Entering a second consecutive NBA winter with more teams looking to upgrade their rosters rather than sell valuable veterans, no rival front office follows the spluttering Chicago Bulls’ decision making more closely than that of the Orlando Magic.
It was two years ago this time that league executives circled Orlando as the trade deadline approached, and the magic delivered: handing out Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier on the postseason map.
The ramifications of that deal with Vucevic are at the heart of Chicago’s current predicament. Forget the fact that talent evaluators consistently view Wendell Carter Jr., the centerpiece of the Bulls pack that brought in Vucevic, as a more impactful player than the veteran center. The first of two picks Chicago sent to Orlando already landed dynamic wing creator Franz Wagner in the 2021 NBA draft. The second outgoing Bulls pick for the Magic is the top-five projected selection of this year that has protected only numbers 1-4 – which could earn Orlando a second premium lottery selection in a highly anticipated draft class.
A six-game winning streak that ended Monday, Paolo Banchero’s stellar rookie season, plus Orlando’s unique mix of size and young talent, has left spectators feeling rather optimistic about the near future of this Magic. They’re not exactly banging the door of the play-in tournament, but Orlando, at 11-21, has shown the positive step toward competitiveness Magic staffers hoped to see this season.
“They have two of the best positions in the league – playmaking forwards – with rookie-scale contracts, intriguing young talent around them with solid contracts, not bad money up front, and a number of veterans who could get them back even more draft capital if they choose to trade them,” an Eastern Conference team strategist told Yahoo Sports.
There are certainly stretches for Orlando to advance this season’s deadline, but the Magic will fall nowhere near the returns they saw two years earlier.
Terrence Ross has long had interest from the Los Angeles Lakers, sources said. New York also haunted Ross in previous years. While Orlando has turned down offers lower than a first-round pick for the seasoned swingman in recent seasons, sources say it’s hard to foresee any playoff contender sacrificing more than one second-round selection for the services of Ross. The same goes for Gary Harris, although both wingers have no guaranteed salary beyond this 2022-2023 season.
RJ Hampton is another strong Orlando trade candidate after the Magic failed to exercise its fourth-year option for next season. Hampton has switched representations and sought more playing time at Orlando’s G League affiliate in Lakeland, Florida, but is unlikely to make a significant return.
Former No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba is arguably the Magic’s best trading ship. Orlando pursued Isaiah Hartenstein in free agency, sources said, before the center joined New York and the Magic then re-signed Bamba to a two-year, $20.6 million deal. League managers expect Orlando to hold out for a protected first round selection or a late first round to bid farewell to the 24-year-old fringe presence. There are teams like the Lakers and Clippers, as well as Toronto, Sacramento and Brooklyn, that front office personnel expect to rummage around the big man market before the February 9 trade deadline and may be willing to cough up a few second round picks for Bamba. Chicago is also considering its post-Vucevic options as his contract expires at the end of the season.
All of this is to say that whatever crafting comes from Orlando in the season may be based more on bolstering the promising horizons of rival personnel coming up.
If the Magic keep their entire roster for next season beyond Harris’s non-guaranteed 2023-24 salary, they’ll be playing with about $37 million in cap room. And there are immediate opportunities for Orlando to release more than $60 million this summer. Markelle Fultz is on the books for just $2 million guaranteed next season. Bamba’s second year is also not guaranteed at all. Bol Bol has a non-guaranteed salary for 2023-24. Not to mention Jonathan Isaac’s deal that could cost Orlando next to nothing after this season if the Magic chooses to say goodbye to the injury-plagued defensive force.
If you’re feeling a theme, it’s pretty obvious how much the Magic values financial flexibility during this remodel. And you don’t just keep your books clean for eternal monetary cleanliness. League figures familiar with Orlando’s thinking argue that Magic property will be ready to be spent when the right time comes to support Banchero and Wagner.
Is that coming this summer? Or would the Magic pounce on an upcoming free agent before the deadline to obtain that player’s Bird rights or simply include him in the flexible lineup available to head coach Jamahl Mosley?
“Everyone talks about playing positionless basketball,” a scout told Yahoo Sports, “but they’re the only ones who really said, ‘F*** it.'”
With Orlando’s pair of super-sized ball handlers, guard play isn’t necessarily in dire need of the magic. In addition, Fultz has shown continued promise in 11 games this season, converting more than 40% from distance while being more comfortable shooting from the dribble.
Still, the Magic’s backcourt is an obvious area for Orlando to spend. Especially ahead of Cole Anthony’s expansion talks next summer, for which the league staff is preparing for a significant gap between Anthony’s wishes and his eventual market value. We may get another glimpse of the Magic’s plans if they like to move Anthony before the deadline.
It’s too early to set specific Orlando goals should the Magic get aggressive between now and next season’s opening night. But scan the list of upcoming free agents and choose who fits best next to the core pieces of magic.
Can you blame the Magic for throwing maximum money at, say, Khris Middleton, who has a player option for next season and who Magic general manager John Hammond landed for Milwaukee when he ran the Bucks?
It remains to be seen whether this current regime in Orlando is willing to make a big move.