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Why a shortened season may buy Jeff Weltman and John Hammond more time in Orlando

The Magic (are) were on pace to barely slip into the playoffs despite playing in the weakest division in the NBA. When should Magic fans start expecting more?

Orlando Magic 2017 NBA Draft Night Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

This isn’t meant to mitigate or devalue the horrific nature of what is happening in our country in this instant, only to detach ourselves for a moment and find our way back to talk about the sport we all love, if even for a moment.

And given the nature of this devastating disease, each team in the NBA may warrant a second chance. After all, who can’t point to such a trying time as one of the more inopportune distractions since the ABA merger and of many of our lifetimes?

With those allowances set, let’s be a bit preemptive and question the nature of the Orlando Magic’s front office and their long standing viability in Orlando.

Put simply, have Jeff Weltman and John Hammond done enough in three years to prompt a longer look?

Wins and Losses

The two signed five-year deals in the summer of 2017 and have since accumulated 97 wins to 132 losses. Granted the two have been far more successful in the previous two seasons thanks to a bit of injury luck and the hiring of head coach, Steve Clifford.

However, the Magic continue to tread five games south of .500 while playing in the weakest division in the NBA (138 wins between southeast teams). After a 2018-19 campaign that saw them surge to the finish line, there was plenty of optimism surrounding a group that seemed ready to take 2019-20 by storm, finishing with the third-best winning percentage (22-9, .710) in the NBA since January 31. Their 7.6 net-rating across their final 31 games (third in the NBA) further solidified their place as the league’s hottest teams before understandably being ushered out by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in a gentlemen’s sweep.

With their core returned along with upgraded depth in the form of Al-Farouq Aminu and a healthy Markelle Fultz, an improved season was understandably a part of the Magic’s offseason expectation. But at 30-35, and with eight of their final 17 opponents sporting .500 marks or better, disappointment seems warranted.

Injuries play a discernible factor. Steady point man DJ Augustin missed 16 games and defensive team nominee Jonathan Isaac was derailed after 32 games amidst what may have evolved into a breakout campaign.

But with the exception of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers , each team within the NBA has dealt with a significant collection of maladies they’ve been forced to overcome. And the Magic have done their share of that having won eight of their final 12 games before the postponement. Despite all of that effort, their 30-win total would (will) only earn them a shot at the eastern conference’s two most formidable winners in Milwaukee or Toronto.

Unrealized Potential

The Magic experienced their share of growth from what should be their pillars of fortune and development in Fultz, Isaac and Mo Bamba. While the three improved independently of each other, they did share some success in minimal time.

In 660 minutes, Fultz and Isaac outscore opponents by 1.7 points per 100 possessions. Fultz, Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic did so by 2.4.

Serviceable, but not nearly good enough to challenge the east now. That shouldn’t be the goal, but we’ll circle back to that later.

The biggest disappointment has been that of the usage of Aaron Gordon. Gordon has improved his impressive play on the defensive end of the floor where he exists as the fulcrum for everything the Magic do. With the physicality, agility and size to defend all five positions, Gordon has become one of the few in the game capable of slowing down some of the league’s most lethal scoring options and takes the assignment nightly.

On the offensive end, Gordon scores just 14.4 points per game on 43.1 and 30 percent from the floor and three, respectively (27th percentile in the NBA) - a considerable drop off from last season’s 16 points on 44.9 and 34.9.

The growth just hasn’t been there and it’s largely come as a result of his usage. Gordon takes 30 percent of his shots in the mid-range while converting them at a 30 percent rate (20th percentile in the NBA). He scores at a rate of 31.7 percent on 5.5 isolation possessions per game and grades in the 51st percentile on post-ups.

However, as a pick-and-roll man, Gordon scores at an impressive rate of 1.22 points per possession, 73rd percentile in the NBA.

Here is the crux of the issue. Gordon can’t be utilized to his potential as an athletic finisher becomes there’s a gluttony of bodies at the 4 and 5 and that brings us to our most considerable issue.

An Overloaded Frontcourt

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Hammond’s taste for length followed him from Milwaukee but has thus far failed to reproduce Giannis Antetokounmpo. Instead, they’ve put much of their resources both in the draft and free agency into this same front court.

