It’s been a long time since the Orlando Magic have held a prominent place in the NBA’s cultural zeitgeist. The post-Dwight years haven’t been kind to fans of the franchise, with the decade since producing exactly one winning season, two cameos as first round roadkill, a few criminally bad transactions, a fistful of Draft-related heartbreaks, and an average of just 27.5 wins per season.
Some recent dashes of good fortune, however, have seemingly provided the side a chance to establish a meaningful trajectory moving forward. First they crushed the Nikola Vucevic trade, returning a haul that they turned into Franz Wagner in the middle of the lottery and Wendell Carter Jr. on a team-friendly deal moving forward. Lottery luck then gifted the Magic the first overall pick in an intriguing draft, the team selecting Paolo Banchero and generating some genuine hope for success in the seasons to come.
Orlando should be noticeably improved in 2022/23. However, they won’t be threatening the oddsmakers when it comes to the title. Likewise, they almost certainly won’t be a playoff team, nor are they even likely to feature in the play-in tournament. The team is, understandably, just too young, and currently lacking in the top-tier talent that sides require for such a breakthrough.
But is there a move the Magic could make that would significantly improve the odds of such an outcome in the next few seasons?
One of the few questions still lingering over the NBA offseason regards the fate of Utah’s All-Star guard, Donovan Mitchell. The Rudy Gobert trade first signaled the Jazz’s intention to tear their roster apart and rebuild, and that the dynamic backcourt scorer still resides in Salt Lake is likely only because Danny Ainge hasn’t yet received an offer that aligns with his demands.
So, shouldn’t the Magic be the team looking to be that dance partner?
The case in favor of this would appear to be incredibly simple – Mitchell is already an elite young backcourt player, maybe not quite at an All-NBA level but inarguably somewhere among the top 25 players league-wide. He’s a multi-faceted scorer who has already compiled an individual resume of playoff effectiveness, with a physical profile that speaks to the potential for defensive improvement in the right circumstances. Also, he just so happens to be under contract for an incredibly reasonable figure relative to his talents for the next three seasons.
It’s difficult to envision a player who would more comfortably fit with what the Magic already have cooking in Central Florida. This is a team in dire need of some backcourt punch, preferably an elite offensive option who can operate as a high-level ball-handler and brilliant individual scorer. In short, Orlando needs a player exactly like Donovan Mitchell.
We know that the Magic are eventually going to have to commit to a specific vision of this roster, and that in doing so it’s going to require the consolidation of some of the youth already in pinstripes. They can’t keep everyone, nor should they want to because of the deficiencies that obviously still exist. It’s clear that, as is, there’s not enough bona fide talent to commit to keeping the extended core of this crew together.
Any potential Mitchell trade wouldn’t simply be a win-now move that accelerates the team’s timeline in such a way that the transaction becomes a boom or bust scenario. Instead, it would position the Magic to win in the near future, with some free agency and trade market opportunities still available to the team as they continue to revise and refine the roster.
A question that the decision-makers in the front office should be asking themselves is whether or not Mitchell represents their best chance of landing a meaningfully elite talent between now and 2025. The answer to which is, almost certainly, a resounding yes. Is there anyone else on the roster that will ever be as good as Mitchell is right now? Paolo Banchero could absolutely get there. The most optimistic of ceilings for Franz Wagner probably projects to be somewhere near to that mark. Still, neither is a slam dunk, even if in the long run they both happen to establish themselves as very, very good.
Even with that caveat, that’s it. Two guys with a chance but neither of whom is an absolute guarantee. The Magic could achieve something close to a best-case scenario with their pair of valued youngsters, and the team would still likely need another high-level talent to vault into genuine contention. The Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes are a chance to secure that guy now.
Because if not in a trade, then where might the Magic find such a roster upgrade? It feels like the draft as an avenue via which Orlando could add an elite player is probably closed for the time being. In stinking for two straight years the team ended up with three swings either at or close to the top of the order; all things considered, the return of Banchero, Wagner and Jalen Suggs made for a solid haul. However, Orlando shouldn’t be as woeful moving forward, which immediately shrinks the odds of this path bearing the necessary fruit.
Likewise, free agency also doesn’t represent a sure-fire solution to this problem. The Magic project to have ample cap space as early as next offseason, but who exactly could they bring in at that junction who would make as big of an impact as Mitchell would? Unfair perception or not, history has regularly shown that Orlando doesn’t really rate as a key destination for top tier targets on the move. Names like Grant, McGrady, Hill and Lewis demonstrate that it’s certainly possible for the Magic to reel in a big fish from time to time, but a look at the looming options means it’s difficult to see how that route delivers a winner. Does D’Angelo Russell excite? Fred Van Vleet? James Harden or – good grief – Kyrie Irving?! For many reasons Mitchell would far and away be at the head of that pack.
As such, the Magic should be doing just about whatever they can to realize the prospect of adding a player such as Mitchell. This is a team that has the capacity to build the type of package that the Jazz are undoubtedly chasing. Orlando owns all of its own first rounders moving forward, as well as a pair of others incoming from the Bulls and the Nuggets, respectively. Aside from the untouchable Banchero and Wagner, they have potential-laden youngsters like Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony still on favorable rookie deals. There are also veterans with cost-friendly contracts like Gary Harris and Terrence Ross who can be used to balance the numbers of a deal as required.
Let’s say that a theoretical deal, built primarily around draft capital in the form of picks and swaps, delivers Mitchell to the Magic. It’s easy enough to envision a permutation of such a trade that leaves the team with a starting unit of the newly arrived All-Star two-guard alongside Banchero, Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Markelle Fultz with, say, Isaac, Bamba, Ross, Hampton and Houstan on the bench (feel free to mix and match the second-stringers who will remain according to your own preferences).
Doesn’t that feel like, in the years to come, a team ready to make some noise in the playoffs?
It’s probably true that the time isn’t precisely perfect for the Magic to be pushing their chips in now in a bid to win. The team is young, only healthy for the first time, and obviously uncertain as to what Paolo and Franz can ultimately become. However, the fact of the matter is that when opportunity knocks you’re usually best-served to answer the call, because there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get a second chance to pounce.
Donovan Mitchell represents an opportunity for the Orlando Magic.
All-Star guards with elite offensive tools – particularly those who are under contract for multiple seasons moving forward and who are still young enough to align with the timeline of a team only at the beginning of what is hopefully a meaningful ascent – don’t become available all that often.
If the Magic are serious about winning they should be trying to force their way into the mix for Mitchell.