Has an NBA team ever played a game and then less than 12 hours later traded 80 percent of its starting lineup?
Because that’s exactly what the Orlando Magic did on Thursday, with Michael Carter-Williams being the lone starter remaining from the Magic’s win over the Suns on Wednesday night.
The Magic ran it back for years, and then blew it up in minutes. The front office gave one-way tickets out of town to a trio that had been together in Orlando since 2014, sending Nikola Vucevic to Chicago, Evan Fournier to Boston, and Aaron Gordon to Denver.
The core was dismantled. Rightfully so since that core has been on a never-ending path to nowhere.
The jarring part isn’t the dismantling itself — shocking as it may be that a two-time All-Star somewhat unexpectedly was sent packing — it’s that the Magic have very little of a tangible nature to show for it compared to what they gave up. That’s not to say in any way that the trades were a failure, because they weren’t.
But you can’t buy a Traded Player Exception jersey. Well, I guess you technically can have one made and it would actually be pretty funny. Nevertheless, after these trades, the Orlando Magic are no longer the basketball team you see on the court. The Magic are draft picks, and salary cap flexibility, and ACL rehabs, and hope.
Younger Orlando Magic fans, if there are any of those, perhaps haven’t been through this before. A veteran of the Orlando Magic fire sale like myself and many others who have lived and died and rebuilt with the Magic since the early 1990s, have seen this movie twice before. First during the summer of 1999 when the final pieces of the Shaq and Penny era were traded away for pennies on the dollar (we didn’t know it at the time but it would turn into the beloved “Heart and Hustle” Magic team), and then again during the summer of 2012 when the Dwightmare reached its merciful conclusion (we didn’t know it at the time but a mere throw-in would go on to become a two-time All-Star and the franchise leader in field goals made). Those situations were somewhat different because it was the official closing of the window for former contending teams.
This current Magic team is rebuilding a rebuild’s rebuild, with just one winning season and two playoff cameos thrown in.
Once that reset button is pressed, it brings about second guessing, and emptiness and an odd mix of sentimentality and anger. To be incredibly overdramatic for a moment, it’s the sports equivalent of coming home to find that your spouse has been robbed, leaving you in an empty house to pick up the pieces and ponder the future.
The future, for a team like the Magic, is constantly uncertain. It has been since Dwight Howard left, it will be for the next few years at least, perhaps more so than ever with the team pinning its hopes on lottery balls and the healthy returns of Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
But, at the very least, there is hope.
That’s something that was lacking while Vucevic was in Orlando. As good as he was the last few years, there never was a sense of legitimate hope for the Magic’s future while he was on the team. Never a realistic chance that their ceiling went any higher than the first round of the playoffs. Wasn’t his fault. He was a victim of circumstance and years of poor decision-making. Same to a lesser degree for Gordon and Fournier.
Sometimes the only way to regain a sense of hope is to tear it all down and build from the ground up, something the Magic should have done years ago rather than putting unnecessary importance on ending their postseason drought to take part in a pair of lopsided first-round series. When a team does so, the return doesn’t look great on paper, and it might look even worse on the court.
It’s an ugly road ahead. The trades made on Thursday were completed to make this year’s team a lot worse, and they won’t exactly make next year’s team much better. Unless this group is the second coming of the “Heart and Hustle” Magic, we probably won’t see competitive basketball in Orlando until at best the 2022-2023 season. The hope is that, until then, the best-case scenario plays out.
That means hoping for a top-three pick in the 2021 lottery (praying).
It means hoping the Bulls somehow miss the playoffs (Sorry, Vooch!) and end up with the fifth pick in the 2021 draft (long shot, more likely a mid-round pick).
It means hoping that the Magic front office makes the right decision with these draft picks and others acquired on Thursday (concerning given their history).
It means hoping that at least one of their trio of guards — Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton — becomes All-Star caliber (possible).
It means hoping that Jonathan Isaac returns and becomes the best defensive player in the league (probable).
It means hoping that Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba — two underperforming but still raw centers picked one after the other in the 2018 draft — emerges as a legitimate starting five (safe to say we won’t be seeing Vooch-like production from the center position anytime soon, but that shouldn’t be the expectation).
It means hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.
Because the Magic didn’t trade away their entire starting lineup for Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton and Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. and Jeff Teague and first and second round picks and a $17 million Traded Player Exception.
They traded them for hope.