Executives eyeing Evan Fournier, smell Orlando Magic’s dilemma

The Orlando Magic face a major dilemma at this year’s trade deadline as Evan Fournier could become a free agent. League executives smell the trouble.

The NBA trade deadline is a mere six weeks away. The Orlando Magic and every team know this.

It feels very far away with 22 games remaining before teams have to make final decisions about their roster. Yet, it also feels very close.

The playoff race has started to settle in with the Magic outside the group of seven teams that seems to have the inside track for a playoff spot. The Magic hold a 1.5-game lead for the eighth spot. It is a precarious position.

At this point, everyone understands the Magic have some fundamental flaws. They have major issues they have to find some answer for — particularly on offense. Internally, the Magic have to get back to playing the elite-level defense that carried them to the playoff last year.

Orlando, to this point in the season, has underperformed even if they remain in playoff position. And that seems to make the team ripe for a trade.

What that might be is still the mystery. It is still far too early for anything concrete to come out. Everything is mere speculation and assessing the market.

While playoff tiers are starting to emerge, teams will probably hold onto hope a little bit longer before assessing how they need to set themselves up for the offseason — the early thoughts of who might be available are emerging.

Bobby Marks of ESPN.com attended the G-League Showcase in Las Vegas and did an informal straw poll of executives, asking who they thought was likely to be moved at the deadline.

Evan Fournier’s name came up often in that conversation.

Marks notes that the Magic do not seem ready to move off Evan Fournier yet. The team is still in playoff position and Fournier is a big reason for that. He is the team’s leading scorer with 19.2 points per game on a 56.9-percent effective field goal percentage. Both are career highs.

But the league senses correctly that there is a decision coming regarding Fournier. And they might be right to circle the waters a bit before the trade deadline.

Fournier has a player option on the final year of his contract (worth $17 million next season). The Magic cannot pay everyone in their lineup and the team, after spending on Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross last summer and Aaron Gordon the summer before, is locked over the salary cap for a little while longer.

It is never good to be locked into a team that seemingly has a ceiling as a first-round playoff exit. The team has to make some decisions — and eventually make some moves — to improve the overall talent level on the roster.

And, of course, this is all planning for the summer of 2021 when both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz become free agents. The Magic are probably thinking about spending big money to keep both of them.

That will leave someone as the odd man out — or force the Magic to shed some salary somewhere.

Fournier feels like he could be the odd man out. The player the Magic figure they can find a replacement for or go younger with to let other players grow.

That is at least the thinking that seems to be pervasive around the league.

They are sniffing a team that needs to get off some money and cannot afford to keep him. They might sense a team that knows they have to get something for him or risk losing him for nothing.

The Magic, of course, could opt to keep Fournier. It is not without precedent for a team to stick with its mid-tier roster and lock its cap number in for a while.

The Miami Heat did this when they re-signed Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson. The Heat seemingly regretted those moves until they packaged Josh Richardson into Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade deal. Now they are one of the leaders in the Eastern Conference.

As long as players produce, there is the potential they still have some value on the market.

Of course, that is a risk in itself too. The Heat exist in a desirable market and Butler was a free agent who helped create a sign-and-trade to arrive with the Heat. Miami also drafted incredibly well adding most notably Bam Adebayo with a mid-first-round pick who has bolstered that roster.

The Heat may yet have one more move to get a second star because of all the high-priced players they have retained and the young talent ready to replace them. It was a risky path for the Heat that appears to have paid off (at least for now).

The Magic are probably not in a position to overextend themselves like this. And patience always wears thin if a team is stuck in the lower seeds of the Eastern Conference. At some point, the Magic have to make an all-in move — whether that is this summer or further down the road. And that means they cannot pay everyone.

Certainly, at some point, the Magic want their young players to take over the team.

The Magic face a difficult decision when it comes to Fournier. Everyone around the league senses it for sure.

Their willingness to trade Fournier right now is certainly close to zero. In all likelihood, the Magic approach Evan Fournier’s upcoming free agency in the same way they approached Nikola Vucevic’s last year.

Vucevic was set to become a free agent and it seemed certain Orlando would move on. Then he made the All-Star team and the playoffs became a reality. The Magic were content to sit tight and play things out.

The Magic have shown they are not going to sacrifice their playoff positioning (as little as that might be) to make a trade. The team values winning in whatever form it comes as a way to put their young players in healthy pressure situations.

For better or worse, the Magic view playing meaningful minutes in a role as a better development tool than throwing young players out there to play without a purpose or tangible goals.

And that puts Fournier in the crosshairs.

The Magic, like with the growing fascination with trade ideas involving Aaron Gordon, are not likely to make a deal unless they feel it makes the team better.

Fournier at 27 years old is not likely to bring in an All-Star level player. Ironically, if the Magic tried to trade Evan Fournier it would likely be similar to the deal that brought him to Orlando (the Orlando Magic traded Arron Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets for the young second-year player from France).

John Hollinger of The Athletic suggested (and it was just a suggestion) early in the season that Orlando could flip Evan Fournier to the Toronto Raptors for Norman Powell.

That kind of a deal does not sound super enticing right now. The Magic’s young players do not appear ready to take on a bigger offensive role. If the playoffs are important to Orlando, it would appear this kind of a deal would not benefit the Magic. Not in the way they want.

But it all gets back to the underlying question. Would Fournier opt out of his contract?

He would become one of the top free-agent guards in a tight market where not a lot of teams have money to spend. But it would put pressure on the Magic to keep him without a likely replacement on the market to replace him.

Orlando clearly still needs Fournier. But the team probably cannot afford to keep him and everyone in place to take the next steps. At some point, the Magic will throw some of their young players into the deep end. Whether they are ready or not.

That is very much the quandary the Magic find themselves in ahead of the trade deadline and this summer.

And that is the quandary the rest of the league senses for the team. And so they will wait to see what the Magic want to do and let the Magic decide their next move.