Orlando Magic still climbing uphill with free agency

Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman stuck to his playoff philosophy at the trade deadline. (Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images)
Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman stuck to his playoff philosophy at the trade deadline. (Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are still rebuilding their team and establishing their foundation. Free agency is not going to be the answer, not quite yet.

One of the crowning achievements of the Orlando Magic’s franchise history happened in a back room at the RDV Sportsplex.

Then-general manager John Gabriel had pulled off a coup, signing two of the three biggest free agents in the league that summer.

Grant Hill, albeit on crutches, was considered one of the best players in the league, coming off a second-team All-NBA season with the Detroit Pistons. Tracy McGrady was one of the most promising young players in the league, coming off a breakout playoff performance for the Toronto Raptors.

Yes, the Magic missed out on the biggest fish in Tim Duncan that summer. But still, the Magic had plenty to celebrate. They were a free agent haven and Gabriel was named Executive of the Year for his offseason efforts.

That plan did not work out perfectly. But McGrady and Hill were both Hall of Fame players who chose to come to Orlando. They followed a line of free agents who saw an opportunity in Central Florida — from Horace Grant joining the team in 1994 to boost their young team to Rashard Lewis taking the chance on a young team in 2007.

Orlando seemingly had all the advantages of free agency. Or, it does when the team is at its best.

When the team is not at its best, the advantages Florida and Central Florida supposedly dissipate. And the reality that Orlando is not a hot market becomes apparent. This is not a place players — or the marketing companies — seek out despite its growth. Orlando is still growing and developing as its own independent market.

But the perception has to meet reality. And that is not the case right now.

While the Magic can certainly offer as much money and as many perks as any other franchise. They still need others — both free agents and other players in the industry — to view them as a desirable location.

If you are looking for a reason why the Magic have had to play their rebuild a bit slower, look no further than this quote from Nick DePaula of ESPN to Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype:

"“I’ve seen some brands include a 20-percent reduction for landing in certain small markets,” DePaula said. “I know for a fact that one brand had Sacramento and Orlando among others on that list of markets.”"

The article goes on to say that having a clause like this is usually a concession for getting something else in the deal. Ultimately, it may be more of a statement of how little the national audience thinks of the Magic than anything about Orlandoo as a potential free-agent destination.

The Magic had just one nationally televised game this year, after all. If shoe companies want their players and brand exposed, Orlando is not a place to get that done. Thus, it might make good business sense to avoid Orlando at the moment, or at least not to seek it out.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This might explain partially why the Magic have had to sit tight. Unless you are part of those favored market — Kennedy’s article specifically lists Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami — it is tough to stay in the free agency conversation.

That is unless you have a reason to attract those free agents. Finding a program that establishes a winning pedigree or a star that forces the national audience to pay attention are about the only ways for this perception to change for a market like Orlando.

It worked with Shaquille O’Neal (obviously in a different time), Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard. Orlando can be a place where superstar talent can flourish and find a market on a national scale. It absolutely can be like that again.

But those marketers need a reason to have that faith before they dive in. The Magic always needed to find their star first before they hit free agency. And free agents will certainly take all financial considerations — both contractually with the team and marketing opportunities — before making their decision. As they should.

Orlando’s current rebuild plan seems to acknowledge this. They do not seem to have plans to jump into free agency any time soon.

The Magic currently have $96 million committed to next year’s team. That would leave the team with $19 million under the projected $121 million cap. That is likely to decrease with the season currently on hiatus and the drop in TV revenue from China not broadcasting games this season.

Even before the team looks to sign Chuma Okeke and its rookie, they would not have any cap room to sign any starter-caliber player.

Orlando would not come into cap room, it seems, until the summer of 2021. But that is when the Magic will have to commit big money to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. The Magic will have to find a way to add new talent through other means, it seems.

Of course, if one of those players begins to take that star turn, the narrative completely changes. Now the Magic have a marketable star and the chance to do something great in the larger NBA story.

That is the hope at least. And that is what the Magic have to work on now, growing their own star internally before they make the big move.

Either that or the Magic can consolidate their crop of young players to get that big star and hope they can convince him to stay and build with whatever they have left. This seems to be more the path the Magic are patiently waiting to walk.

In either case, for the Magic to rebuild this reputation as a desirable location, it will take either extremely smart drafting and developing or some player to take the leap and believe in the franchise and what they are building.

Both really go hand in hand.

As the Magic look to advance beyond scrapping for a playoff spot, they will have to rely on all their tools. But free agency is not likely a tool they have to use in their chest quite yet. Not on the top end.

Next. Draft Preview: Few Options for Orlando Magic at the top. dark

To get the top-tier free agents, they have to prove themselves worthy first. That much is clear.