Last summer, they rewarded Nikola Vucevic with a monstrous four-year deal ($100 million) befitting that of a first-time All-Star. The problem is, the market isn’t exactly overvaluing those incapable of playing more than one position. And as the game continues to accelerate, players like Vucevic may soon find themselves on the outside of the looking in. But the game hasn’t quite passed him by but should you embrace an offense around the skill set of a big like that, it makes more sense to put the ball into his hands a la Nikola Vucevic. Pick-and-rolls between he and Evan Fournier continue as one of the Magic’s most dependable weapons.

Orlando Magic Open Practice Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

But having Vucevic restricts the Magic’s ability to employ 4-5 units of Gordon and Isaac, something the Magic have had little time to experiment with, especially with Mo Bamba, Al-Farouq Aminu (when healthy) and Khem Birch on the bench. Rather than raiding the market for veratile perimeter scoring threats to supplement Terrence Ross and Fournier, the Magic doubled down with their mid-level exception on Aminu, granting him three years, $29.1 million.

To compound the issue, the Magic took a flyer on red-shirt power forward, Chuma Okeke rather than search for developmental talent in the backcourt where they could have nabbed Matisse Thybulle, Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Nassir Little. If they were hellbent on best player available, why not add Brandon Clarke?

Salary Cap Hell

As a result of these moves, the Magic find themselves in a precarious situation. They’ve got $100 million dispersed throughout the roster with imminent decisions on Augustin and Fournier who may and should decline his player option and enter free agency this summer after what has been a career year in points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage and effective field goal percentage. He’s in line for a large payday that should equal the full amount of his current five year, $85 million deal all but tying up the Magic’s books for the next four years.

But therein lies a possiblity even more concerning. Should the cancellation of games impact the 2020-21 salary floor, Fournier may wish to exercise his $17.1 option and push the Magic into what could become the luxury tax, removing their ability to utilize the mid-level exception to add additional talent. The 2020-21 cap is projected at $115 with a luxury threshold of $139 million which should give the Magic plenty of wiggle room if it holds up.

But that’s anyone’s guess at this point.

So, where do they go from here?

Trading Gordon and his remaining two years lies as the best option. The Magic won’t want to deal him but they remain restricted in financial flexibility. Worse still, they’re limited in what they can deal due to overpaying Vucevic and Terrence Ross. They shouldn’t be interested in dealing Fultz or Isaac. Bamba shouldn’t yet fetch his worth as he continues to develop after struggling his rookie year.

But should the Magic even want to trade Gordon? Gordon remains a damn fine player and has arguably plenty of room to grow on the offensive end if the Magic can finally move him to four full-time with bursts at the 5 in small-ball lineups.

They’re in a tough spot to be sure. As a result of what’s occurring in our country and throughout our world, the most likely scenario sees them running it back again while adding Okeke to the mix and some mid-round first who may or may not contribute in what is said to be a weak draft. In a perfect world, the NBA will resume games in early May, the Magic will go on a run and steal two to three games off of second-seeded Toronto in the first round.

Is it Enough?

Should that not be the case, they’ll have considerable questions to answer.

Why bring back Fournier and eliminate long-term flexibility?

How can the Magic break up the logjam in the front court without dispensing assets to do so?

Most importantly, should the Magic be comfortable slipping into the playoffs while playing in the weakest division in the NBA?

The Magic were supposed to take a step forward this season. With a five-man lineup of Fultz - Fournier - Isaac - Gordon - Vucevic they failed to take a step forward. Depending on the actions of this offseason, they may become hamstrung to make any changes going forward.

Is that enough? Have we seen enough to suspect this lineup can find an upward trajectory without a major face lift at any of those five positions?

Circumstance dictates another chance for Hammond and Weltman but it isn’t too early to express concern as to their direction.

Wishing everyone health and happiness during this understandably scary time. Write below what you’d like to read next!

And if you’re opposed to the idea behind this article, instead of offering trivial insults, why not write something positive?! What about this season tells you the Magic are headed in the right direction?! Write below!!