Upon reflection, there’s a level of awkwardness evident in any evaluation of Orlando’s offseason. The Magic ultimately made very few changes to the roster they finished last season with, although one that they did – courtesy of the top selection on Draft night – could potentially reverberate with far greater significance than the majority of transactions that took place across the landscape of the entire league.
Assigning grades or making definitive judgements about the quality of any team’s summer maneuvering is frequently an exercise made up of equal parts futility and foolishness, with the answers to the questions raised remaining elusively out of grasp for at least months, if not realistically years. Still, an evaluation of the moves made by the Magic offer an interesting insight into both the short and long-term thinking of the franchise – and the bridge that needs to be built between the two.
What can we learn about the bigger picture in Central Florida by taking a close look at the smaller decision made this offseason? Let’s find out.
The Magic entered the NBA’s annual Draft armed with the number one overall pick and a cloud of some uncertainty looming over the focus of their selection to come. When word leaked in the final 24 hours that Paolo Banchero was the likely choice it was a surprise, but certainly not a shock – the talented forward from Duke may not fit the typical physical mold of a Welt-Ham selection, but his scoring nous and heliocentric offensive projection is almost precisely what the current outfit in Orlando requires.
We’re a long way from knowing whether or not the team made the right call, but in the immediate shadow of the event it looks a distinct possibility. Banchero spent a good chunk of time as the best-regarded talent in the class, an evaluation that his college play more often than not reinforced. The handful of on-court sightings since have also added confidence to this assessment, whether they came in Summer League, a Pro-Am or the gym. Banchero could well end up being everything that was promised.
With the second pick of the second round Orlando also nabbed Caleb Houstan, a wing with some proclivity for shooting and a chance of sticking on the roster’s fringes in the years to come. One could quibble over any number of guys still on the board at that particular slot, but it’s ultimately a long-shot swing with suitable best-case upside for that range of the Draft.
Along with the Houstan selection – and as is seemingly tradition in Central Florida – the Magic also moved a second round pick for a return that will have no on-court impact this coming season (the 2022 variant being a future second and cash from the Lakers for number 35). Orlando’s roster is already bursting at the seams with young players jostling for opportunities and minutes, so it’s understandable that the team wouldn’t have wanted to try and squeeze three rookies into the mix. However, the trade represented another example of this front office electing to simply forgo the (admittedly slim) chance of unearthing an unexpected diamond. No team in this deep of a rebuild should be consistently punting away chances to find talent.
All things considered, it’s difficult to chalk the draft up as anything other than an absolute win for the Magic. That’ll inevitably happen when you’re leading off the night, but to the credit of Weltman, Hammond and the brains trust they did come away with seemingly the perfect offensive specimen that the team needs moving forward. We’ll know more in six months – not to mention three years, a half-decade, and eventually beyond – but the team’s decision at the top of the board has the makings of the right selection both in the immediacy of the present and the seasons still to come.
The two-year pacts
A trio of similar looking deals with their own pending free agents constituted the bulk of the Magic’s free agency work, with two-year deals being doled out to keep Gary Harris, Mo Bamba and Bol Bol in Central Florida for the foreseeable future. The most interesting aspect of these contracts, however, can be found in the finer details: each includes a non-guaranteed final year that tilts any roster decisions firmly in the team’s favor. These players will remain in pinstripes only as long as the team’s needs dictate.
The approximately $25 million that the team ponied up to bring all three back essentially achieves a handful of desired circumstances: it rounds out the expected rotation for the coming season, it ensures a level of continuity for an emerging team, and it generates necessary salary flexibility for any trade market shenanigans that might emerge. Most importantly of all, it effectively allows the team to roll over their oodles of cap space to next summer, at which point the team will hopefully – finally – be ready to commit to a path towards meaningful contention.
In inking Harris, Bamba and even Bol to pacts with identical exit ramps after this coming season, the Magic have ensured that they’ll have significant cap space next offseason. Such a circumstance provides the sort of flexibility that makes major talent addition a distinct possibility, specifically at a time when the team will be looking to make a leap in the standings.
However, what that flexibility doesn’t inherently provide is opportunity. Orlando will be hoping that the stars ultimately align – whether in free agency or on the trade market – in a way that reflects the future the team has been envisioning with their maneuvering this offseason.
The avenues not pursued
The Magic’s decision to effectively sit out the process of free agency-based talent acquisition points to two things. The first of these takeaways is perhaps the most obvious: for a rebuilding team there simply wasn’t a player at a position of major need – shooting guard and two-way wing, foremost – to be had by way of either contract or trade. The market bears this out, with few, if any, high-level impact players at these slots changing addresses. If Donovan Mitchell ends up being shipped out of Salt Lake City this debate can be revisited, but it’s hard to point to the deal that would have made the Magic both immediately and sustainably better.
The other unspoken element of the team’s summer inactivity is this: the pinstriped evaluation process isn’t yet finished. Despite having had a number of the key pieces on the roster for a decent chunk of time, there’s obviously still some desire to see if they can coalesce in a way that will elevate the franchise back to contention. This is a process that the front office has stretched out for basically as long as is conceivably possible, but for which the protracted time frame does still make some sense; with Markelle Fultz fully healthy and Jonathan Isaac also nearing a return, the team finally has its complete contingent to consider.
It’s this last point that will neatly segue into a final observation about the Magic’s summer, and one that is frequently posited as a positive. The team’s decision to run things back will ensure a strong sense of continuity, whether that be in reference to strategy, rotations or expectations. Such familiarity theoretically puts players in a position where they know what will be asked of them, allowing them to continue to build directly on the work done to this point.
However, it would be a mistake to simply assume that continuity necessarily leads to even consolidation, let alone improvement. How confident should one be in a largely unchanged 22-win team? Banking on the youth to be better with another season under the belt is sound at the surface level, but history has routinely demonstrated that talent development is rarely linear. Add to that some concern over continuity actually turning into complacency – along with the old adage that if you’re not actively improving you’re actually going backwards – and it’s easy to see how the Magic’s quiet offseason could make for another lean year.
(One last wrinkle to this: might that actually be the plan? It would be a genuine shock if the team didn’t take some steps forward in the win column, but getting the band back together ensures that any such upward trajectory is likely to be a hop instead of a leap. The end result? One last enticing lottery selection to add to the core before the roster-building chips are pushed to the middle with intent.)
Should the Magic have done more this offseason? Did they miss a chance to inject needed talent? The answer to both of those questions is probably an insouciant ‘no’ – the team is still far enough from their final form to justify another season of evaluation and development, and the vast majority of options out there didn’t project as major needle-movers. Instead, if the rookies pop, and if those returning from injury find form, and if the young core continues to improve, the team can then bolster the ranks this time next year with a clearer understanding of what they need to take that next step.
Still, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’, with the added uncertainty of the opportunities actually available in the future further obfuscating things. This summer didn’t present the right circumstances for the team to pounce … but there’s no guarantee that 2023 will align favorably either.
Looking at each of Orlando’s moves under an individual microscope leaves a pretty positive impression of the front office’s work over this summer period. But adjusting that lens so as to take in the bigger picture reveals that there is still a great deal of uncertainty looming in the years to come.
The Magic used this offseason to position themselves to be ready, in the next twelve months, to capitalize on the type of opportunity that can shift a franchise’s fortunes. What remains to be seen now, however, is whether that necessary confluence of circumstances will eventuate – a fate which, in many ways, is largely out of the team’s hands.
The moves made this summer have ensured that a foundation is now firmly in place in Central Florida. All that’s left is to hope that the team actually gets the chance to complete the envisioned building process in the near future.