Welcome to the first in a new series that aims to keep the basketball conversation flowing as we patiently wait for the games to return. With each entry I’ll be zeroing in on a different player, examining a key talking point to emerge from either the wins and losses already banked, the looming playoffs, or the seasons still to come. Expect a little less in the way of statistical deep dives as we head more in the direction of dialogue, debate, conjecture, and prognostications. Let’s get started!
Hypothesis: the Magic should be hoping that Evan Fournier opts out
The case in favor
On the surface this seems like a tough sell. Fournier is coming off perhaps the best campaign of his career, is one of the team’s most trusted offensive options, and will still be just 28 years old when next season starts. His contract — $17 million per year — is hefty yet reasonable, having aged better than most that were inked during the orgiastic spending spree that was the summer of 2016. His absence would also leave a glaring void on the roster, without an immediately obvious way of replacing his output. Why on earth would any Magic fan want to risk losing the two-guard for nothing?
Although a tough sell, it’s far from an impossible one. Despite a bounce back year scoring the ball, Fournier did struggle in other elements of the game where the Magic traditionally count on him: namely, clutch possessions and playmaking. I’ve chronicled his crunch time ineffectiveness previously: his failure to fire in the final five minutes of close games was a recurring problem across 2019/20, starkly contrasted with the success enjoyed by his teammate, Markelle Fultz. It might simply be that the role he’s played recently is better filled by others on the roster. Elsewhere, in terms of playmaking he was one of the least efficient options among the starters, with a lower assist percentage than Fultz, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, and a worse turnover rate than both Vooch and AG.
There’s also the general feeling that his play doesn’t totally mesh with some of the other athletes that the Magic are heavily invested in. It’s no secret that when the pace picked up that so did the team’s offensive output, and traditionally Fournier has been much more comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll game in a settled halfcourt. The Magic didn’t really miss a beat when he was sidelined for the final three games with injury, running up the score in some of the side’s most explosive and comprehensive victories of the season in spite of his absence. While pace and space would theoretically create game situations in which Fournier and his skillset could thrive, he just hasn’t demonstrated the inclination to play that way. And we all know what they say about established dogs and systemic changes to the tricks they’ve been performing for years.
Perhaps most condemning of all, Fournier is emblematic of a team already pushing up against its ceiling. In the same way that his game is largely a finished product at this stage, so too is the middling performance of this current roster. If the team stays largely as is, it’s difficult to envision a world where anything more than a .500 record and a first round exit is possible; for many fans, that’s not enough. Fournier opting out would force the Magic brass to start making some of the hard decisions that will better position the team for sustainable and potentially elevated levels of success in the years to come.
The case against
A pretty good starting point for the case to keep Fournier in pinstripes can actually be cribbed from where the opposing argument opened: he’s still young, perhaps the team’s most essential cog on offense, and just banked his best season yet. He also represents a known quality, both in terms of how he fits as a piece on the roster and in relation to what his services will cost. The Magic will be going into this offseason with limited financial flexibility regardless of Fournier’s choice, so it seems simple that having the sweet-shooting wing on board would be better than not. Dance with the devil you know, particularly when that devil shoots north of 40% from deep.
The major problem that the loss of Fournier would pose is the team’s relative inability to replace his production in any meaningful way. As a result of the current health crisis the looming free agency period is an unknown quantity in many ways; no one’s totally sure how much money teams are going to be able to spend, or even how willing they will be to cough up dollars when the salary cap is settled. Also to consider is the fact that the available talent at the two-guard spot is so thin that Fournier is almost certainly the best unrestricted option with a chance of seeing the market. Again, why would any team be hoping to lose the best available asset from their roster?
Also not to be overlooked in this discussion is the fact that Fournier was, for all intents and purposes, Orlando’s only credible and consistent long-range threat this season. Consider what I said when I made the slightly hyperbolic case for him as the league’s MVP:
The Magic’s two-guard finished 21st league-wide in terms of three-point accuracy, and while that might seem a long way from a rank befitting an MVP case, consider this: to remove Fournier’s field goal percentage on triples from the Orlando lineup would see the team plummet from their current standing as an insipid three-point shooting team (25th league-wide on 34.1%) to truly awful (32.4%, a figure which would be good for dead last). In fact, one would have to go back five years to find a team that shot worse than the hypothetically Fournier-less Magic (the 2015-16 Lakers). In a rapidly evolving game he’s the only thing keeping the team from resembling a relic of a bygone era.
Ouch. Without Fournier the Magic’s offensive profile would be better suited to 2003 than the current day, a stark warning of what may come to pass if he leaves town. The team would also lose the 2-5 pick-and-roll action they lean on so heavily, suggesting that the Frenchman’s exit could also deflate the value of another central piece of the roster in Nikola Vucevic. Without an obvious avenue for replacement — let alone improvement! — the team would almost certainly be in a better spot in 2021 should Fournier pick up the final year on his deal.
There’s also one other sneaky factor that could tilt the debate in this side’s favor: the primary way that Orlando can generate an immediate and tangible return for Fournier’s departure is via a deal before the 2021 trade deadline. The only way that happens, obviously, is if he’s on the roster in the first place. If Evan packs his bags for elsewhere this coming offseason, the Magic are likely going to be left with a whole lot of nothing to show for it. Instead, if he opts in maybe they can flip him in the future for some draft capital or a reasonable asset.
If Fournier were to opt out and make his way elsewhere during the upcoming offseason, the Magic would certainly struggle to replicate his contributions. In fact, the team would almost assuredly be worse, perhaps significantly so. Maybe they even tumble back into the depths of the lottery. However, the severance of this tie would indicate a firm commitment and transition to a new core, one that — with a little luck, of course — offers a potentially higher ceiling in the years to come.
As I’ve written before, I don’t believe that Orlando’s current nucleus is one worth being locked into if the goal is meaningful contention. As it stands, the easiest way for the Magic to move on and forge a new way forward is via a Fournier opt out. It won’t be pretty in the short term, but it begins the transition of the team to those that best represent the future: Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba. For this reason, fans can’t be faulted for hoping that the Fournier walks.
Yanking off bandaids sucks at the best of times. But at least this way the Magic would be forced to take action.