Orlando Magic need to build from Lakeland Magic’s success

The Lakeland Magic won the G-League championship with an impressive showing. But that success has not made its way to the Orlando Magic yet. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports
The Lakeland Magic won the G-League championship with an impressive showing. But that success has not made its way to the Orlando Magic yet. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the first things that happened when Jeff Weltman arrived in Orlando as the president of basketball operations for the Orlando Magic was to help facilitate the move of the team’s G-League team from Erie to nearby Lakeland.

The move was in the works before Weltman arrived but it was going to be a key part of the program he wanted to build.

Nobody probably saw this coming.

The team hired former South Florida head coach Stan Heath as the team’s head coach and front office executive Anthony Parker as the team’s general manager. They took to building this G-League franchise virtually from scratch.

Well, almost every year a roster is built from scratch. Sustained success in the G-League is meant to be a sign both of a franchise’s overall health and culture and a sign the team can continue to build for the future.

The two organizations, after all, are supposed to share a guiding philosophy and a playbook. The two teams are supposed to track each other, with players feeding from the G-League team to the NBA team.

But that has not happened for the Magic.

The Lakeland Magic’s success has not been a feeder for the Orlando Magic’s success. The two entities it seems are working more independently than they should. Even if the map for both teams to succeed is somewhat similar.

Despite having one of the best G-League franchises in the league, the Orlando Magic have failed to take advantage of the Lakeland Magic as a feeder tool to their roster.

Since the two-way experiment began, the Magic have struggled to get a lot of development from the tool. If anything, the Orlando Magic have used the Lakeland Magic more as a rehab center for young players on the main roster — with Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch and Wesley Iwundu.

No players from the Lakeland Magic’s last three years, when the franchise has won the most games of any team in the G-League, have made the Orlando Magic roster permanently. Orlando has found some solid players and had them on their training camp roster, but few players carry over from year to year.

This is not the way the Magic seemed to promise to use their G-League team. Weltman was part of the management group that seemingly revolutionized how to use the G-League in the NBA.

The Toronto model

Jeff Weltman came from the Toronto Raptors where they built Raptors 905 into a development factory.

Pascal Siakam led the team to the 2017 title and other roster mainstays such as Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher and Norman Powell went through the Raptors 905 system, even if it was for a short rehab stint or time to get playing time.

The initial key was to have the Lakeland Magic nearby so players could shuttle back and forth with the parent club. The other key was to have a team that essentially ran the same stuff as the parent club so players could integrate quickly as they shuttled back and forth as needed.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That is how the Magic used it when they sent Jonathan Isaac there in the 2018 season to help him get some rehab starts as he was returning from an ankle injury. Khem Birch went there during the 2019 season as he sat behind Mohamed Bamba to stay fresh and ready. That paid off when Bamba went down with an injury. Birch was a key part to the team’s playoff run that season.

If the NBA was going to make this a minor league, then there was no better model than that Raptors team. Players using the G-League as a tool to stay fresh and get better, eventually graduating to the big team.

Orlando established Lakeland as the beginning of that plan.

Going away from Lakeland

But on several occasions, the Orlando Magic opted to go away from players on their G-League team and within their system already.

Even if it was the right decision, the team signed Isaiah Briscoe and Michael Carter-Williams from outside the program during the 2019 season rather than relying on two-way player Troy Caupain or trying sharpshooter John Petrucelli.

Last year, the Magic did reward Vic Law with a late two-way contract as he tore up the G-League. Players the Magic had in their system were all the top players on the team — Amile Jefferson, B.J. Johnson, Josh Magette and Vic Law all played for the main roster at some point last season.

But there seemed to be little chance any of those players would take the next step. None found themselves in the rotation, even when injuries cleared the way for them. The team notably cut Magette after his first significant playing time of the season.

Perhaps part of the problem is the Lakeland Magic play in such a similar way to the Orlando Magic. They rarely rely on just one player and move the ball effectively.

They have better shooters — six players shot better than 35-percent during the shortened G-League season at the bubble and everyone caught fire during the playoffs. That helps them win games during the season. But no one truly stood out this season, at least.

No player for the Lakeland Magic this year averaged more than 15 points per game besides Milwaukee Bucks two-way player Mamadi Diakite, who was recalled during the season before the team made its playoff run.

Opportunity to stay?

Orlando Magic fans are probably hoping the team can reward some of the players on that G-League team with a chance at the NBA and perhaps a shot at a roster spot on what many hope is a reformed roster in 2021.

Devin Cannaday, who went through training camp with the Magic and was named the G-League Finals MVP after scoring 22 points and hitting four of his nine 3-pointers, should be a good candidate to join a NBA roster somewhere. Even in his limited minutes in the preseason, the Cannaday showed his ability to hit from the outside.

Then again, facing an extreme point guard crunch that caused the team to drop two-way player Jordan Bone, the Magic opted for G-League MVP Frank Mason from another G-League team and then turned to Chasson Randle after Mason’s injury. Perhaps the Randle decision came while the team did not want to disrupt Lakeland’s preparations for the bubble and their season.

But that still feels like some indictment of what the Magic should be using as their feeder system. Where is the trust in the players they themselves selected for the G-League? Why sign players to be part of the system if they are not going to use them?

Meanwhile, the Magic’s lone two-way player in the G-League bubble in Karim Mane averaged only 5.5 points per game on 34.0-percent shooting. He started in all 15 games but did not make a huge impact.

The Magic signed Karim Mane as a long-term project. And perhaps the team is eager to bring him back into the fold with the main roster now that the season is over to see how much progress he has made.

The Lakeland Magic, despite their success and the championship they just won, still do not seem to have a direct line to the Orlando Magic. And that is something the team should be focused on remedying.

Strengthening the ties

Clearly, something the Lakeland Magic are doing is working. Yes, the G-League has a style of play distinct from the NBA as a whole. The league is notorious for its porous defense and gaudy offensive numbers.

But success is still success. To win in any league requires both a team that works well together and plays its best basketball at the right moments. But it also takes having some of the best players in the league playing their best at the key moments.

So why are the Magic not taking advantage of the success in Lakeland? Why aren’t the players that are winning at the G-League level finding their way to the main roster? Why aren’t the players the Magic have handpicked to populate their G-League roster finding their way back to the main roster?

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For now, it seems like the Magic use their Exhibit 10 contracts more to prop up Lakeland than to build up a reserve for Orlando’s roster.

At the end of the day, Lakeland is not likely to be the difference between contending and missing the playoffs. G-League players are, for the most part, at the end of the roster. The Magic still need to improve the top end of their roster if they want to compete.

Orlando is probably hoping to strike on just one to make the whole project worth it — or convince a few folks who buy tickets in Lakeland to make the trip to Orlando more frequently or invest in the parent club in other areas.

But those players are not getting that chance on the main roster.

The Magic just are not in lockstep with their G-League club or necessarily rewarding the success they have had. If that success is supposed to have any meaning, players would be making their way to the main roster.

The Orlando Magic are expected to be active at the trade deadline this year. That may open up a roster spot on the team to mine Lakeland for a potential player. The team is certainly in a position this year to give that player a chance to earn a roster spot beyond this season. That is all anyone from Lakeland should ask for.

Next. Orlando Magic still ned discipline through the injuries. dark

This will be the dream and ultimately how the team may measure the success of the G-League beyond the championships Lakeland is winning.