Orlando Magic executives pitch playoff philosophy in wake of trade deadline

The Orlando Magic didn’t make the splashy move that fans want and might be inevitable at the trade deadline. Instead, they stuck to their playoff philosophy.

The Orlando Magic seem stuck. And fans want answers to the direction this team is headed.

Fans hoped Orlando would be able to develop and break into the next tier of the Eastern Conference. Injuries have derailed that and then stagnation and regression have further deepened the hole.

The way this season has gone, fans were eager to see the team turn the page or do something major to push the team back in a positive direction at the trade deadline. Everyone senses it is time to change and move away from the core leftover from the Rob Hennigan era.

How to move forward is the point of debate.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman let the trade deadline pass without making a major move. The team only sent out a second-round pick (from the Los Angeles Lakers, so it is likely ended up in the high-50s) for James Ennis, hoping he can add some shooting and depth to an injury-depleted roster.

It was not the major move fans were hoping for that would propel the team forward.

The reality is the conditions to make a trade — even sending out Evan Fournier, who has a player option for the summer and could hit unrestricted free agency — were not present for this team. Not with the goals they still have.

The overarching theme it seems from the Magic’s front office, as Weltman explained on Open Mike on Friday, is to maintain their spot in the playoffs and continue playing for something meaningful (no matter how small) as the way to develop the team.

“I think there’s a lot of value in our young guys growing up, learning how to attack winning, experience winning and fighting for games in April when half the league has folded the tent and experiencing what playoff basketball is about,” Weltman said in his radio appearance. “How you have to serve your teammates and how you have to lift everyone else up to have a chance.

“We’re trying to do something that is pretty tough. We are trying to make the playoffs and develop a lot of young players. There are not many guys who are trying to make the playoffs with that guy is 21, that guy is 22, that guy is 23. We have a lot of those guys playing significant minutes for us right now. it’s not easy, but I do think our young guys are growing up the right way, they are being coached properly, hopefully they are being managed properly. And I know they have a good organization around them that values winning.”

Weltman said in NBA circles, players are how they come into the league. Judging by how the Magic struggled in the previous six seasons before Weltman and his staff really took hold despite having some very talented players on the roster, that philosophy has some legs. This organization values growth while winning.

Weltman described “tanking,” for lack of a better word, as something you have to be all-in with. This roster is certainly not one the organization should commit to that strategy.

The team hopes it can grow these players in a winning environment. He is right that it is not easy to do. And there are traps along the way.

Weltman said the team had some discussions for deals throughout the league. But the team was hamstrung some by its power forward depth. It did not want to pursue a deal that would add another power forward considering the team feels it is pretty locked in at that spot — with Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu.

General manager John Hammond told Dante Marchitelli on Magic Drive Time the team has yet to come together. But he still lauded the team for its resolve to stay in the playoff hunt despite the injuries and being down a position at power forward.

Without much power forward depth, it would have been hard for the team to seriously shop Aaron Gordon at the deadline.

The frustration over the Magic’s lack of progress seems fairly real from both fans and management.

Ultimately, the Magic opted to do something small the help the roster.

For those looking for an overall philosophy from this front office, Jeff Weltman said James Ennis fits what the Magic look for in a player. He is a tough-minded defensive player who can hit from the outside. Weltman said the team seemed to be running on fumes and adding a new element could help refresh them.

The goal remains to find a way to win with the group they have. Weltman said it would be a good step for the Magic to make playoffs for consecutive years. That would be a sign of progress, even if a small one and not a particularly satisfying one.

As Weltman said, doing this while developing a lot of young players is a difficult needle to thread.

Entering the season, the team wanted to see if it could break into the next tier of Eastern Conference playoff contenders and paid a pretty penny to do so. Long-term contracts in the summer for veterans Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million) were done to ensure the team maintained its spot in the playoffs and perhaps fostered growth.

Both contracts are team-friendly — Nikola Vucevic’s deal is front-loaded and Terrence Ross’ deal increases in the first two years, before decreasing in the final two years. Orlando understood that with a poor free-agent class in 2020, the team’s best chance to stay in the playoffs was to double down on its 2019 playoff roster.

If the team was going to grow and reach that next tier, it would have to come from the individual growth of young players like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz.

That has not happened this year.

The team enters Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at 22-30. That is good enough to sit comfortably in the playoff race at eighth, three games ahead of the Washington Wizards (the Orlando Magic swept the season series) but far away from the serious contention the Magic thought they might be.

Losers of nine of the past 11 games, the Orlando Magic have fallen even two games behind the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. And dreaming of catching the top-six teams in the Eastern Conference is a distant thought at this point.

Injuries have certainly hurt the Magic this year and kept them from reaching their full potential. But it does not even seem likely the Magic could break into that top-six group — or advance further — with the roster as currently constructed. Internal development might close that gap, but it feels like the team has reached its ceiling.

Orlando is still optimistic about its overall outlook.

Weltman and Hammond have cited predictor indexes that still have the Magic finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Nets. The team has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule in the league — no team chasing them has an easier schedule.

Opportunity remains for Orlando to get into the 7-seed and enter another playoff series. The expectation remains for the Magic to be in the playoffs once again.

Next: Conditions are forming for Magic to move Vucevic

Beyond that? The Magic still have big questions to answer. Their philosophy seems set for how they want to build. But the big moves this front office have to make are still on the horizon.

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