This is not where Jeff Weltman wanted the Orlando Magic to be.
There were such high hopes for the season, even with Jonathan Isaac out for the year with a torn ACL. The organization felt that with Markelle Fultz entering his second full season and the experience the team had gained they could make a push up the Eastern Conference standings. They really believed they could compete for homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
That might have been pie-in-the-sky thinking. But no one could fault the team for dreaming. And with the way the team started, who could blame them for believing?
Markelle Fultz’s torn ACL. Long-term absences for Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and plenty of others. The wear and tear of having to play games so undermanned clearly got under the team as they slipped down the standings.
And it led the organization and Weltman to ask itself one question: Is this group capable of winning a championship? Can this group recover enough to take that step?
The answer clearly became no.
With the Orlando Magic falling in the standing and the team in a precarious financial situation, Jeff Weltman decided the time had come to restart his roster and try to find a new path closer to a title.
The Magic opted to detonate their roster and start over. They shipped out Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon in one fell swoop, picking up three future first-round picks, a rotation player in Gary Harris, an expiring contract in Otto Porter and intriguing young prospects in Wendell Carter and R.J. Hampton.
After years of trying to compete and end a seven-year playoff drought and build upon that to grow the roster further while still fostering a young roster beneath it — a grow-from-the-middle approach — the team decided it was time to abandon that plan and cash in.
"“It’s not easy to try to walk two paths,” Weltman said in a media availability on Friday. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do. We went into this trade deadline with the dual task of trying to improve our team or look for opportunities to restart it. When these opportunities presented themselves, we felt that in conjunction with one another, they presented us a really exciting new path to take. That’s what we did. We’re on a new path now. I’m really excited about where we are headed. I think this a great new start for the team and there are great things ahead of us.”"
This well may have been a decision delayed when Weltman and his management group first arrived in 2017.
Weltman said he was cognizant of the team’s long playoff drought when he arrived. He did not want to be the new guy starting a new rebuild and making fans wait even longer for even a small taste of success. There is still the general public who just wants to go to a game and enjoy it with a chance to win.
The 2019 playoff run was truly a special run for this group. But a restart was always in the back of everyone’s mind.
Progress and talent
Observers of the team certainly agreed the team lacked the top-end talent to compete for a championship. The great fear is the team would be stuck on that “treadmill of mediocrity” constantly competing for low playoff seeds and unable to improve talent at the top end without a big draft hit.
The Orlando Magic were always angling to make a trade for the star to tie their roster together, using the team’s success to unload some trade and draft capital for that next step.
That had not happened. And this is how those things end.
"“The one thing about this league is it doesn’t stand still,” Jeff Weltman said Friday. “The clock is ticking. When you see a chance to strike and feel that deals are lining up, and it’s not easy to line up multiple deals in one cycle, I think you have to act. That’s what we did.”"
They broke through to the playoffs in 2019 and finished 42-40, a culmination of seven years of a painful rebuild that never went anywhere. But they struggled to recapture that intensity in 2020.
Orlando still made the playoffs comfortably as the 8-seed at 33-40. The team might well have finished seventh and closer to .500 if not for the pandemic cutting the season short. But it was still a step backward.
This season, the floor just dropped out. And after years of running back virtually the same roster, change became necessary — whether a modest one to reset the roster or a bigger one like this.
Things had started to go stale and now contracts were running out — Evan Fournier would become a free agent this offseason — and players were starting to get older — Nikola Vucevic is playing his best basketball, but will turn 31 next season.
If there was a time to restart, Weltman determined it was now.
"“When you face what we’ve faced this season, it changes the complexion,” Weltman said Friday. “You don’t just get to just hit the reset button and say we’ll just do it again next year. Financially, we were going to be in a tight spot. We probably couldn’t bring back the exact same team even if we desired to. You have to be able to pivot. I don’t look at it at being a hard decision, I look at it as being the right decision. You have to be detached enough to look at how we’re positioned today, how we’re positioned moving forward and what our margin is.”"
Two straight years this affected by injury simply ran the clock out on the Magic. The team strung this group out as far as it could and reached as high as it could.
What’s left for the future
The question the Orlando Magic started asking themselves is what kind of team do they want to be? What do they want to compete for?
Orlando knows it has a high-value asset in the team’s draft pick this year. The Magic sit with the fourth-worst record in the league and with the downgrade in immediate talent are likely to hold that spot if not get into the top-3 and secure one of the top odds in the Lottery.
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Regardless, Orlando is in line to draft a high-level prospect from this year’s draft. It is perhaps the most valuable tool the Magic have to kickstart this new rebuild.
Weltman though is hoping not to count on the luck of a bouncing lottery ball. Right now, the team is worried about putting the young players on the roster in a position to succeed and evaluate how to help them best grow and develop. Their goal on the court is still to win and keep up whatever good habits they can.
But the promise of a top-5 pick is a big thing and a big piece of the rebuild.
On the roster already is Jonathan Isaac, a potential all-defensive team player, and Markelle Fultz, a former top overall pick. Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton were both rated in the top-10 of the high school class of 2019. Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba were both top-10 picks in the 2018 Draft.
There is talent to work with and begin building.
"“I believe we’re on a path now where we can dream big,” Weltman said Friday. “It’s great that we made the playoffs the last couple of years. I believe we could have been a homecourt team this year. But we have to be honest about the timeline of that team and the ceiling of that team. I believe it was important when we got here for a team that was struggling to make the playoffs and have success and show our young guys what that looks like. And we’ve done that. Now, the time has come to make this move. I’m really excited to be on this path.”"
Weltman has helped take a struggling team to the playoffs. He asked fans to trust him that he can build a team to do it again.
But this is the proper reset that everyone anticipated Weltman would do when he arrived and what the Magic likely needed after stagnating the past two years.
It is truly a new day.