The NBA has reached its All-Star Break and midpoint of the season. The league is starting to shake out and take form for the rest of the year. At this point, teams know whether they are truly in the playoff race, whether they are true title contenders or whether the focus should be put on next year.
The Orlando Magic might legitimately be able to say they are in the playoff race — they trail the Indiana Pacers by 3.5 games for the final spot in the play-in tournament. But they also understand that it will be a long ride.
FiveThirtyEight says the Magic have the toughest schedule remaining in the league and the third-toughest schedule by opponent win percentage. Making a playoff run with a roster that has been gutted by injuries — losing the most games by injury in this COVID-filled season by more than 20 games over the next team with only four games missed due to health and safety protocols — and a schedule like that is going to be asking a lot.
The team is not going to give up on the court. But the trade deadline is now three weeks away. The Magic have to consider their future. And with the returns of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz slated for next season along with the promise of a top pick, the team has to be planning for its future.
The trade deadline will be a major turning point for the team. It has decisions to make in the expiring contracts of Evan Fournier and Khem Birch, both of whom could help contending teams. And the availability of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic certainly could attract a market.
Orlando is, by all reports, again quietly exploring the market. But as teams fish around to see whether the Magic are willing to budge, they are rightfully taking their position of power. They have the assets other teams want and rightfully asking for a lot.
The Orlando Magic are going to be active at the trade deadline. But they are rightfully asking for a lot as teams try pick apart what this team has made available.
The Magic might finally be ready to sell at the trade deadline. The team might finally be at a point where it is looking to exchange some assets and reset the team. That is at least what the league has hoped for a long time.
The Magic are trying to position themselves for their future. And they need to be clear-eyed about what their building and what they are looking for. They are going to be careful and cautious with how they deal, knowing they still have a talented and disciplined roster that can at least make the back-end of the playoffs.
This is not a typical rebuilding team. The Magic still hope this season is a momentary blip.
Teams are still circling though, hoping to find a sale.
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported both the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets have expressed interest in acquiring All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. But many expect the Magic to demand a king’s ransom to get a deal done.
Similarly, Charania reports the Minnesota Timberwolves are searching for a power forward and have had discussions with the Orlando Magic regarding Aaron Gordon. Those discussions (as ongoing as they have been) were shelved when Gordon sprained his ankle.
Whether Gordon plays or not before the March 25 deadline could play a role in whether the team makes a deal. It may also play a role in what kind of deal the team makes.
It is hard to imagine what the Timberwolves have to offer.
With Gordon’s $18.1 million salary for this season, Minnesota would have to offer either Ricky Rubio and a young prospect like Jaden McDaniels, Josh Okogie or Jarred Vanderbilt or put a package around Malik Beasley.
The latter does not seem likely considering what the Timberwolves are trying to build and his current salary in the first year of a four-year deal and the former seems equally unpalatable unless the Magic were planning to flip the veteran Rubio quickly or have some other plans in mind.
Neither deal does much to help the Magic cut salary and payroll either. And that does not seem like a goal for this team.
Orlando is not in a position to play free agency this offseason in a relatively week free-agent class and the team is trying to climb back into the playoffs next year.
Gordon’s value around the league just like his abilities on the floor are still a mystery. But Orlando should still be looking for a rotation- or starting-level player or a promising young asset in return.
Certainly, there could be some argument that those two Minnesota packages get close. There might be something there.
The Vucevic decision is a bigger one that would have a longer-lasting impact on the team. Vucevic is a bona fide All-Star now and has played like it all season. He would provide important stability to a young team next season. It still seems premature to let him go.
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And those observers are right to say the Magic would ask for a ransom to move him.
Vucevic’s contract might be descending, but he is still due to make $26-million this season and $24-million. It would take some big salaries to move him and probably a player the Magic view as a potential star.
So long as the Magic are trying to compete and are avoiding a full rebuild, they will need something significant in return for Vucevic.
Proposed deals involving the Boston Celtics that feature a mix of Grant Williams and picks or taking Nikola Vucevic directly into the Celtics’ record trade exception are not going to get the Magic to move. They want quality players.
Any conversation with Boston would have to start with either Jaylen Brown or Kemba Walker. The Celtics are not likely looking to move their freshly minted All-Star in Brown. And the Magic likely do not want Walker cluttering up their point guard rotation (or to deal with his injury history and two years remaining on his contract at $36 and $37 million).
The Hornets might have something that can entice the Magic. But it runs into the same problem as the Celtics.
Charlotte is looking to improve its positioning for the playoffs this year and beyond. So they could look to clear up some of their guard clutter. They would have Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier to offer up. Rozier has a contract that gets close to matching Vucevic’s and would provide some savings. Graham is set to become a free agent this offseason.
There is the potential for the Magic to do a Tobias Harris-like salary dump and acquire expiring contracts like Devonte’ Graham, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. But again, why would the Magic bank on free agency this offseason?
To be sure, the Magic are the ones holding the cards in both situations. Gordon’s contract expires after the 2022 season and Vucevic’s contract expires after the 2023 season. Orlando has the leverage in negotiations.
They have to have a plan and know what they want and go out into the market and find them. And they are not going to move unless the trade is worth it.
No matter what the team’s goals are then, the team has to be intentional and purposeful with its deals. Outside of the players with expiring contracts, the Magic are right to be asking for a lot.