The Orlando Magic organization sent shockwaves around the league and dominated the narrative surrounding Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline with their flurry of early moves that sent center Nikola Vucevic (shockingly), forward Aaron Gordon, guard Evan Fournier, forward Al-Farouq Aminu, and forward Gary Clark out of town.
Vucevic and Aminu were traded to the Chicago Bulls, Gordon and Clark to the Denver Nuggets, and Fournier to the Boston Celtics.
“It’s obviously a major decision for the organization, and one we don’t take lightly (it's been weeks, months discussing this stuff),” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman told reporters during a Friday morning press conference via Zoom. “We didn’t start out on this path coming into this season. We felt that we would be a playoff team (this season) for the third straight year. I actually thought we could be a homecourt team. And actually (it’s funny), now that I see the way the season is playing out in the East, I’m even more in that mind.”
Weltman mentioned the team’s hot start to the 2020-21 season getting derailed by what he described as an “NBA-historic string of injuries”. I found Weltman to be incredibly candid and honest about how things began to change in the front office’s point of view, not just regarding this season, but overall moving forward as an organization. He stressed the importance in the NBA of being able to have the ability to “pivot” when needed as a franchise (and the ability to recognize when something like that was needed), and he explained that the Magic saw this trade deadline as an opportunity to move ahead down a different path.
One of the more obvious and pressing questions that we all anticipated came relatively early in the conference when Weltman was asked whether the return Orlando received from Chicago in exchange for the two-time All-Star (Vucevic) was enough:
“Obviously we thought it was enough, because we did the deal. I will say this, we got two first round picks, which are very coveted assets in today’s NBA. And someone said to me - after the dust settled - that there were only three first round picks conveyed yesterday before the deadline, and they were all conveyed to the Orlando Magic. And we also got Wendell Carter Jr., a soon-to-be 22 year-old young developing player, who is on a rookie contract and has his whole career to unfold in front of him. Those are three significant NBA assets.”
I find it somewhat interesting that after moving Vucevic, the one player that was seemingly blocking former sixth overall pick (2018 NBA Draft) Mohamed Bamba from gaining a sigificant opportunity to show what he can do in the NBA, Weltman brought back another player (in Carter) who is also a center.
Like was the case with Vucevic and Bamba during their time together in Orlando, it doesn’t appear that Carter Jr. and Bamba will be able to share the floor very often (if at all). Remember, Carter was picked seventh overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, one spot after Bamba.
Getting two first round picks from Chicago in the deal was nice, and the 2021 pick in particular is very likely to convey (here's to hoping that the Bulls somehow miss out on the playoffs, but fail to secure a top-4 pick in the lottery - best case scenario). But with two years remaining on his contract after this season, I think the very legitimate question still remains: why now? Did Vucevic approach management privately and request to be moved? Weltman was asked that very question Friday morning, but he declined to answer it, instead responding that he wouldn’t ever consider making public those kinds of private conversations.
I asked Jeff Weltman Friday morning in the call with reporters about the return he received from Boston in the Fournier deal, and the traded player exception (TPE) Orlando created in the process:
“Without drilling too much into mechanics, a traded player exception can be a very valuable asset, as we saw yesterday when the Boston Celtics were able to acquire Evan Fournier. That being said, Evan was on an expiring contract. Evan will play for them (Boston) for two months, and then he will become an unrestricted free agent (they will have his Bird Rights). We were in a position coming into this season where we valued Evan’s Bird Rights, because Evan is a good player (and a good guy). But as we looked at what we were doing, in the larger scheme of yesterday, we felt that it didn’t make sense to make those other two trades (Vucevic and Gordon) and not move Evan. So at that point, as we (struck out) on this path, the theory is – let’s get what we can for Evan. And you know, two second round picks, they’ll always have value. And the trade exception could be of significant value, but you never know – we will see what it becomes.”
In my opinion, this was a rather surprising answer from Weltman, While it’s not out of the ordinary for a traded veteran player in the final months of a contract to recoup very little value in comparison to their production on the court, his answer almost sounded as if dealing Fournier - of the three players that were moved - was the final move seemingly just thrown together in the moment. Weltman mentioned that he valued owning Fournier’s Bird Rights (or did at one point), and it’s not like the future second round picks that were acquired in the deal from Boston are anything to write home about.
Perhaps the Magic were content - at least going into Thursday - with holding onto Fournier (and risk losing him in free agency)? But once the deals for Vucevic and Gordon became more serious, then at that point dealing Fournier became more of a “no-brainer”. Or maybe Weltman and co. had already established Fournier’s market (second round picks), and they knew they could get a deal like that at anytime? Therefore they moved on to focusing on other moves first (Vucevic, Gordon), then came back to the framework they had established with Boston afterwards (including the TPE worth $17 million).
Another takeaway from Weltman’s Zoom conference was how excited he was to be able to acquire both Carter Jr. (from the Bulls) and R.J. Hampton (from the Nuggets). Weltman mentioned a couple of times about the ‘glowing’ reports he received regarding Carter Jr.’s professionalism, character, and overall persona. Weltman reminded reporters that even though he’s already in his third NBA season, Carter Jr. is still only 21 years-old.
