The Orlando Magic will operate as a team over the salary cap this offseason. That will force Jeff Weltman to be creative and careful as he plans things out.
It still feels like everyone needs to decompress some following the end of a long and difficult season.
The Orlando Magic did not have the year they envisioned. They hoped to take another step up in the Eastern Conference standings. They bet they could keep growing from the middle and reinvested in their current roster, hoping perhaps to combine some assets into that one player to take them over the top down the road after proving their playoff appearance was no fluke.
It was a somewhat risky gamble. But one that made some sense.
After all, Orlando had made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The team felt like it was pretty young with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac still growing and eager to grow from their first playoff experience. And then they had Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba developing on the bench.
The Magic could easily feel like they were a team perfect to grow from the middle. They could stay competitive and compete for a playoff spot and then slowly chart and plot their way forward.
The 2020 season then is going to be viewed as a mixed bag.
The Magic made the playoffs for a second straight year. That is an accomplishment. But the rest of the puzzle looks a bit muddied. There is no longer the unbridled optimism from the end of the 2019 season.
Where 2019 felt like this was the beginning of something, the 2020 season feels like it is the end. Maybe not the end, there is still room to grow. But it feels like a chapter in Magic history is closing as the team looks ahead to its future.
Injuries gutted the team throughout the season. By the end, Orlando did not have any of its power forwards save for mid-season acquisition Gary Clark. As coach Steve Clifford said after the team’s Game 5 loss, this was not the team they envisioned at the start of the season.
The key players on the floor at the end of the season were all holdovers from the previous management group — Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier chief among them as the representatives of those difficult years.
All of the draft picks from the Jeff Weltman era (Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba and Chuma Okeke) did not participate in this year’s playoffs. Gordon, another of the Magic’s prized young players, also missed out with a strained hamstring. Fultz is the only young player who got the benefit of a playoff experience.
That was valuable enough. But among the fan base, there certainly is a feeling of finality. The optimism of 2019 has given way to the uncertainty of 2020.
A second straight year inside the Playoffs, but scraping the bottom of them, has everyone asking where this team goes from here.
There are some big decisions to make — some outside of the Magic’s control. And every move will take the Magic down one path or the other. Or several other paths that are yet unforeseen.
“For us, we have a couple of players with player options with decisions for themselves to make,” Weltman said during a teleconference Monday. “That could impact our own path. All those things figure in. I wouldn’t say there is one overriding concern or issue we are facing. It’s like any summer, it’s all on the table and it’s all very interconnected. You can’t answer one without the other.”
The biggest decision will be Evan Fournier, with his $17.2 million player option for the 2021 season. That will dictate a lot of what the Magic can do — both in terms of free agency and in terms of trades.
Orlando will have to be careful as it navigates these waters. There may be no perfect solution. And there will once again be little wiggle room — even with Fournier’s decision upcoming.
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The Magic have roughly $96 million in guaranteed salary for next season. Their cap holds for Chuma Okeke and the 15th overall pick comes out to roughly $5.4 million. The Magic will be operating at a minimum payroll of $101.4 million.
Previous projections had the salary cap coming in at $115 million. But that number is likely to decrease because of the lost revenues from this season. By how much? Nobody seems to know.
At maximum, Orlando could have $14 million in cap room. But that is only if they renounce rights to every free agent — D.J. Augustin, Wesley Iwundu, Melvin Frazier and Gary Clark. And that is only if Evan Fournier and James Ennis decline their player options.
It is easy to see how quickly that room will disappear. The team could very easily look to re-sign Augustin and Iwundu and Clark are possible players who could return this offseason.
If Fournier picks up his player option, as he is expected to, the Magic will then be over the cap.
That gives Orlando only the mid-level exception — the same $9.3 million salary the team gave Al-Farouq Aminu — or the bi-annual exception (roughly $3.6 million) to play with in free agency.
To say the least, that is not enough to add a true impact player.
It will be another summer of working on the margins and trying to find a way to improve the roster through trades and key free-agent moves.
The Magic probably need Fournier to opt-in or to retain him as a trade asset in some way just to have some maneuverability.
It is this reason why Gordon is named most in trade rumors. Quite simply, he is the easiest and probably most attractive big salary the Magic have to move.
If Orlando wants to make a significant change, it will certainly cost one of those big pieces — Vucevic is certainly not immune after his strong postseason. Thus the feeling that change is likely on its way this offseason as the Magic map out where they go next. The roster needs at least a small refresh to take that next step.
In all likelihood, the Magic might look to take a step back and clear some of their books to be in better position for the summer of 2021 — when both Isaac and Fultz will be restricted free agents — or beyond.
Right now, Orlando has $52.9 million committed to the 2022 season. Even if Isaac and Fultz get contracts around $20 million per year (neither seems likely right now), that could give the team just south of $20 million in cap room, depending on where the cap number falls.
Orlando could easily put itself in a position to sign someone that summer — or to take on some money in trades for teams trying to play that major free-agent class.
Building up a cache of trade assets might ultimately be how the Magic make their all-in play for a superstar down the road. The question facing Weltman is whether this is the time.
This offseason will test Jeff Weltman’s ability to retool the roster and maximize the players on his roster. If the Magic want to improve and compete, even with Isaac on the shelf with his injury, they will need to be creative.
This summer will go a long way in determining where the Magic head in the years beyond.
Of course, nobody knows what the financial landscape will look like and what the 2021 season will be. And that only adds to the difficulty in planning things out.