Orlando Magic seeking better value from best players

Trying to calculate value in the NBA is a tricky proposition. But after one year, Nikola Vucevic seems to be worth the price. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Trying to calculate value in the NBA is a tricky proposition. But after one year, Nikola Vucevic seems to be worth the price. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic had the fifth-highest payroll in the league, and it was clear they did not get the full bang for their buck. That hurts the team’s future.

The Orlando Magic are playing a waiting game with their roster.

They are trying to maintain assets and remain competitive in hopes they can one day swing the big trade to bring in a star that ties the whole thing together. That is what the Miami Heat did and they rode it to a trip to the NBA Finals.

The comparison between the Magic and the Heat remains apt even after the team’s disappointing 2020 season. Miami also had several years of stagnation before the team made its play for Jimmy Butler and a seemingly brighter future.

That is how quickly things can change in the league.

But ultimately, a team only goes as far as its best players. They have to carry the load and push the team forward. In the big moments — and especially the Playoffs — they are the ones carrying the team.

If the Magic have a problem it is their lack of top-end players. They have guys who are good enough to play a role and collectively good enough to make the Playoffs, but likely no more.

The problem the Magic ran into this season was their wait for one of their young veterans to take another step up and elevate the team. Whether because of the injuries or otherwise that did not happen.

And the numbers show the Magic’s big-salary players failed to deliver. That has created an offseason of questions for this team.

Jeff Weltman is certainly considering that and weighing how best to move his team forward. While fans are hungry for change, he might ultimately decide his best path is to stay the course a bit longer or he might decide it is time to completely revamp the team.

Both options are in front of the Magic. And they are here because the 2020 season did not live up to expectations. The team’s stagnation has put the team at a seeming crossroads.

It is important for Weltman and the Magic to be purposeful with whatever moves they make.

Still, it is tough to ask fans to be patient with a team that has seemingly topped off at the 7-seed and a record hovering near .500 that also has the fifth-highest payroll in the league. Ultimately, the Magic’s success in rebuilding this team will come from finding value and getting the most of the players they draft (most importantly) and the free agents and extensions they sign.

Certainly, the 2020 season was a disappointing one. It depressed the value of a lot of the team’s players. That will make creating trades difficult.

The Magic saw several players struggle this season and seemingly struggle to live up to the large contracts the Magic have handed out in the last two seasons. This has given the team plenty to consider and put it in something of a hole. It is difficult to trade players whose production does not meet their value.

And this as much as anything is what will create difficulties as the Magic look to improve this year.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Calculating value

Trying to figure out how to determine whether a player lives up to their contract is a mystery that statisticians have been trying to accurately determine for a long time. There have been a lot of methodologies to try to find value.

All of them are imperfect. But they still give us a window into value and whether the Orlando Magic are getting the bang for their buck.

We have done something like this before. Five years ago, we tried to apply a formula Nylon Calculus devised to try to determine on-court value in terms of contract value.

It was five years ago where the Magic spent a lot of money to retain players on their roster and were gearing up for a big offseason of change — one that eventually led to the demise of Rob Hennigan’s regime.

And so it seems like this is a fitting time to reassess value.

The formula starts by taking the amount of the salary cap and dividing it by 41 — the goal is to build an average team for the purposes of this formula — and then multiplying that amount by the product of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), as calculated by Basketball-Reference, and 2.7. We then add the value of a veteran’s minimum contract.

That creates a player’s Market Value. You then simply subtract the player’s actual salary to determine whether they played above or below market value.

For the purposes of this exercise, we will divide the salary cap by 36.5 since the Magic played only 73 games this season.

2020 VORP2020 Market Value2020 SalaryDifference
Nikola Vucevic3.1$27,592,199.58$28,000,000-$407,800.42
Evan Fournier1.6$15,482,144.78$17,000,000-$1,517,855.22
Jonathan Isaac1.1$11,445,459.85$5,806,440+$5,639,019.85
Aaron Gordon1.0$10,638,122.86$19,863,636-$9,225,513.14
Terrence Ross0.8$9,023,448.89$12,500,000-$3,476,551.11
Mohamed Bamba0.5$6,601,437.93$5,697,600-$903,837.93
Michael Carter-Williams0.5$6,601,437.93$2,028,594+$4,572,843.93
D.J. Augustin0.2$4,179,426.97$7,250,000-$3,070,573.03
Markelle Fultz0.1$3,372,089.99$9,745,200-$6,373,110.01
Khem Birch-0.1$1,757,416.01$3,000,000-$1,242,583.99
Al-Farouq Aminu-0.1$1,757,416.01$9,258,000-$7,500,583.99
James Ennis-0.3$142,742.04$1,882,867-$1,740,124.96
Gary Clark-0.1$1,757,416.01$718,765+$1,038,651.01
Wesley Iwundu-0.2$950,079.03$1,618,520-$668,440.97
2020 VORP2020 Market Value2020 SalaryDifference

There are a few things to note about this chart.

First, the formula itself is imperfect. It is five years old and inevitably needs some tweaking. But within the context of this discussion, it gives us a snapshot of the team’s value at the moment and how close players are tracking to their salaries, although it is probably not perfect.

Second, this chart takes a lot out of context by relying on VORP. VORP is a box score metric that tries to predict how much a player contributes to winning. So it values box score measures over a lot of other things. And it is dependent on how well a team is doing.

Third, the important thing to remember is that it is really easy for rookies to surpass their contract value and extremely difficult for veterans to do so.

Surprising value, disappointing results

The biggest takeaway from this chart should be just how good the Orlando Magic did in signing Nikola Vucevic to a four-year, $100-million front-loaded contract. Nikola Vucevic did not meet his salary value this year, but even if he has the same “down” year he had this season, he would surpass his salary of $26 million for next season.

Of course, a number like VORP may not fully capture a lot of context — especially defensively although Jonathan Isaac rated very highly in VORP despite playing less than half the season. Vucevic may still have some issues that hamper his value, but at least by this metric, he measures well. We will address the issues with the players on rookie contracts in a future post (so save this chart for future reference!).

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VORP likes Vucevic a lot. He grades out well for the contributions he makes. So while everyone understands Vucevic’s limitations and having a  3.1 VORP makes him a borderline All-Star rather than a featured option, Vucevic perhaps still contributes a lot more than everyone expects.

He has a lot of hidden value that goes beyond the box score. It would take a lot for the Magic to let him go.

The bigger concern for the Magic then comes from players not living up to their deals.

Aaron Gordon stands out most. After his frustrating, injury-filled season, his value tanked to $9 million below his actual salary. Especially for a young player, teams expect them to get incrementally better. Aaron Gordon took a major step back this year.

And when it comes to the trade market and trying to convince other teams to take him on to improve the roster, this will make those negotiations difficult.

Evan Fournier, too, rates a bit lower than his actual contract value. But that is expected for a mid-level veteran. Those are notoriously the toughest to gauge. And while Evan Fournier had a career season, his original four-year deal was always a bit of an overpay. This perhaps suggests Fournier’s stats are a bit hollow or he is not as important to the offense as his raw stats seem.

These are the Magic’s three captains. They are the Magic’s three biggest contracts. And it is clear that they are not getting enough from them.

The easy conclusion is the Magic are not going to be able to take the step forward they want if these three are the ones leading them. That is certainly on the table and the Magic have to consider moves to split this trio up and set a new path for the team.

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That in itself can be difficult. Because the team’s rookie contract players have not shown they are ready to take on those larger roles. Their value, as we will explore in the next part of this series, has not risen either.