James Ennis declining player option leaves big hole for Orlando Magic

James Ennis' toughness and defensive grit proved valuable for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
James Ennis' toughness and defensive grit proved valuable for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool) /

James Ennis is expected to decline his player option and become a free agent, putting the Orlando Magic in a bind ahead of the 2021 season.

Orlando Magic forward James Ennis is expected to decline his player option and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. According to Josh Robbins of The Athletic, the final deadline for this decision is Thursday. But it appears set James Ennis will hit free agency.

Ennis arrived in Orlando at the trade deadline in a move the team made to shore up its depth at small forward for a playoff run. The team needed a more veteran presence and a player who could move Aaron Gordon more full-time to power forward.

Ennis did make a big impact on the team. He averaged 8.5 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting a 51.9-percent effective field goal percentage. His defense was especially valuable, as was his toughness and grit.

Coach Steve Clifford often praised James Ennis for his mindset and defensive toughness. He felt Ennis was starting to get more comfortable and integrated with the team when the season went on hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic.

He became a more vital player during the playoffs. But he struggled like the rest of the team, averaging only 7.0 points per game with a 40.0-percent effective field goal percentage.

Despite Clifford’s insistence otherwise, Ennis’ shooting never came around for the Magic. he was not the floor spacer the team needed. But he could score on a few nice step backs and go on runs to give the Magic some needed offensive support.

Still, with Jonathan Isaac out, James Ennis’ presence seemed to move Aaron Gordon into a more productive role on the team. He did at least nominally spread the floor. Ennis was always a temporary option and a proof of concept that a more traditional 3-and-D small forward would be the best fit next to Gordon.

The Magic now have to spend at least some of their offseason capital finding a suitable starting small forward to complete their lineup. Ennis’ decision to opt-out might be a financially sound one for Ennis, but it is certainly going to put the Magic in a bit of a bind.

Orlando only has limited resources to improve this offseason. Outside of a trade, the Magic will only have their draft pick and the mid-level exception in free agency to improve the team. That could make it difficult to find a starter-level player.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

At the very least, Ennis’ decision to opt-out changes or shifts the priorities this offseason to complete the roster.

Of course, it is still possible Ennis re-signs with the team in free agency to a more lucrative deal — although not that lucrative, the Magic hold only Ennis’ early Bird Rights, limiting how much they can pay him over his old salary to retain him while still going over the cap.

The Magic’s current options within the roster to fill that starting small forward spot are rookie Chuma Okeke, who just signed with the team after using the 2020 season to rehab a torn ACL, and Al-Farouq Aminu, also coming off an injury that caused him to miss most of the season.

Wesley Iwundu remains an option. But it is not clear at this point whether the Magic have picked up his team option to retain him. Losing Ennis might force the Magic to keep him for another year.

In all likelihood, the Magic will have to put some focus in their offseason moves at finding a small forward. Unless they really believe Okeke is ready to start. An Al-Farouq Aminu/Aaron Gordon lineup will not be that appetizing — the duo had an on-court net rating of +1.3 points per 100 possessions in 132 minutes but had only a 96.2 offensive rating.

The Magic do have some options. But it is hard to say they are reliable. Or, at least, as reliable as Ennis became for the team last year. That might make the Magic more amenable to signing Ennis to a multi-year contract.

Then again, every move the Magic make this offseason should have at least some eye on the team’s longer term future rather than simply to shore up a 2021 season that likely will top out with ending in the first round yet again.

Ennis’ potential departure indeed leaves a big hole in the Magic’s lineup they will need to fill. Where or how they can fill it is still uncertain.

Orlando, of course, has some players for its long-term future the team would like to leave a path to playing for — whether it is Isaac or Okeke. They could certainly still use their draft pick to fill the small forward spot too.

Still, relying on a rookie or players who missed most of last season with an injury is a tough spot to be for a franchise hoping to be back in the playoffs for a third straight year. Orlando has a big hole to fill.

There are certainly options that can play at the level Ennis played at. Ennis was solid but not a big impactor. But this is now capital the Magic will have to spend that they could have spent elsewhere.

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Ennis’ potential departure — again, he could still re-sign with the team — leaves a big hole the Magic will still have to fill to prepare next year’s team for the season.