The first three years of Jeff Weltman’s tenure as the Orlando Magic’s president of basketball operations probably was not how he imagined they would go. In a good way though.
Typically when new management comes in to take over a struggling franchise — especially one without an All-Star or a winning record for five years — they look to start over. There is no risk in going back to the beginning.
They bring in their coach and their players. They build a team that fits their vision. They completely own every player and move on the team.
But everything has to line up for this to happen. Every plan needs an opportunity. And every manager needs to be flexible and understand what chances are present and where there organization is.
The Magic were not ready to rebuild when Weltman took over for several reasons. They are now.
The stars have aligned for the Orlando Magic to rebuild and Jeff Weltman has taken the team down this path. Now he has the chance to build his team and reshape the franchise.
And that means everyone in the organization needs to be on board. That can be tough after the team experienced some success. There is rarely survival when a team goes backward as the Magic have.
And climbing back up is a tough process.
What has become clear is the Magic were no longer in perfect alignment. Their coach was not ready to go through the pain and frustration that inevitably comes from developing such a young team.
If everyone on the team is not aligned with the vision, then it is time to step off. That is what coach Steve Clifford did after three years, mutually parting ways with the Magic as the team embarks on a new path that Clifford did not really sign up for in 2018.
“I respect Cliff for the fact he can assess where he is in his career,” Weltman said during a media availability Saturday. “Obviously, we repositioned our team. There has to be alignment in everything you do in this league. If there is not alignment, it undermines everything. I remain as excited as I have ever been since I’ve been here. . . . In no way does this diminish our belief in the prospects of our team and that we are growing something special here.”
It is indeed a shift in organizational philosophy and what the team is hoping to accomplish.
That term alignment came up several times during Weltman’s meeting with the media Saturday after the team announced it was parting with Clifford.
Organizational goals and development are a big part of this. The Magic obviously made a huge decision to move on from veteran players at the trade deadline.
That as much as anything, Weltman said, shifted the team’s alignment with Clifford. The Magic appear set for a longer-term rebuild involving some very young players on the roster. At this stage of Clifford’s career, he did not appear interested in going through that process.
Things can change quickly in the NBA — Orlando certainly hopes for some Lottery luck — but it certainly feels like the Magic are expecting to have some fallow years as they build their roster back up.
The team’s organizational goals have indeed realigned. And that required change for those who were not wholly onboard.
“Part of this job is staked on the alignment, as I said,” Weltman said Saturday. “The why is quite simple here. The why is the alignment. If Cliff is questioning whether the positioning of our team aligns with his own career positioning, then he probably is not the right guy at that point.”
But that will put the onus more on Weltman than ever before. This will be his team now — Terrence Ross is the last remaining player from the Rob Hennigan era on the roster, and Jeff Weltman re-signed him to a four-year deal two years ago.
When the Magic hired Weltman, they gave him a cushy title and a steady pay raise along with a promise to invest more in basketball operations — be it the analytics team, the health and wellness team or a new practice facility. But there were surely some restrictions.
The contracts did not quite align much to do a teardown. Not yet, at least.
They would get there soon though.
So Weltman spent the first year of his tenure evaluating his roster and working behind the scenes. The team floundered, earning the sixth pick for the second straight year. He fired his coach in Frank Vogel and hired Steve Clifford.
Clifford had become something of a development and team-building guru, transforming the Charlotte Hornets into at least a competitive outfit. That was all Weltman could ask for as he figured out how to move the Magic forward.
But a funny thing happened. The stars did not align for a full rebuild.
Nikola Vucevic turned into an All-Star and the team rallied to make the playoffs. The opportunity to reset did not present itself. Everything aligned for a different path.
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The Magic took that path as far as they could. Perhaps injuries and some bad luck cut the team short. They reached a dead end and found an opportunity to restart.
Now Weltman is in charge of a complete rebuild. It starts with this upcoming draft pick and the foundation that might lead the team. It will continue with hiring a coach who can foster the team’s development over the long haul.
“We do need to develop these young guys,” Weltman said Saturday. “We definitely want to move them forward. We want our team grow and develop. The sooner the better. That said, we’re not going to sacrifice the bright future that’s in front of us for a sugar high, which I kind of felt like we had been doing previously. I think what we’re looking for is someone who can develop young player, put them in positions to succeed and moving us toward winning as quickly as possible.”
In many ways, the Magic are looking for the same things Clifford provided. Weltman said essentially the Magic’s coaching search will follow the same path and look for many of the same attributes.
Several candidates whom the team interviewed in 2018 will likely get an interview again — and some coaches who the team had an interest in like Terry Stotts they did not interview will likely get interviewed too.
Having proven he can build a team that someone else left for him into at least a playoff contender, now Weltman will have the chance to realign the team the way he wants. The next few years will truly be one of his own creation.
And certainly getting it wrong would put his job more clearly on the line after ownership gave him the permission to start over — an opportunity rarely afforded to a management group, especially one that had experienced relatively little success to this point.
The pressure is squarely on Weltman to get a lot of things right very quickly, even if the wins may still be a few years down the road.
Weltman wanted to line things up his way. He will get his chance to do so. The whole responsibility falls on him now after fully and completely tearing the franchise down to its studs and getting set to build again.