Well, here we are. Again.
The flurry of deadline activity on Thursday was genuinely shocking for fans of the Magic, with a series of trades stripping the roster down almost to the bolts and leaving it largely unrecognizable. The long-time core — Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier — were all gone, each jettisoned in separate deals that brought back varying degrees of young assets and draft capital. The Magic, as we knew them only days ago, are no more.
In their place is the latest rebuild, this one the third or fourth phase of a seemingly interminable quest to once again construct a winner — or even just a competent playoff outfit — in Central Florida.
We can quibble about whether the return was worth it in the days and eventually seasons to come (and don’t worry, we will - trade analyses are on the horizon), but right now there are better questions that require answers; namely, why and why now?
It’s fair to say that a significant portion of the Magic fanbase has been agitating for change for quite some time, a vantage point from which Thursday’s deals look like a long-awaited and much-needed eventuality. Orlando were languishing aimlessly at 15-29 on the season, too banged up and bad to challenge for a meaningful playoff spot yet anchored to a roster that was choked by the salary cap both now and in the seasons to come. These moves provide clarity and purpose in regards to those circumstances.
Vooch, AG and the man who must never be Googled (unless, of course, he insists you do) were, simply put, the triumvirate who could never drag the Magic to any great heights. The 2019 playoff appearance was a wonderful temporary salve to an ailing fanbase, but it also emphasized the painful limitations of this core: an All-Star leap, personal bests and blessed health combined to lift the team to the status of … first round roadkill. As a ceiling it was unenviable at best, depressing at worst.
To be clear, the intent of this is not to pin the blame for the franchise’s recent failings squarely on the shoulders of this trio. They generally left it all out there on the hardwood, frequently being asked to produce in a way that would make up for the paucity of talent elsewhere. They were over-taxed and under-equipped, a brutally dangerous combination that goes a long way towards explaining the grand total of two playoff wins in eight years.
Instead, the blame lies with the square peg roster that Orlando’s front office repeatedly tried to ram into the round hole rebuild. Competing timelines, questionable choices, talent deficiencies and redundant skill sets resulted in a collection of players who were simply never going to coalesce into a competent and sustainable winning formula. In laying an uneven foundation the team’s decision makers also ultimately installed a lower than promised ceiling.
From that perspective it’s easy to understand why the reset button was finally smashed on Thursday. This is a team that had largely maxed out its fortunes with recent back-to-back first round exits and was about to lock itself into a hopeless short-term future with a loaded cap sheet. There was no realistic way for this core to meaningfully improve upon their lackluster best.
Orlando was already in a tailspin and headed for the lottery, but they’re now positioned to be major players at an event that has the capacity to seismically shift a franchise’s fortunes. And although some will undoubtedly criticize and point to the flattened odds for losing teams, the fact remains that any improvement to the chance of nabbing a foundational superstar is better than no improvement at all.
These moves finally give the Magic some hope moving forward, no matter how indeterminate that future happens to currently be. Bluntly, Orlando was going nowhere. Now, at least, there’s a direction taking shape.
So if the current state of the team definitively answers the ‘why?’ part of our earlier question, what does asking ‘why now?’ illuminate?
Some of the earlier failings mentioned are not factors that only became known once injury decimated the side this season. Instead, they’ve been readily apparent for years: we’ve known that the team lacks shooting and secondary playmaking; we’ve known that the focus on defense has come at the expense of a modern offense; we’ve known that players were cannibalizing each other’s opportunities due to positional overlap.
What was also known was that the team failed to pick a path, re-signing veterans while at the same time extending the youth, thereby locking down the side’s financial flexibility and taking away another avenue by which they may have been able to accumulate talent. The team they had was the team they were stuck with. March 25, 2021 is simply the date that the bill came due.
Some unforeseen external factors also forced the front office’s hand. When it became known that Gordon had requested a trade and that Fournier wouldn’t be re-signing, the Magic were left with no other real options. Orlando couldn’t risk losing the pair for nothing in the space of twelve months, and so the looming possibility of a significant rebuild was made a guarantee.
One has to imagine that this is also what changed the equation with Vooch. It’s believable that the team wanted to hold onto their two-time All-Star, betting on the return of Isaac and Fultz and a single offseason reset to get the team back in the playoff mix. It’s also believable that they recognized the long odds of such an outcome, and that when a colleague came knocking with an acceptable offer they pivoted away and pounced on the opportunity.
This was likely the right time to move on from Vucevic. He’s putting up impressive numbers but moving into the back half of his prime, and with a team-controlled contract for a few seasons yet that improves his attractiveness. The haul they returned in the deal — multiple firsts, a young lottery pick and an enormous expiring contract — undoubtedly represents a win for the front office. It’s not equal on-court value, sure, but that’s not an actual possibility in deals like this; instead, the Magic secured draft capital, assets, flexibility and opportunity in the years to come. That’s pretty good.
But can the same be said of the deals for AG and Fournier? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no. By maintaining faith in the awkward dream of this roster Orlando whiffed on the chance to get anything even close to value. A choice regarding the direction of the franchise really should have been made soon after the Toronto series, when both the limitations of the team and the salary crunch of the looming future were clearly evident.
The result? A protected first, a pair of second rounders, a young guard with 233 total minutes to his name, an injured veteran and a trade exception. For two of Orlando’s three best players. Ouch.
This is the aspect of yesterday that ultimately frustrates. It’s been apparent for a while that the Magic needed to be reconstructed, but by waiting until now the team actively damaged their chances of expediting that process. The nuking of a team that didn’t work was the right decision. Waiting until the bitter end to pull the trigger, however, was a problem.
Despite being concerned with some elements of the eventual execution, that Orlando has finally committed to a specific team-building strategy is a good thing. In fact, if one starts sipping the optimistic Kool-Aid it’s possible to picture a frisky side as early as next season or the one thereafter. Particularly if the ping pong balls bounce favorably.
The Hennigan rebuild is dead. So too is the Weltman salvage job. Now we hope that the next iteration is the one that finally breathes life back into the Magic.