The injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz have made it hard for the Orlando Magic to make long-term plans and to enter the trade market.
It was clear by Tuesday night that James Harden was not going to stay with the Houston Rockets for much longer.
His press conference calling out his teammates as not good enough to win a title was a clear sign he was not bought in with his team. It was a clear leverage play to push his way finally out of Houston after publicly asking for a trade before camp began (that sound familiar?).
With the pressure to get a deal done increasing with Harden’s public demand, it did not take for seemingly every team to dream, even briefly, they could acquire the superstar guard. He made it clear, after all, he only want to go to a title contender with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers as the emerging favorites.
Yet, the daydreaming persists. Internet personality World Wide Wob suggested several Harden trade ideas and centered on one involving the Orlando Magic. They would give up a lot — several first-round picks, Aaron Gordon, Cole Anthony and Mohamed Bamba. But the team would largely be intact to absorb Harden
Orlando would finally have its star to tie the whole project together. The deal made some sense for the Magic, even if it was a hefty cost.
That is not how things went down. Harden got his wish and rejoined former teammate Kevin Durant this time with the Nets. Brooklyn gave up four first-round picks and then another four first-round pick swaps in addition to Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen to get it done. Victor Oladipo ended up on the Rockets in the end too.
Harden is slated to make his Nets debut Saturday against the Magic.
This was no missed opportunity. Harden made it clear he wanted to play for a title-contending team and with everything the Magic would have had to give up, mortgaging much of their future assets which they have carefully retained, the team likely would have remained a middling Eastern Conference team.
But more than that, the Magic are having a hard time planning their future right now to make these kinds of moves. The ACL injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz have put the team in a holding pattern when it comes to transformative trades.
The team does not know when those two players will be healthy again — the problem with ACL injuries is not recovery but the time it takes to fully recover — and unless the team is ready to hit the reset button on the roster, moving pieces around is extremely difficult without having those two players especially.
It will make shifting the roster difficult and likely exclude the Magic from blockbuster talks like the Harden trade. At least for now.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Sure, James Harden alone likely turns the Orlando Magic from a nondescript playoff bottom-feeder into a team that gets some eyeballs on national TV and can climb the Eastern Conference standings. But how much better would that make the team really? Would Harden have stayed committed and engaged with this team?
Much like the debate that followed the Russell Westbrook trade rumors in the offseason, another set of rumors that included the Magic in speculation and some actual reporting, the Magic had a choice to make: Sink assets into a star-caliber player and move into win-now mode or hold onto trade assets to make that move down the road?
Moving into win-now mode then seemed a bit hurried. Jonathan Isaac was on the shelf for the year with a torn ACL. He will need essentially the entire 2022 season to get back to full health again anyway. The Magic are going to be waiting to see what he looks like again.
The team is in the same position with Markelle Fultz. They certainly hope they can get him back midway through the 2022 season. But he will spend most of his three-year extension signed in the offseason simply getting back to form.
Westbrook, unlike Harden, had his own health issues that are now playing out for the Washington Wizards. Moving for Harden would have been less of a risk than Westbrook. If Harden had any interest in playing for a team outside of his chosen few, the Magic might well have been a viable option with the mixture of young assets and expiring contracts the Rockets wanted.
But outside of a dream scenario trade, the Magic right now have been forced into a holding pattern. Injuries to their two most promising players (players that next year will be eating up $33.9 million in cap room), makes it hard to predict what this team will be and what it will need to continue growing with them as leading players.
The priority when it comes to Isaac and Fultz is to get them healthy and rehabilitated rather than growing and emphasizing their basketball skills.
Stability and patience
This front office under president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman has emphasized a competitive, winning environment as essential to young players’ development. It does not seem likely the team would mortgage so much of their future without understanding where Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are physically, potentially sacrificing a season to the Lottery gods with a bare-bones roster.
It is unlikely a major player the team acquired would accept that kind of a season. And so the Magic have stuck with their roster the last two years largely to maintain a foothold in the playoffs. The team has had to remain patient and surmise there are better opportunities down the road.
That calculus certainly might change as this season moves on.
The Cleveland Cavaliers got involved in the James Harden trade to snag a promising player in Jarrett Allen. Some Magic fans asked why the Magic did not participate as a third team to net some extra asset.
Part of the reason why might very well be the team is still committed to making the playoffs this season.
That is a further vice grip on the team’s ability to maneuver and make deals. Just like in the summer, it appears trade partners want the Magic to give up their veteran players for unproven young players or draft capital that would on paper take the Magic out of the playoff running.
There likely will not be significant movement on the Magic’s front until this posture changes or until Jonathan Isaac or Markelle Fultz return and transform this team’s potential again.
Certainly, this season will play a role in what the Magic’s future goals turn out to be.
The team has a decision to make by the trade deadline on Evan Fournier, whose contract expires at the end of the season and seems unlikely to re-sign because of cap considerations.
The Magic have struggled with injuries this year. While it is still far too early in the season for this team to give up on its playoff dreams, if the struggles of the last three games continue and the Magic fall out of the playoff picture or are fading at the deadline, they could be forced to make the decision and reset the team a bit.
This team could use an influx of talent and the Draft in 2021 will certainly be an important tool to help this team. The Magic continue to walk a narrow path.
Whether the Magic stick with this group or hit reset will likely be the biggest decision facing Weltman as this season continues. It is just impossible to make any long-reaching plans without Isaac and Fultz in the lineup. Much of the team’s future is put on pause.
And that would explain why some of the Magic’s transactions are put on pause too. Deadlines will force some movement and decisionmaking. The team’s circumstances might push the team in one direction or the other too.
But until Orlando is healthy again, there is just not a lot the team is willing to do right now.