The reconstruction of the Orlando Magic officially began Thursday as the team sent Elfrid Payton to the Phoenix Suns in a deadline deal.
As the Orlando Magic were introduced for their starting lineups, the final spot in the lineup, usually reserved for Elfrid Payton, went to D.J. Augustin. It might have been the opponent — the equally lowly Atlanta Hawks — or the fact so many of the Magic’s key players are still hurt, but the response was decidedly lukewarm.
This was not the main event of the starting lineup. Not the top of the marquee, as it were.
D.J. Augustin has been solid this year. He has been a consistent journeyman throughout his career. But he is not someone to get excited about.
Payton was, for all intents and purposes, the future of the Magic for a long time. He was the point guard the team seemingly handpicked in the 2014 NBA Draft, giving up a first-round pick (Dario Saric) and trading back another to acquire him from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Things did not work out that way. He never was able to take the Magic to the next level. Even as he improved, the Magic seemed to lag behind.
Constantly, the Magic seemed unable to overcome his shortcomings — both with his poor shooting and then with his defense. It seemed inevitable the Magic would move on.
And so, Thursday at the NBA trade deadline, they did. With the team unlikely to re-sign him to a contract this summer, the team dumped him on the Phoenix Suns, getting only a mid-second-round pick in return.
"“When you spend four years with a guy, it’s tough to see him go,” Evan Fournier said. “Especially when a guy comes in as a rookie. You see him grow and evolve. We’re going to miss him. I’m going to miss him for sure. We have to move forward now.”"
It was definitely the end of an era for the Magic. Payton had come to define a lot of this team’s flaws, but also a key part of its few successes. Of all the players former general manager Rob Hennigan acquired, Elfrid Payton was the one that drew the most controversy and attention.
The team can move forward at one of the most important positions on the floor. In what direction? No one is quite sure.
Payton was having a career season this year. He was averaging 13.0 points per game, 4.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He was shooting a career-best 52.0 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from beyond the arc. Payton was as adept as ever at filling up a box score. He could produce counting stats on offense like no other.
But as the fourth-year starter for the Magic, the team was not heading in the right direction. The team plateaued and the statistics all suggested the Magic were worse with Payton on the floor.
This year the team had a 105.9 offensive rating with Payton on the floor, but a dismal 113.6 defensive rating. That is the worst mark on the team, among regular rotation players. The effect on the team’s defense was clear, even on a team that was poor defensively. The Magic were clearly lacking something at the position.
Undoubtedly, the Magic will have trouble replacing him. Things will be different.
"“Well we definitely did force too much at the rim,” coach Frank Vogel said of the team’s play against the Hawks. “I don’t know if it was because Elfrid wasn’t out there. I just think we had a night where we didn’t make great decisions in the paint. We did a better job of that in the second half. And, as a result, we had a strong offensive half.”"
The first game without Payton on Thursday against the Hawks had its rough moments. The Magic shot just 13 for 41 (31.7 percent) in the first half. The ball often got stuck on one side and no one seemed able to create their own shot or get into the paint.
The team seemed unable to unlock their scoring until D.J. Augustin dropped a crossover on Taurean Prince and got all the way to the basket for a layup. Things slowly loosened up from there.
The Magic shot just 42.9 percent for the game, barely eclipsing the 100-point mark in a grind of a game. There were plenty of moments where the team seemed stuck in the mud. Followed by some moments of brilliance. The bench remained a huge strong point for the team. They got out in transition and pushed the pace.
Still, there will have to be a conscious effort to do the things Payton did so effortlessly. The transition game and paint creation especially.
But the trade deadline was never about what Payton could do today. The question was always about what was coming in the future. Orlando had to move on.
The trade deadline was an opportunity to begin building that future. While there was a lot of hope for what could happen, Orlando never seemed to feel urgency to get something done. Most of the players and contracts they wanted to move would be there still this summer — and might be even more marketable.
But Payton was sitting there about to become an unrestricted free agent. There was some urgency to deal him. And it was clear the Magic were not going to bring him back. It became important to get something in return for him.
"“I can tell you that we were concerned about what this summer would look like with free agency with locking ourselves in financially,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said. “What the player’s worth is what the league says he is worth. At the end of the day, I will say this is fair because this is what the league deems is fair. The alternative is we could lose Elfrid for nothing.”"
Everyone was nothing but complimentary about Payton and his time in Orlando. By all accounts, he was a hard worker and a popular player in the locker room.
More from Games
- Orlando Magic FIBA World Cup: Franz Wagner can be a star if he takes it
- 2023 FIBA World Cup: Germany’s success is a model for the Orlando Magic
- Orlando Magic 2023 FIBA World Cup: Paolo Banchero made the right choice with Team USA
- Orlando Magic 2023 FIBA World Cup: Moe Wagner vs. Goga Bitadze
- Orlando Magic FIBA World Cup: Paolo Banchero is blocking shots now
Augustin called him his little brother with their New Orleans ties. Evan Fournier, as noted above, talked about his growth in the last four years as he came into the league. And Vogel said Payton exemplified everything the team wanted to be about from an attitude and work ethic standpoint.
That all was not enough. Weltman admitted the league is heading in a different direction. A direction that requires point guards to shoot effectively off the bounce and values the 3-pointer. Those are all weaknesses Payton could never overcome.
It did not make sense for the Magic to make that investment this summer.
Weltman asked the question succinctly: Do the Magic want to invest in a group that has not had much success together?
The answer clearly was no. And the first move — the urgent move — was to trade Payton. That begins the separation from the Rob Hennigan era.
His prized point guard is no more. The Magic are truly transitioning to a new era. They are looking for a new leader.
Who that player is remains uncertain. It could come in the draft. The team might search in free agency. It may not even come next year. The rebuilding for this team is just beginning.
And the change has just started.