We’re closing in on one of the most talked about dates on the NBA calendar, the annual trade deadline. Set to close at 3 p.m. ET this Thursday, the next few days promise to be a whirlwind of rumors and speculation that eventually give way to a slew of confirmed deals that realign the remainder of the season and beyond. Gear up for some fun!
For the Magic, this deadline again promises the opportunity to improve the franchise’s fortunes. Whether or not that will come to fruition remains to be seen, but it’s a possibility that all fans of the team can currently talk themselves into. But what exactly would a realistic expectation be heading into this significant mid-season date? What might influence the process? What thoughts will be rattling around in the heads of the decision makers?
A quick disclaimer: this isn’t a column about the pitching of trade proposals. I’m willing to bet that there are people reading this who are way more creative in that regard than I am, and I’ll assuredly be checking the comments to see what they come up with! Instead, the aim is to illuminate some of the thinking and contextual factors that might influence the process. Let’s set the trade table in anticipation of the deadline’s main course.
(And in keeping with that culinary metaphor: Editor-in-Pinstripes, Mike Cali, outlined an early AG trade menu for our consideration, whie our Aaron Goldstone prepared a dish that delivers seven deadline targets that make sense for the Magic. Enjoy!)
A numbers crunch
Before we start dreaming of a Woj Bomb deadline explosion we should probably consider the constraints that will limit any potential shakeup by the Magic. In this case, it’s a relatively straightforward affair: the ties that bind start and end with the salary cap.
For the looming 2021/22 season teams are projected to have a shade over $112 million to spend. As currently constituted Orlando will open the offseason as an over the cap team, courtesy of a bottom line that figures to stand at $118.5 million for 12 players once Al-Farouq Aminu opts in (and, to be clear, he will). That’s right, without even a single made move Orlando is already positioned to be a top-ten payroll team.
Next summer the front office could slice off some of this figure by trimming away the Dwayne Bacon fat, but seeing as it wouldn’t be enough to get below the tax line it generates little benefit. Instead, they’ll be thinking about how to use the $18 million that stands between their current salary circumstances and the luxury tax threshold of approximately $136.6 million.
Now, almost $20 million in disposable income sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but there’s a few other factors that further complicate things. Firstly, newly selected draft picks can expect to soak up some of that space, particularly considering Orlando’s current slide into the depths of the lottery. Additionally, the Magic are three players short of a complete roster, which means they’ll be spreading the funds across a handful of bodies. Finally, as an over-the-tax team they’ll be limited to offering any prospective free agents the mid-level exception available to teams who haven’t yet hit the luxury, a figure just in excess of $10 million per year.
Oh, and did I mention that all of these calculations are arrived at courtesy of the absence of Evan Fournier? I probably should have, because no matter how divisive the guard might be among Magic fandom he’s still Orlando’s best outside shooter, and a player for whom there’s seemingly no clear internal replacement. It’s worth keeping in mind.
As such, any potential wheeling and dealing this week must be done with the team’s salary cap circumstances firmly front and center. It’s not just about moving the needle now, but also about understanding how any transactions would impact the bottom line moving forward. Make no mistake, a quiet deadline will leave the Magic with limited avenues to improve the team next season. A noisy one, however, has the potential to even further hamstring the side. The decision makers will need to tread carefully.
What does this mean for this week?
If the Magic are to make a move in the days to come it has to be such that it both positions the side for greater success down the line while also accounting for the reality of the team’s salary cap circumstances. It’s almost certainly not an easy tightrope to navigate.
The best place to start any breakdown seems to be in the backcourt. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Fournier already has one foot out the door, so the desire to extricate some value from a soon to be lost asset makes sense. However, any return that features similarly sized non-expiring salary only serves to squeeze the team’s cap circumstances tighter in the years to come. If the Magic are bringing in a long-term piece they’d better be damn sure that it fits the puzzle.
An answer to that potential conundrum could perhaps be found by shuffling some of the other deck chairs, albeit to a location beyond Central Florida. Aaron Gordon, who reportedly made a formal trade request to Jeff Weltman in February, and Terrence Ross are veterans sure to appeal to a number of playoff contenders, so moving either for a player on an expiring deal would give the team a little breathing room either when making a deal elsewhere or in the looming summer. Aminu and Mo Bamba could also come into play in this regard, although such transactions would likely be made more difficult by either external disinterest or internal hesitancy, respectively.
Regardless of the particulars, the acquisition of expiring money in any deal naturally depresses the talent or draft capital otherwise attached — the cash saved is the benefit, after all. If Orlando is saving dollars in a deal, it’s unfair to expect much else of team-building value. However, maybe it could be argued that clearing the books is actually the most effective way for the Magic to position themselves for success moving forward. An immediate step back in terms of the overall talent pool, sure, but one that provides the opportunity for a greater improvement at some point in the short term future.
