As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Orlando Magic, who were eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.
Since Dwight Howard left the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2012, the franchise has been in a state of paralysis.
Yes, the Magic have collected young assets over the past four summers, drafting five players in the first round and trading for five more drafted from 2011 on to create an intriguing mix of young talent. But that group had combined only to do a lot of losing under Jacque Vaughn the past three seasons, winning 20, 23 and 25 games – leading to Vaughn’s dismissal midway through last season.
As the post-Howard rebuilding plan moved into its fourth season, the Magic attempted to jump start things by hiring former Magic player Scott Skiles. A fan favorite as a player in Orlando from 1989-94, the first five years of the franchise’s existence, Skiles has developed a reputation as someone who sees an instant improvement in the team he inherits.
That has undeniably happened in Orlando. The Magic have already hit 30 wins, and could hit 35 – marking a 10-game improvement – with a decent closing stretch. But that improvement was supposed to move the Magic into contention for a playoff spot, and that hasn’t been the case. Orlando hung around at the back of the East playoff picture through the first couple months of the season, but gradually lost touch with the several teams fighting for those final playoff spots in the East.
It also leaves the Magic with a lot of crucial decisions to make this summer, when Orlando will possess a boatload of cap space – thanks in part to a curious trade – and need to finally take a legitimate step toward contention next season.
2016 draft picks
First round: Their own
Second round: Their own, Chicago’s
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$49.6 million ($35.9 million committed to seven players; estimated $3.4 million committed to three draft picks; two roster charges for $1.1 million). This doesn’t include cap holds for impending free agents Evan Fournier and Andrew Nicholson, as well as Ersan Ilyasova’s non-guaranteed salary of $8.4 million, which becomes guaranteed if he’s still on the team on July 1.
2016 free agents
PG Brandon Jennings, SG Evan Fournier (restricted), PF Jason Smith, PF Andrew Nicholson (restricted), C Dewayne Dedmon (restricted)
Five questions to answer
1. Who is calling the shots?
In his first three years as Magic general manager, Rob Hennigan showed a clear philosophy: to collect as many young players with upside as he could. So it raised eyebrows when, at the trade deadline, Orlando shipped out Tobias Harris – whom the Magic had signed to a four-year, $64 million deal less than a year before – to Detroit for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings, veteran players who had expiring contracts.
The move led many to wonder if, in fact, Scott Skiles hasn’t become the dominant voice within the organization. It felt like a win-now trade for a team that wasn’t really in a position to win now – the kind of trade a coach is often more likely to push for.
Given the team is heading into next season having missed the playoffs four straight times – something the Magic have only done once, and that was in the franchise’s first four years of existence – this will be something that bears watching as Orlando moves into the draft and free agency this summer.
2. What will they do with all of this FA money?
Yes, the Magic have buckets and buckets of cash at their disposal – nearly $50 million, if they wind up letting restricted free agents Evan Fournier and Andrew Nicholson walk. But what will Orlando be able to do with it?
Last year, the Magic made a run at Paul Millsap, only for him to remain in Atlanta. This summer, there will be a couple big names on the market (including Dwight Howard, who has said he’d be interested in playing for Orlando again). The Magic are thought to be likely to make a huge run at Millsap’s teammate, Al Horford, too.
But if the Magic strike out with that cap space, what will they do then? Given the playoff drought, this team would seem like a prime candidate to massively overpay for a second-tier free agent or two if they strike out on the big names at the top of the market. That could potentially include the price it’ll likely take to keep Fournier.
3. Can Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo coexist longterm?
As the NBA has shifted to becoming more and more of a perimeter-based league, if you want to win, perimeter shooting is a must.
The Magic, however, have a serious problem on this front. Payton is a good defender and passer, but he has a true shooting percentage under 50 percent because he’s a bad free throw shooter (he’s hitting 58.6 percent) and is making 35 percent of his three-point attempts but is only taking one per game. Oladipo is a borderline average shooter, hitting 34.5 percent from behind the arc while attempting four per game, but his numbers have plateaued a bit across the board.
Because Orlando is featuring a frontcourt including two players, Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, that aren’t three-point threats, the Magic’s offense is already choked for space. Throw in the lack of respect Payton and Oladipo get, and that’s a major reason why Orlando is ranked 25th in offensive rating, per NBA.com. For the Magic to take another step forward offensively, the possibility of breaking up Payton and Oladipo has to be considered – unless one or both of them can take a significant step forward as a shooter.
4. How much will they be willing to pay Evan Fournier?
Speaking of Fournier, he presents a unique situation for the Magic this summer. As mentioned above, Orlando is going to have a ton of cap space to spend in free agency, so there’s little reason for them not to match a big contract offer for Fournier.
But then there’s the matter of the massive salary cap spike the summer, and the fact that virtually every team is going to have a boatload of money to spend. That’ll mean the salaries for everyone, including restricted free agents like Fournier, will be inflated. There’s also the fact that the Magic just spent a top-five pick on Mario Hezonja, who will need to start playing more next season, that too could impact their feelings towards the future of a Payton-and-Oladipo backcourt.
So if Fournier is offered a contract starting at, say, $16-18 million in 2016-17, will that lead Orlando in some other direction? He is averaging 14.8 points, but he’s also averaging under three rebounds and assists, isn’t a good defender and has never posted a league-average player efficiency rating (PER) through his first four NBA seasons. His case is like many potential tricky ones in restricted free agency around the NBA this summer.
5. What’s next for Aaron Gordon?
Gordon burst onto the national NBA scene during this year’s All-Star Weekend, when he went toe-to-toe with Zach LaVine in arguably the best slam dunk contest of all-time. But after missing almost half of his rookie season because of a broken foot, Gordon has shown bursts of his massive potential on the court this season.
While he exhibited his ridiculous athleticism in the battle with LaVine in Toronto, Gordon possesses plenty of real skills. He has the potential to be an elite defensive presence, capable of guarding both wings and bigs. He’s shown promise as a playmaker, increasing his assist percentage and decreasing his turnover percentage this season. He’s even improved his shooting, going from 27.1 percent to 30.4 percent from behind the arc – while also taking more shots per game.
Perhaps Gordon will simply remain a toolshed capable of doing some things, but not enough to become a true difference maker. But considering he doesn’t turn 21 until September and the strides he’s made already, it’s easy to dream on Gordon’s potential. The Magic need that potential to be realized, as he’s the one player on the roster who has the ability to become a true star.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: