Orlando Magic’s high payroll is not the team’s biggest problem

The Orlando Magic face some big decisions this offseason. It all centers on finding value and getting the most of the players they have. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic face some big decisions this offseason. It all centers on finding value and getting the most of the players they have. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic had the fifth-highest payroll in the NBA last season. While some see that as a sign of what is wrong with the Magic, that is not right.

The Orlando Magic are in a tricky spot financially.

The team has seemingly topped off as a fringe playoff team with little way to maneuver in free agency and not the best trade prospects.

The Magic seem like they are going to have to take a step back to take a step forward, possibly looking for a way to move up in the draft or waiting on internal development from young players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac (out for the 2021 season), Mohamed Bamba or Chuma Okeke.

Even that seems difficult. By some measure, the Magic’s young players have not played beyond their rookie contract levels. That paints a still-cloudy future for the franchise.

The Magic have the fifth-highest payroll in the league. That is a fact that seems alarming and strange. It is often something critics of the Jeff Weltman group will point to as a sign things are not going in the right direction.

This is a sign the Magic should deconstruct and start over.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That is certainly a path forward and not something the Magic should take off the table. But a high payroll is not a reason for this. The Magic’s high payroll is not the problem for the Magic.

Cap room is only valuable to the teams that can spend it. And while the Magic could probably use something more than the mid-level exception to boost their depth, they are not in a position to make a big play for a major free agent.

Teams that try to play free agency before their team is ready — or free agents are interested — end up signing Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin to fill out their roster.

Even the New York Knicks are realizing this, putting out some reporting that they might be willing to take on bad contracts with their cap room as a means to get players they ultimately want.

What matters, in the end, is a team’s production and getting the most for that value. It is being able to be in a position to make the all-in move when it comes around and take on the big-salary player that puts a team over the top.

Orlando is still beneath the luxury tax line and that is ultimately the threshold that matters most to teams like the Magic — unlike total payroll only championship-contending teams should be paying the tax.

The bigger problem is the Magic have not gotten the kind of production to enable them to make that trade to take their next step and consolidate their roster into a championship-contending one.

Improving value

The Orlando Magic are scuttling at the bottom of the playoff picture because they are waiting for players already on the roster to improve their value. The biggest issue the Magic face as they try to carve a path forward is their own stagnation.

As we have examined throughout the week, the Magic are certainly not getting that kind of value. Here is the chart we have been referencing that attempts to find value by using VORP as a function of the salary cap to determine market value (for a fuller explanation, click here to go to Nylon Calculus):

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

Many fans are entering the offseason lamenting this seeming lack of flexibility. It seems like the Magic will have to give up a lot — perhaps too much — to make a truly splashy move. And it is still unclear what would be left.

To be sure, Orlando should not head into next season with the same roster. They need to make changes and seek ways to improve and change the roster.

Philosophically, Jeff Weltman should be seeking a way to make the roster closer to his ultimate vision for the team. He needs to be aggressive and purposeful with his transactions to create this reality.

But a splashy move that brings in the kind of star the Magic are desperately seeking feels unrealistic at the moment. This does not feel like the time for the Magic to push all in and make that kind of play.

More than likely, the Magic will look to add a skill player who may not average the same amount of points per game as the guy they trade out. It will be about consolidating some talent or pushing a young player into a bigger role.

Regardless of whether the Magic try to push their chips in or cash out on a veteran who does not fit the team’s future, there is plenty of risk.

Remaining competitive

But what remains important is the Orlando Magic stay competitive to retain that value. Making the playoffs, even on a low level will help the team push forward. At the very least, the Magic have to hope it creates the right environment for their younger players to grow into bigger roles.

The kind of bigger roles that will attract those free agents or have players willing to take less to play in Orlando.

That is perhaps the biggest question lurking in the background. The Magic need to find out whether they can truly build a team around Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Chuma Okeke and whoever else they want to carry forward into the future.

No one doubts the biggest issue facing the Magic is finding top-end talent. The Magic had four players place in Seth Partnow’s ranking of the top 120 players on The Athletic. His more mathematically minded rankings separated players into five tiers.

Orlando had three players — Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac — in tier 5A. That is essentially high-level rotation players or sure starters that are not likely to become All-Stars. Isaac might be the toughest to gauge because of his youth and relatively scant playing time because of injury.

Nikola Vucevic was the only player to reach Tier 4, ranking in the top grouping of that tier. That tier is essentially borderline All-Stars.

It is clear to say the Magic are not devoid of talent. But they do not have the top-end talent that can clearly lift the team higher.

Next. What the NBA's December star plan means for the Orlando Magic. dark

At this point, the Magic are merely trying to extract the most value they can from their players — whether that is on the court or on their cap sheet.