Orlando Magic aim for 2021 with Timofey Mozgov exemption request

The Orlando Magic have submitted a request to review Timofey Mozgov’s health in hopes of getting his salary stricken from their sheets moving forward.

The Orlando Magic knew they were in a pinch this offseason.

They had two key free agents and the desire to add to their team but little in the way of maneuverability to get there. Especially if they wanted to stay underneath the luxury tax line.

Things started to get very hairy quickly. In order to fit Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross‘ new salaries AND sign Al-Farouq Aminu to a new deal while staying underneath the tax line, the Magic had to drop Timofey Mozgov and stretch his contract.

Instead of taking a $16.7 million hit next year before he was turned to free agency, the team opted to stretch that amount over three years, resulting in a $5.6 million hit for the next three years for cap and tax purposes.

Mozgov did not play for the Magic last year after suffering a reported knee injury early in camp. He probably was not going to play much anyway even if he were healthy. And he was not going to play on the current roster either.

Cutting him was not a big issue for the Magic. It was the need to stay under that luxury tax line of $132.6 million that motivated this move, potentially foregoing an interesting trade chip even in a summer without a ton of free agents.

Orlando was making a financial move. And it appears they still are.

Marc Stein of The New York Times reports, and Josh Robbins of The Athletic confirmed, the Magic have requested a waiver from the league to remove Mozgov’s salary from their books because of a career-ending — or NBA-ending — injury.

These are all relatively minor things at the end of the day but the move could have a huge potential impact for a critical summer in 2021.

The Magic’s current cap sheet stands at $128.8 million in guaranteed salary for this season. Orlando has an empty roster spot and enough room to add one more veteran player. This also explains why the team might have been hesitant to sign Chuma Okeke to his rookie deal as that salary would eat up the remainder of their room beneath the tax.

That is important for the short term. But it is the 2021 season the Magic are likely eyeing here.

For the 2021 season, the Magic have $101.6 million in guaranteed salary committed (including Mozgov’s $5.6 million) according to Basketball Insiders. With Evan Fournier likely to take his $17.2 million player option, the Magic are likely to have $118.7 million committed to next year. Their big free agents are D.J. Augustin, Wesley Iwundu (restricted) and a team option on Melvin Frazier‘s third years.

The tax line in 2021 will reportedly balloon up to $141 million. But that projection came before the NBA’s dust-up with China following Daryl Morey’s show of support for protests in Hong Kong. It is unclear whether that will decrease because of the lost revenue from the league being shown on delay at best in China on its platforms and state TV.

Orlando is not in any immediate threat of being a tax team — or near-tax team — for the 2020-21 season.

Losing Mozgov’s $5.6 million off their salary sheets for 2021 is not going to affect very much. Orlando will still be over the cap and have limited avenues to improve the roster. D.J. Augustin probably will not get a contract much more than he is making now. The Magic will be in much less threat of going over the luxury tax in 2021.

Orlando’s maneuvering to stay under the luxury tax line seemed to be a concern only for the 2020 season. At least with how the roster is presently constructed.

Removing Mozgov’s salary from their sheets will have a much bigger impact the summer before the final year the Magic will be responsible for his salary in the 2021-22 season.

For the 2022 season, Orlando has only $58.5 million in guaranteed salary committed. They will have free agencies from Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Evan Fournier to deal with that summer, plus an option year on Al-Farouq Aminu’s contract.

If the thought process for the Magic is to make a big leap in free agency, it is likely they are lining up for 2021 to be a year where they solidify their young core with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz and maybe add one more impact player.

That is still a long way away. A lot can happen. But the ducks are starting to line up.

Assuming the Magic pick up likely options, Augustin gets paid a similar amount to his current deal ($7.3 million) and Isaac and Fultz get their qualifying offer amounts (just as stand-ins — Isaac is at $9.8 million and Fultz is at $16 million), Orlando would have $103.7 million committed to the team in the summer of 2021.

The salary cap is projected to hit $125 million in the summer of 2021 (again, these are September projections). These basic numbers give the Magic $21.3 million in cap room. Orlando would not have max cap room. But with some maneuvering, they could get there. In any case, they should have enough money to sign an impact player again.

And, of course, that room could be used to absorb players in a trade. The Magic regain a lot more flexibility in the summer of 2021.

Obviously those numbers could change. Isaac could — and should — get more than $10 million per year in his first big deal in restricted free agency. It is still impossible to predict what amount Fultz would get.

But there is the space to get there. If the team keeps progressing, this is their summer to make a big move and be aggressive. And that extra $5 million the team could free up from losing Mozgov could be the difference between retaining their own free agents and adding a max player or not.

So the question will quickly turn to whether the Magic will get this exception.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NBPA (the applicable section is on page 212, if you are interested in reading the actual provision) allows for a team to apply to have a salary excluded from the team’s salary cap sheets if the player played in less than 10 games of the previous season and that player has suffered a career-ending injury.

The determination of whether a player has suffered a career-ending injury is determined by a physician selected jointly by the league and the players association or by a Fitness to Play Panel selected by the league and the players association.

The player is deemed to have a career-ending injury if that physician (or a Fitness to Play Panel) determines the player has an injury that prevents or substantially impairs that player’s ability to play at a NBA level or if the panel determines that continuing to play would create an elevated risk of death.

This is where the question will certainly rise.

Mozgov signed a one-year contract with Russia’s BC Khimki this offseason. It appears he has not played for them yet. It is not clear if this is a ceremonial signing or if Mozgov will actually contribute to that team.

That answer might certainly play into whether the Magic can get this exception or not.

Ultimately, this is a fight over a relatively small amount of money in NBA terms. But that small amount can have a big consequence.

When the Magic acquired Mozgov, the team likely had no plans to play him. It was to swap bad contracts (with Bismack Biyombo) and take a chance on a rookie contract in Jerian Grant.

Orlando is hoping to get some benefit from their early withdrawal from Mozgov’s contract. And that could have big dividends when 2021’s free-agent class comes around.