So, to recap: the player most likely to leave town is also one that the team has no internal replacement for, while the expiration of the dollars owed him is the only thing keeping the team from already being in the luxury tax next year. A like-for-like trade leaves the team in a financial bind, but if he walks the cupboard is bare. There’s also an implicit irony here, that a team with so many duplicate skill sets and positional overlaps is now faced with an awkward quandary related to probably the most uniquely situated player currently on the roster. Oh, and they need both on-court talent and financial flexibility, but lack the assets to comfortably acquire either. The Rubik’s Cube continues to confound…
An accusation leveled at the front office in recent times is that of indecisiveness, the result of tangled timelines, an extended evaluation period, and an ultimately unclear vision for the team. It’s that final observation — a purposeful vision — that needs to be most deliberately addressed for the long term health of the franchise; when Thursday’s deadline passes it should be evident where the team is headed. So what are the primary aims? Let’s consider some potential lines of thought.
Address the roster imbalance: for many, the most important thing is that the Magic’s front office re-balances the team’s current playing rotation and depth pieces. We’ve spoken before about how heavy the team is at the four and the five, with literally a starting unit’s worth of players who are best suited to the power forward slot. It’s reflective of both poor and unsustainable management, and the bill is coming due imminently. The team needs to squeeze more out of what they actually have if they’re going to win now.
If Orlando could turn this surplus of bigs into some sort of shooting and playmaking help on the wings, they would be both maximizing the potential effectiveness of their own assets while also repositioning themselves for the playoff chase as early as next year. The current calculations aren’t producing winning basketball, but perhaps it’s just a matter of a slightly revised formula. That process must start with a trade that disentangles the current disorder.
Unclog the salary cap: there’s a belief amongst some who watch the team closely that the Magic should be circling seasons a little further down the line as the revised target for meaningful playoff contention. It’s a view born of the belief that the foundation is ultimately too shaky to salvage, with the side in need of a significant rebuild as opposed to a minor renovation. To navigate such a future, however, requires the books to be relatively clean.
If that’s the case it would be prudent to slap the ‘for sale’ sign on players like AG and Aminu, as well as some of the longer term deals like Ross and Bamba (with his qualifying offer). Accumulate draft capital, reduce the financial commitments, and position the team to come out swinging in 2022/23.
Lob a hail mary: it’s clear that the front office values the team that they’ve constructed and believe them a competitive playoff outfit, health permitting. If that’s truly the case, maybe it’s time to double down and see this thing through to a conclusion way one or another. With a juicy pick likely coming in an apparently loaded draft, could the Magic get some traction on a discussion around Bradley Beal? Would a gamble on a rehabbed Klay Thompson lift the ceiling of the side next year? Might Portland’s recent success result in their reevaluating just how much they require CJ McCollum? Is Zach LaVine a genuine difference maker that could be pried free? Could Victor Oladipo be convinced to accept a homecoming and, if so, might he rediscover his previous All-Star self?
These suggestions range from unlikely to unpalatable, but they’re illuminating in that they reveal a course of action not talked about too much in Magic circles. If the decision makers genuinely believe they’ve got a sustainable winning foundation in place, why not go all in on proving the evaluation accurate? Out there in the multiverse surely exists a world in which Orlando bundles draft picks and an intriguing piece or two of their own for a genuine difference maker.
A crystal ball
Something you’ll notice in the discussion above is that there are two suggestions deliberately not made: ‘stay the course’ and ‘scorched earth’. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum, and neither feels particularly appropriate to the Magic as currently constructed. Orlando’s decision makers have just about reached the point of no return when it comes to an evaluation of the current core, with decisions looming regardless of whether they’re confident in making them or not. Likewise, there’s too much undeniable talent — locked in to long term money, to boot — to think that a complete tear down is the best move. Instead, as it so often is, the most prudent course of action is somewhere in the middle.
I can’t predict with confidence what’s going to take place with the Magic this week. However, it does feel like the team is reaching a moment of reckoning, an inflection point that will shape the fortunes of the franchise in the seasons to come. The front office has stood pat too frequently in recent history to make such a course an acceptable position once again, but they’ve also managed to accrue enough intriguing pieces to warrant an approach that doesn’t see the baby thrown out with the bath water.
Regardless, expect the first domino in Orlando’s next phase to fall in the next few days. If Fournier is moved as expected, the return will signal whether the plan is to re-enter the playoff chase immediately or recalibrate for a later run. The potential for other veterans to exit — AG, Ross, Aminu, Birch, Ennis — will also ultimately be revealing in terms of what comes back the other way; draft capital, youth, cap flexibility or established veterans?
There’s a common saying about repeated behavior, the expectation of different results, and madness. The Magic are in need of a change. Let’s hope that this is the week the team can chart a deliberate course for the future that promises both clarity and more.