The Orlando Magic have two goals as the trade deadline approaches a month from now. Satisfying both may prove to be extremely difficult in a tight market.
There are some truths about the Orlando Magic that are plain to see as they near the season’s midpoint.
The first is that this is a playoff team. The Magic’s ultimate baseline goal for the year was to return to the playoffs in whatever capacity. The season would be a failure if the magic were not back in the postseason and so getting back there was vital to the team’s future plans.
This is, after all, still a young team. D.J. Augustin and Josh Magette are the only players in their 30s on the team. The team wants to see their young players like Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba get playing experience in winning situations and with winning pressure, even if they are not the featured players.
But that leads to the second truth about this team.
In all likelihood, this group has a ceiling. The Magic have struggled to take tangible steps forward this year. And while Orlando is fighting for a playoff spot from ahead instead of having to chase that playoff spot in the season’s final weeks.
But the team failed to make a clearer leap than that. Instead, the Magic seem destined to finish about the same place they did last year — with somewhere between 40-45 wins and a seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. And, probably, more importantly, a first-round exit.
That is not a bad thing. But that is not where a franchise wants to get stuck.
If this team has that kind of a ceiling then inevitably the way for this team to get better is on the trade market. With the team’s salary cap sheet cluttered that means trades are the most likely way for the team to get better.
Everyone around the league likely anticipates this. And the sharks are already reportedly circling, curious as to what the Magic might do. Orlando has several players teams could be interested in. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier are at the top of many trade lists that are coming out.
Sam Amick of The Athletic reported there remain rumblings the Magic are willing to move off Aaron Gordon. But that might get complicated by Jonathan Isaac’s injury. Orlando needs the power forward depth and Gordon is still a young, versatile player having an odd down year after last year’s breakthrough.
Evan Fournier is also potentially on the block. He has a player option for next season and could very well be the best shooting guard on the free-agent market if he hits it.
The Magic likely have to decide who will not get paid among their top players — the team has already given big contracts to Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross and Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac’s restricted free agency loom in 2021.
Fournier might be the odd man out. And so it is reasonable to expect the Magic at least explore trading him.
Then again, if the Magic lose any of these players, they risk losing their spot in the playoffs. They have a lead over the Charlotte Hornets and the teams jumbled just below the red line. But that lead can disappear quickly.
Orlando is not likely to sacrifice that first goal mid-season to serve that second goal.
But they have a whole lot to weigh. It seems the Magic are going to reset themselves and map out their plan before the Feb. 6 trade deadline after the team returns from the road trip next week:
Orlando probably will not go the extreme route of torpedoing a playoff-caliber team. The Magic are clearly still in playoff positioning and want to send a message that winning is their priority. Even small-scale winning sends a positive message to free agents.
But how aggressive the Magic get at the trade deadline or how strategic they go with their long-term thinking will certainly all be on the table in the next few weeks.
And this is the biggest issue the Magic face as the trade deadline approaches is the conflict of these two truths.
Orlando values making the playoffs. Even in the Eastern Conference where it still seems like a losing record might be enough to hit that moving target, the team has been out of the postseason picture for so long that building even a low-level playoff contender is valuable to the franchise.
The Magic have capitalized on the buzz surrounding the team once again and are happy to be relevant even in this small way. The front office clearly values the pressure situations their young players now gett o play in and experiencing the intensity and preparation necessary to make the playoffs.
It is fair to argue that Orlando has under-performed this year. And the seriousness and poise about which the Magic have approached this season was something that could only come from knowing what it is like to get through the marathon.
But it is also fair to say the Magic do not want to be stuck in these middling seeds. They do have bigger ambitions. And Orlando is going to have to find a way to grow and improve to get there.
Isaac still remains the most important player in this growth. But he is now out for at least the next two months with a severe knee sprain. The Magic are likely to take things slowly with his recovery.
How do they get better then? Do they look to make a move at the trade deadline? Do they wait for the summer? How do they handle these upcoming free agents at the trade deadline?
Orlando’s biggest dilemma this year is to balance these competing interests. The Magic must keep a long-term vision — their free-agent signings to this point of the season seem to have a longer-term view in mind — all while maintaining their place in the playoffs.
The Magic have high-priced players who still have room to grow. But it will still cost them more plus future assets to get that truly impactful player. And what players like that on struggling teams could the Magic target?
The trade market is still sorting out its buyers and sellers at this point. In the Western Conference, every team but the Golden State Warriors are in the playoff field or within five games of the final playoff spot. In the Eastern Conference, the gap behind the Magic is wider. But really only the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks are outside a reasonable playoff range.
In other words, there are a lot of teams who can still convince themselves they can make the playoffs.
Who is there to target from those teams? Amick reported the Warriors are not interested in the long-time fan rumored Aaron Gordon for D’Angelo Russell trade.
The buyers and sellers are still sorting themselves out. And that includes the Magic.
Orlando has players that would point them to being sellers — their seeming ceiling, Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin’s expiring contracts. But the team ultimately wants to get better, which would make them act more like buyers.
The reality is that this trade market may not present a deal that helps the Magic achieve their dual goals. Their best chance to make the kind of improvement they want likely comes in the summer.
But things change quickly in the NBA. Things could change just as quickly for the Magic. And the trade deadline is still a long four weeks away.