2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Jeff Weltman needs to put his focus on the roster

Jeff Weltman's role to this point has been to build the Orlando Magic's infrastructure and culture. Now he needs to work on the roster. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Weltman's role to this point has been to build the Orlando Magic's infrastructure and culture. Now he needs to work on the roster. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Jeff Weltman has worked hard to build the Orlando Magic’s foundation and infrastructure. Now he needs to focus on the roster.

When Jeff Weltman came to Orlando, the Orlando Magic were in the deepest hole they have ever been in.

The team was struggling to find its way after trading away All-Star center Dwight Howard. There was nothing resembling consistency and years of collecting high draft picks was not going anywhere.

Orlando needed direction. But more importantly, the team needed a foundation. It had the facility and everything else, but not the infrastructure to grow. There was a lot of work to do.

Weltman spent his first year evaluating the roster but working mostly behind the scenes. He was building the support system for the team he wanted to build.

The 2019 season saw him make more significant changes, but the focus was still on infrastructure. He was focused on building the foundations for the team.

The Magic have built that infrastructure thanks to back-to-back playoff appearances. But a lot of questions remain. Weltman’s toughest job is ahead of him as he tries to get the Magic from playoff bottom-feeder to potential contender and beyond.

In either a miscalculation of where his team was at in its development or just a rash of bad injury luck, the Magic did not take that important and hoped-for next step this season. There was probably little Weltman could do to prepare for the injuries and he again showed good poise in making mid-season acquisitions to set the team up for whatever success it could find.

But the story of the 2020 season will also be of an offseason spent doubling down on the team’s apparent strengths and not handling any of its weaknesses. Orlando was not able to take that next step and the roster and how Weltman constructed it is certainly part of the reason why.

Like a coach, an executive is ultimately judged on a team’s results. The 2020 season was not a failure by any means. The team returned to the playoffs and solidified the foundation they built in 2019.

But the season was not a success either. There was a lot of lost potential and the team still seems very mismatched to get where they want to go. And the Magic exited the 2020 season with more questions on the path forward than clear answers.

Contract planning

Hiring Steve Clifford as the team’s head coach was his first major change to the roster and the on-court product. He wanted a coach who would establish a base that would lead to winning. Someone who could instill discipline while helping young players grow.

The Magic’s breakthrough to the 2019 Playoffs put Weltman in a tougher spot. Facing an offseason in 2019 with several key free agents, he had to decide which direction to bring his franchise.

Should he cling to the past and the players that helped the team get its first playoff berth in seven years? Should he tear it down and move things in a new direction?

It was time for Wetlman to make an impact on the basketball team and start putting his imprint. He would not be responsible for what happened on the court.

Weltman comes from the school of thought that development comes best from players in winning environments. He was not about to tear everything down just to play the lottery. Especially with a demanding coach like Clifford, the team was always going to compete.

And so he owned the team that made the playoffs in 2019. He re-signed Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross after their stellar seasons. And the hope and belief were that internal development would carry the team beyond that surprise performance.

Weltman deserves a lot of credit for his creativity with these contracts. Like the extension he gave Aaron Gordon in the summer of 2018, Nikola Vucevic’s contract is front-loaded. Vucevic is paid the most at a time when the Magic do not have the cap room to sign anybody.

Ross’ contract also is structured similarly — increasing from the 2020 to 2021 seasons before declining in the final two years.

These contracts will enable the Magic more cap flexibility down the road and the ability to make trades to improve the roster.

Changing the roster

But the Orlando Magic made few other moves to the roster. The Magic essentially ran it back.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team drafted Chuma Okeke with the understanding he would redshirt the year with the Lakeland Magic. That was a cap-saving move as much as anything.

But it highlighted a problem with Jeff Weltman’s offseason and how he planned his team. Chuma Okeke is a versatile forward — leaning closer to a small forward — that mimics the same versatility the Magic have in Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon.