And when it came to Hampton, Weltman lit up with excitement - mentioning his speed, athleticism, length, versatility, and ‘untapped’ potential moving forward. Orlando’s president recalled Hampton’s journey from high school basketball to playing professionally in New Zealand, and even how his limited NBA sample-size of playing time might be contributing to the fact that he considers Hampton to be a bit “under the radar”.
One quickly got the sense that both Carter Jr. and Hampton were more than just throw-ins to these deals yesterday, but rather specific players that had been heavily targeted by Orlando’s front office. And once these specific players were added to the frameworks of these two deals, that’s when things started to progress.
Later in the morning, Magic head coach Steve Clifford talked to reporters about the transition period the Orlando Magic are about to embark upon, starting tonight with the Portland Trail Blazers in town (a contest in which the Magic will only have eight players available).
Ultimately, the conversation came back around to the players who are not with the team anymore, and what Clifford’s initial reactions were when the news started to break yesterday that he lost eighty percent of his starting lineup from the previous evening’s contest:
“At the end of the day (when you reflect back), the thing to feel good about is - and I talked to all three of them about this yesterday - we went from a franchise with the worst winning percentage over the last six years in the NBA to a team that made two playoff runs. We became more relevant, and I know we’re respected around the league (more now) because of the way those guys played. And they should feel good about that.”
Clifford did acknowledge that while things have turned around in Orlando, he also understands that teams are measured in the NBA by the success they have in the playoffs (not just getting there). He actually cited his time coaching as an assistant on Stan Van Gundy’s staff as the most fun he’s ever had coaching at any level (because of their Finals run, the playoff success in that era, etc.).
Similar to Weltman’s tone earlier in the day, it very much sounded like Clifford had an understanding of Orlando’s ceiling as it was previously constructed. Although I will admit, Clifford seemed noticeably less energized by the franchise’s change in direction and complete roster overhaul than Weltman was.
In fact, I asked Coach Clifford about his level of concern moving forward with a very young roster, but without veterans such as Vucevic, Fournier, and Gordon (and specifically, the attention they demanded from opposing teams, opening up opportunities for others on the floor), and if he thought the shuffling-out of quality veteran players would negatively affect or slow the development of young players within the organization:
“That’s a great question, and it will play out. As guys went down this year - I told Jeff and John this, and I talked to the staff about it - you have to be careful about evaluating guys when they are playing on teams that are a little bit outmatched. You bring up ‘Vooch’, Vooch helps everyone else play better by the very nature of how he is on the floor. Great decision-maker, shooting range, can pass the ball from the post - there are not many guys like him. So he not only creates space for everybody else, but he makes plays that make the game easier for everyone else (and I think that’s what you’re alluding to). And that’s totally true.
I do think something you have to do, you have to be careful. The one thing you never want to do at any level - high school, college, or the NBA - is you don’t want to misevaluate your own roster. You want to have an exact idea of where your players are. And that by the way is why shootarounds are important, practice is important - because that’s where you can see who’s a quick learner (and who’s a mistake player), all of those things (and watch a lot of film).
We are going to be younger, I think guys like Otto Porter (hopefully), Gary Harris, they can do for the younger guys a lot of the things Vooch did for them (Khem Birch can in a certain way). You definitely need that, and I think it’s wise to understand that there could be some tough stretches in games when you have all younger guys on the floor. Listen, this league can bring you to your knees, and when you watch the playoffs (deep), there’s usually not a lot of young guys out there. That doesn’t mean they can’t make good progress (young players). It just means you have to be careful how you evaluate them sometimes.
I found Clifford’s response to my question to be incredibly thorough and accurate. Everyone on this roster will be continually evaluated for as long as it takes the team to go through another rebuilding era.
And things will be ugly for a while. Young players will be coached hard, they will likely be overmatched at times, and they’ll make mistakes.
But there was no question Friday morning, after listening to both executive and head coach, that the Orlando Magic are comfortable, self-aware, and completely cognizant of who they are as an NBA franchise at this very moment.
Again, I will really taken aback by how honest and candid Weltman (in particular) was about the change he felt the franchise was in need of. He mentioned how things could’ve potentially gotten ‘stale”, he stressed that some of the team’s veteran players weren’t getting any younger, and for the first time - he acknowledged that a Vucevic/Fournier/Gordon led team had a ceiling (and we know what that ceiling is, a low-seed and a first round exit).
We know what that ceiling is, but it was surprising to hear the team’s top executive acknowledge the fact as well.
“Our fans know we are a team that is patient,” Weltman said Friday morning. “We won’t put a timeline on anything. We’ll use every avenue to build a winning team. Our goal, since I got here, has been to build a sustainable winning team. We have a lot of different ways to improve.”
They know what needs to be done (draft well, continue to develop young players, continue to collect assets and draft capital), and now they are once again asking Magic fans for just a little more patience.