for the minimum, with a team option on the second season), along with Canadian rookie Karim Mane, who will slot into one of the team’s two-way contracts.
There’s not a huge amount to say about Mane at this point, except that he went undrafted, came to basketball relatively late in his career, and has drawn pretty positive scouting reports for a guy who didn’t get taken with one of the first sixty picks. Oh, and he apparently has an enormous wingspan (6-11), because of course he does. He’ll get a chance to prove himself in Lakeland, and even if it never happens for him it’s a swing worth taking for the Magic.
As for Bacon, his addition is similarly risk-free but a little more difficult to rationalize. He initially emerged as an intriguing rookie with some bounce in Charlotte under the tutelage of Head Coach Steve Clifford, which is really probably all the explanation needed as to why he’s now plying his trade in Orlando. He then made incremental gains in his second season before cratering offensively in year three, shooting a putrid 37.3% from the field and an ice-cold 28.4% from deep. He was a net negative by basically any metric one would care to look at, and fell out of the Hornets’ first-choice rotation in quick order.
That being said, Bacon has managed to rack up a half-dozen 20+ point outings over the last two years with only modest opportunity, so potential is evident. There’s also something to be said for securing a guy on a career-resuscitation contract that allows him to play for a coach who already believes in him (hello, MCW!). Still, it’s hard to see how this move helps the Magic address their biggest weaknesses, makes them demonstrably better next year, or positions them for future success. On a micro level it’s basically harmless, while at a macro level it’s probably pointless. It’s the shoulder-shrug emoji of sports transactions.
The next piece of business filed as complete was the return of James Ennis. Orlando’s mid-season trade acquisition and presumptive starting small forward came back to the fold only a few days after declining his player option, inking a one-year deal that secures him a slight bump in pay (around the $3 to 3.5 million mark). While the veteran is hardly the long range marksman the Magic need on the perimeter, his willingness to at least shoot the three along with his defensive aptitude makes him a solid fit for the team and a reasonable stop-gap measure for the moment.
Perhaps most importantly, his presence allows Aaron Gordon to occupy the power forward slot full-time, a necessity if AG’s going to inflate his trade value to a point where the front office are comfortable pulling the trigger on a deal. Ennis would be mis-cast as a starter on most teams trying to win now, but circumstances in Central Florida have aligned in a way that positions him as valuable (if not integral) to what the Magic want to achieve this coming season.
Day Two of the offseason sweepstakes saw two more familiar names return to Orlando, with Michael Carter-Williams first being confirmed before shortly being joined by Gary Clark. Neither deal is surprising, and both figure to play decent roles for the team in the season to come. While the exact figures aren’t yet confirmed, it stands to reason (based on initial reporting and a look at the team’s cap sheet) that MCW will land a deal around the $6 million dollar mark, while Clark figures to earn a smidge over $2 million. Again, these are both low cost contracts with minimal downside, a fact balanced out by the relatively low ceiling each also carries.
Since arriving in Florida as a reclamation project, Carter-Williams has endeared himself to the coaching staff and fans alike with his intense defensive execution and high-energy offensive effort. He still can’t shoot to save himself, but he hunts out transition opportunities with gleeful abandon and knows how to move both the ball and his body in the halfcourt game. Defensively he’s a terrier, with excellent instincts, valuable versatility, and a willingness to do the dirty work required. In fact, on that last point the Magic will be hoping he manages to channel his exuberance and physicality in a way that doesn’t make him quite as susceptible to injury. They’ll want him healthy for the two years of the deal.
Clark is back in pinstripes after a brief 24 game cameo last season, and it’s safe to assume that he’ll continue to provide the team with more of the same: voluminous three-point shooting at a rate just below league-average. He’ll be one of Orlando’s few floor spacers, a virtue not necessarily of his accuracy but of his supreme willingness to fire away. Remember, this is the guy whose shot diet for the Magic was made up of over 80% long range bombs; there’s not a single other player on the team more likely to launch from deep than Clark. For a team that struggled beyond the arc last season (and likely got worse in that same facet these last few days!) what he brings to the table is important.
The urgency of a to-do list
What’s indisputable about the Magic’s offseason to this point is that it feels … incomplete. Now, this isn’t to suggest that there are obviously more moves to come — although there could be — because as it stands Orlando has a full roster and no glaring positional holes in the rotation. Nor is it a reference to the fact that the rookie extensions for both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are looming as a point of business before the season gets underway (more on that later). Instead, the feeling of incompletion is one generated by the terminal mediocrity of the side assembled. What exactly is the plan here?
In thinking about the offseason I compiled a manifesto with five clear goals that the team had to meet to consider their maneuverings a sustainable success. Of that quintet, it feels like the front office clearly achieved just one. If one wanted to be gracious they could squint and convince themselves of two, but that’s it. By and large, the Magic still feel like a relatively rudderless team torn between two timelines, with a very real chance of results regression looming in the immediate future.
Orlando will likely be a worse long-distance shooting team this season, a genuine concern in the context of modern basketball. DJ Augustin’s exit to Milwaukee weakens the point guard rotation, which now features two pretty significant question marks and a lack of veteran stability. It’s proven impossible to trade any of the team’s trio of likely suspects for something resembling equal value, a circumstance that certainly figures to get no easier as time goes on. And, most egregiously, it’s still not clear what the future of this franchise is. When exactly is the team planning for a best-case scenario beyond being first round roadkill?
The fly in the ointment
A major factor currently looming over the franchise’s future is the rookie extensions for Isaac and Fultz. Both players are now able to re-up based on their entry level deals, with the question of dollars being the key consideration. JI will certainly be getting a healthy raise relative to his current figures, but the devastating injury he suffered in the bubble (and concerns related to durability, in general) have muddied the waters of these negotiations. Negotiations with Fultz figure to be even more complex; as a former number one pick his max is incredibly high, and while it’s clear he’s not at that level he’ll still likely be seeking a bump over his current cap hit (app. $12 million).
Decision makers in Orlando’s front office likely feel that they need clarity regarding these numbers before they can make definitive decisions about the roster pieces around their two young hopefuls. But herein lies the problem: pushing major decisions further down the line is degrading the value of any players they may eventually decide to move on from, as well as limiting the team’s ability to put together a plan for the pieces they’ll need two or even three years down the line. The Magic are a team that projects to have neither juicy draft picks nor significant cap space in the next few years, while the odds of internal improvement are growing slimmer. It’s not a great combination!
There are some genuine ‘rock and hard place’ dynamics at play here for Orlando. The team hasn’t found the sort of transformational talent needed to ensure genuine competitiveness, and now there are bills coming due that promise to lock up the team’s ability to add to any core as they move into the next phase. In this instance it doesn’t seem that the decision making processes have helped; there’s a real feeling of things being more reactive than proactive, which makes getting ahead at any point incredibly difficult.
The problem this offseason — like it has been at similar flash points in the recent past — is that the Magic have appeared indecisive. Only the most optimistic of souls would believe that the ceiling of the team as currently constructed hasn’t largely been known for the better part of twenty-four months now. But in exercising patience and adopting a protracted ‘wait and see’ period of evaluation, the front office have now pushed their decision-making timeline almost to its end — and breaking — point. The veterans are aging. The youth are about to get paid. The options available are dwindling as Orlando are backed further and further into the corner.
The Magic are stuck in the morass that is the NBA’s middle ground. The opening salvo in this offseason, again, did little to suggest the team is ready to move on from their current mediocrity and navigate the difficult years ahead in successful fashion. More than anything I would love to be proven wrong, but there’s an evident sense of familiarity that isn’t comforting in its presence. Fingers crossed the future will prove more favorable.