That was made even more confusing, even with Chuma Okeke out for the year, with the signing of Al-Farouq Aminu.

There was a logic behind the Aminu signing. The Magic needed one more versatile wing to keep some size on the floor at all times. That was something that hurt the team in the playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, costing the Orlando Magic a home win in Game 3.

But Aminu’s poor shooting did not add a necessary skill to a franchise devoid of shooting. Giving a three-year mid-level-exception deal to Aminu was a coup in that Orlando convinced a starter-caliber player to accept a reserve role. But it left the Magic exposed offensively, especially considering how much Aminu struggled to shoot even simple shots.

The Magic quickly found as injuries piled up how much shooting they lacked. They were forced to try overstuffed lineups because of the team’s failure to get quality shooters.

Reflecting poorly on Jeff Weltman’s drafting, Steve Clifford did not use draft picks Wesley Iwundu or Melvin Frazier in the face of injuries. He did not even turn to two-way players Josh Magette, B.J. Johnson or Vic Law in the team’s time of need.

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Ultimately, Weltman had to make some in-season moves to shore up the roster yet again. Gary Clark had his moments and proved vital in the playoffs. The in-season acquisition of James Ennis helped unlock whatever potential was remaining for the Magic to realize.

But neither of these are long-term solutions, although Ennis will help in the 2021 season assuming he picks up his option.

The Magic have clear offensive needs. They had them exiting the 2019 season. Internal improvement was not going to change that. And Weltman did not address them.

Looking forward

The Orlando Magic though are still essentially a young, building team. They doubled down on some veterans to keep themselves winning and competitive, but their focus is on what they will look like four or five years from now.

Making the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020 was about the experience and culture (as much as Weltman hates that word and concept) they were building in getting there. They want to advance and they want to compete for something more than just a playoff spot. But the process of making the playoffs was important.

If Weltman’s three years so far have been about building a foundation for the team to grow from, he has successfully done that. The team’s culture and attitude has changed. Even with Jonathan Isaac out for the 2021 season, the Magic expect to make the playoffs every year.

But the team has to look forward. The team has to prepare for its future.

If Weltman has a goal for the 2020 offseason and for the 2021 offseason, it should be to shape and shift the team toward whatever final vision he has for it. He can do this while still maintaining a roster that can compete and make the playoffs.

But undoubtedly, the Magic need to start putting together a clearer vision for their future and moving the chessboard into alignment for his ultimate vision.

JEFF WELTMAN. C+. . Pres. of Basketball Operations. Orlando Magic

Weltman has done well to put some pieces in place.

His acquisition of Markelle Fultz turned out to be a brilliant move. Fultz has established himself as a starting point guard in the league. But everything else about this team faces serious questions.

Is this as far as a Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier-led team can go? How do the Magic handle Fournier’s free agency with big contract decisions coming in the summer of 2021? What do the Magic do with Jonathan Isaac and his upcoming free agency with him out for the year? What will the Magic get out of Chuma Okeke in his rookie year? What improvements are in store for Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz?

A lot of these questions are vitally important to answer in the 2020 season as the Magic set up for a big 2021 offseason.

Weltman likely does not have an all-in move planned for this offseason. With just the mid-level exception to use in free agency, the Magic are likely looking at another summer where they maintain what they have. Maybe they make one move for a starter along with taking someone in the draft with the 15th pick.

For sure, the Magic need to have a clearer vision for their future by the end of the 2020 season, regardless of what the season’s results are. And for sure, the Magic need to address skill needs — especially shooting — that the team is lacking if they have any intention of competing in the 2021 season.

They need that for their future anyway.

Weltman has done well to bide his time and build the foundation for the Magic’s ultimate success. There is still some work to solidify that foundation.

But it is also time to look at what this team will look like moving forward and into the future. The Magic have crafted their identity, now it is time to add to it.

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What the product on the court looks like and its outlook for the future will matter. And Weltman has to put his team in a position to succeed. Especially this coming season with such an important player unavailable.