Orlando Magic following Miami Heat’s path for quick rebuild

The Miami Heat looked to be stuck in the same salary cap hell the Orlando Magic are in now. But they quickly changed things with one big move. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
The Miami Heat looked to be stuck in the same salary cap hell the Orlando Magic are in now. But they quickly changed things with one big move. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Miami Heat were capped out and out of the playoffs. Then they suddenly became an Eastern Conference finalist. The Orlando Magic are following this path.

The Orlando Magic faced off against the Miami Heat in a critical March playoff battle last year. The two Florida teams were battling atop the Southeast Division for the low stakes of finishing seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat were recognizing Chris Bosh at halftime, a callback to their championship legacy. Few teams have been as consistently successful as the Heat in the last decade. They still had big expectations.

But like every franchise that loses a star player, there is some retooling. There is a reset.

Pat Riley, though, does not reset. He always plays big, going for the biggest fish. That is how he landed Alonzo Mourning to kick off the Heat dynasty in 1995 — they have missed the Playoffs six times since then — and that is how he made the ultimate play to add LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade.

Riley is always all-in. He has found a way to play the gambler while still being nimble enough to change on a dime.

There were a few years lost a bit in the wilderness — the Heat have made the playoffs in just three of the last six years without making it in consecutive years. But no one can argue with the results.

Riley’s Heat are quickly becoming the standard for staying competitive and relevant. The Heat are a model franchise in the league.

If the Magic are looking for a rebuilding plan to copy, it is the plan their rivals to the south have put together. Their one-year rebuild is something that is difficult to copy, especially for a Magic franchise that has little cap flexibility.

But the Heat have proven that cap flexibility can be created quickly. And if a team is bold enough and patient enough, they can transform themselves into contenders quickly.

The Heat, after all, and much to Magic fans’ chagrin, are in the Eastern Conference Finals. And the team does not even feel complete yet.

Riley still has designs to add one more superstar player. And if Riley wants one, he is going to do what he has to do to get one.

But it was not like this for the Heat for a long time. The Magic and Heat are traveling similar paths.

Stuck in cap purgatory

The Miami Heat were in the same cap hell the Orlando Magic have found themselves in without many playoff prospects. Or the same dim playoff prospects.

In the summer of 2017, the Heat were in a disastrous place.

They signed James Johnson to a 4-year, $60 million contract (starting at $14 million and increasing) that summer. Hassan Whiteside signed a four-year, $98-million deal the summer before (that expired at the end of the 2020 season). Goran Dragic also got a 5-year, $86-million contract that summer. Dion Waiters signed a 4-year, $52-million deal with the Heat too.

Josh Richardson had a breakout 2017 season and inked a 4-year, $42-million extension in the summer of 2018. And Miami still had Chris Bosh on the books unable to play because of blood clotting.

You can see how quickly the money adds up. The Heat committed more money to a team that had several nice players, but no true superstar to coalesce around.

In the 2019 season, Miami had $123.5 million committed to their team. The team was roughly $200,000 beneath the luxury tax threshold. And this was a team that fell painstakingly short of the postseason.

The Heat’s ability to put itself in a position to bring in a major free agent like Butler then is nothing less than astounding.

Miami Heat
Miami Heat /

Miami Heat

The sell-off happened quickly this offseason.

In a four-team trade, the Heat pawned off Hassan Whiteside’s massive salary to the Trail Blazers and Josh Richardson to the 76ers to sign and trade for Jimmy Butler along with Meyers Leonard’s expiring contract. They were able to stretch the final year of Ryan Anderson’s contract to get that little bit of extra cap room.

Butler ultimately had to decide on Miami as a free agent, but the Heat found a way despite being capped out to make this move. They were still in a position to make the bold move when the right one came along.

That is what big salaries can do. Every contract in the NBA can be moved for the right price — the Heat had to send out a first-round pick as part of the  Butler trade — and the question is always whether a team is willing to pay that price to do so.

The Magic are in a similar position to the Heat in 2017.

They had just signed a bunch of long-term contracts to big money, capping themselves out but staying outside of the luxury tax. The Heat’s decision to retain assets and retain their quality role players ultimately kept the team competitive on the outskirts of the playoff picture, but it also gave them the players to go make a big deal when the right player expressed interest.

Orlando has back-to-back playoff appearances. The team has a competitive team and is still building its culture. The Magic have something to sell.

The question facing Jeff Weltman as president of basketball operations is how best to nurture that culture to be enticing to a free agent or all-in guy to make the kind of move the Heat made with Butler.

It is dangerous to stay capped out with a team that tops off as a low-level playoff team. At some point, the Magic are going to have to make an all-in move. The question is about when and which move is the right one — it is clearly not acquiring Serge Ibaka.

Pulling off a Miami

Of course, the Orlando Magic are not the Miami Heat.

While every team plays under the same rules and should theoretically have the same opportunities, the Heat have some advantages over the Magic that they cannot yet duplicate.

First, Miami has Riley, who is famous for displaying his championship rings to would-be free agents both from his time as a player and coach and executive. He has a 20-plus year track record running that organization to great success.

Second, they have Erik Spoelstra who is one of the best coaches in the league. He has his own championship rings to sell. But, more importantly, he has the Heat way to sell. They have built an ingrained culture within that organization.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

And that is the third point too. Miami has a very good idea of the kinds of players and people who work well for them. They do a good job finding veterans and fitting them into that culture.

But, more importantly, they constantly supplement their roster with solid draft picks like Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo and then find guys off the scrap heap like Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. The Miami Heat are probably as good at drafting and finding players as anyone in the league — even the San Antonio Spurs.

The Magic do not have a legacy of championships to sell. Jeff Weltman has been in place for only three years. Steve Clifford is a solid foundational coach and teacher, but he does not have championship gravitas to sell.

And while the Magic have done OK with their drafting, Weltman’s draft record still has some blank spots that need to be filled in. Orlando has not done well to find the end-of-draft guys and G-League players to build depth on their roster.

Butler was not taking as much of a chance on an established Heat culture. The Magic will ultimately need someone to take a chance on their vision. Or they will need to go out and find someone and take a chance on them that they will buy into their vision — think of how the Charlotte Bobcats sold Al Jefferson on their vision with Kemba Walker and Steve Clifford after a nine-win season and immediately became a playoff team.

The Magic are certainly hoping to think about things on a grander scale than that Hornets team. But it is the same sense.

Weltman is likely holding his assets steady to make the kind of all-in move the Heat seem to make with ease. He is waiting for the right trade opportunity to tie the team together and take them to the next level with some of the young players the Magic already have on the team.

Weltman, as he described to Josh Robbins of The Athletic, has several paths to walk with this team and they are all fraught with peril. But the Magic are not doing anything too dissimilar to something that has worked with the Heat and in the NBA before.

Nikola Vucevic is part of modernizing the Orlando Magic's offense. dark. Next

The question will be whether the Magic make the right move and invest in the right player to take this team forward.