The Orlando Magic opted to move on from Elfrid Payton. All the reasons why are spotted in his tenure with the Phoenix Suns. But the questions remain.
Ahead of Saturday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, players admitted things would be a bit weird.
Aaron Gordon has essentially been playing with Elfrid Payton for five years, having played with him on the U.S. U18 team the summer before his lone year in college. When the Orlando Magic acquired Elfrid Payton and the media informed Aaron Gordon, Gordon was floored with excitement to play with him again.
In four years, Payton connected with Gordon countless times it seemed. They were close and their chemistry on the court was great.
A lot of players could say that offensively. Nikola Vucevic said it would be weird to see Elfrid Payton in a different uniform. Coach Frank Vogel said he needed a moment before the game to greet his former point guard, saying after the game that he truly does miss him.
Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, close friends in the locker room, gave each other their usual greeting.
Payton knew a trade was possible even entering the season. Management change left clues the Magic might make massive changes. And at the trade deadline, Orlando pulled the trigger. Payton told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, he was prepared for that moment and there were no hard feelings.
In his first game back in Orlando since that February trade to Phoenix, Payton looked every bit the same as he did in Orlando. Playing for his new team, Payton scored 14 points and dished out eight assists. The counting stats seemed fine for Payton and in line with his numbers with the Magic too.
As was often the case in his time with Orlando, the result was a defeat. Payton put up his numbers and attacked the basket and drove the paint, but for what purpose? It is still uncertain.
Payton’s time with the Suns has not exactly gone to plan. He is averaging 12.4 points per game, 6.4 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. Similar to his numbers with Orlando through the first three-quarters of the season.
Similar to his time with the Magic, those numbers have hardly translated into much success. But things seem that much worse for the Suns. Phoenix has a -20.3 net rating with Payton on the floor since the All-Star Break.
It would seem part of that is a product of the Suns poor roster — a team that is beset with injuries and far worse than his team with the Magic. But Payton sort of stands out. He is on the floor for the worst of the Suns’ terrible lineups.
And it seems like Phoenix observers have joined the chorus of wondering exactly where Payton fits in their future. What looked like a steal in one moment has again turned into a question mark. The same question mark the Magic had when they decided to move on from him this year.
Payton’s production has always had a bit of an empty quality to it. And it feels sometimes whatever he gets offensively, he gives back defensively. What looked like a steal has only brought the Suns some of the same realizations.
And now it has left two franchises at a crossroads at the league’s most important position.
As Magic fans have come to reckon with the last five years and try to find a way to move forward, Payton has been in the crosshairs. There are those who still question — or blame — the Magic for taking a chance on the point guard with the weird hair and inconsistent jumper.
Payton put in four solid years as the starting point guard but seemed unable to take the team to the next level. His defensive reputation from college never followed him to the pros. It always seemed to hold him back.
But in his absence, the Magic have not exactly been great either.
Orlando’s offense has dipped from 104.7 points per 100 possessions before the Payton trade to 100.3 points per 100 possessions after the trade. The Magic have become one of the worst offenses in the league.
While starting point guard D.J. Augustin has emerged as a solid individual contribute — 13.3 points per game, 50.0 percent field goal shooting, 47.3 percent 3-point shooting and 5.9 assists per game since the All-Star Break — it has not produced results. On either end of the floor.
No one is confusing D.J. Augustin for the Magic’s potential future point guard, despite his surprisingly stellar play in Payton’s stead.
A near triple-double against Payton proved his ability to beat other near starters and poor defenders. But maybe not enough to completely dominate and overpower them.
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Shelvin Mack has not provided many answers either. He is a solid contributor and can work off the ball as well as on. But, again, no one confuses him as an ideal starter. Neither D.J. Augustin nor Shelvin Mack has the size to defend at a high level, nor the pure scoring or playmaking to go up against the best guards in the league.
The Magic seemingly gave up a young point guard still with starter potential for a huge question mark. The writing seemed to suggest the Magic have needed a point guard for some time. Each draft brought with it questions of whether the team could search for a point guard. Now with Payton gone, that hunt for a lead guard will intensify.
It would be hard to envision the Magic heading into next season with Augustin as their starting point guard.
The Suns are having the same struggles. They too are in need of a point guard if they decide to move on from Payton. That likelihood is becoming more and more of a reality.
Payton too faces uncertainty. What value does a point guard like him have? Will he settle into the life of a backup point guard? Who will take the chance on this player and entrust him with a team?
Payton has done little to answer these questions in his short time with the Suns.
His homecoming was a nice reprieve. A time to see old friends.
But it was also more of the same for him. The same kind of play. And the same result.
And for two teams and the player himself, the same questions that seem to avoid much answering.