Orlando Magic’s decision on veteran players looms large for future

Gary Harris came to the Orlando Magic and gave them a solid veteran presence quickly. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Gary Harris came to the Orlando Magic and gave them a solid veteran presence quickly. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic have a lot of decisions on their plate right now.

They seem well into their search for a new coach. They are eagerly awaiting the results of Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery so they know whether they will have a central piece to begin rebuilding. And then free agency will follow shortly after that.

Orlando has a fairly blank slate ahead of the team to rebuild. The team will want to see some tangible steps forward and quickly, but it feels like Orlando is set to go through a longer rebuild to take the necessary steps forward.

The Magic will have big decisions in the very near future — impending free agencies for Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba potentially could eat into the 2022 cap room the Magic created. The Draft Lottery too will go a long way in determining just how quickly the Magic believe they can get back to being competitive.

The goal right now is to build the infrastructure to help their young players get better and play their best.

The coach will be the first step to doing that. But so too will be keeping and finding the right veteran players who can teach and support the young players on the roster.

The Orlando Magic will rebuild the infrastructure of their team with a lottery pick and a new coach. But they also need key veterans to show the way and buy in to the process.

The Magic have some solid young veterans who they are still hoping to grow.

Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz will theoretically provide some stability as they enter their second contracts. But neither has played very much — they have really only two full seasons between them in their four years in the league. It is still very easy to treat them as advanced rookie-contract players at this point — both are 23 too, which means they are still really young.

Orlando ended last season with the fourth-youngest roster in the league at an average of just older than 24 years old.

The Magic are not going to go as far as Steve Clifford wanted to go with veteran players. Critics often complained Clifford favored older players — such as Khem Birch or Dwayne Bacon — over younger players. That certainly played out in some rotation decisions, even as the team sank further down the standings.

Orlando wants to play its young players and feature them.

But Clifford was right too. Young players need good veterans to teach them solid work habits and buy-in to what the team’s overarching vision is. Their know-how of where to be can help young players learn and diagnose situations and catch on quicker to offensive and defensive schemes.

Veteran players still matter for young players in creating an environment that one day gets to winning.

It is a tough needle to thread. And it is easy to lose it.

First try, failed veterans

The Orlando Magic’s first try at a rebuild after trading Dwight Howard struggled to find it.

Things start with the tone and personality the coach brings, and Jacque Vaughn certainly struggled in his first try as a head coach. But the team got off to a strong 12-13 start thanks to the leadership and vindictive play of Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and J.J. Redick.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic slowly peeled those long-standing veterans off — Davis was cut later that year despite creating some All-Star whispers before breaking his hand and Redick was dealt at the trade deadline.

Nelson left under plenty of controversy with the team intending to invest fully in Elfrid Payton. While Jameer Nelson certainly seemed to have tuned out some of Jacque Vaughn’s coaching at the end, his veteran leadership still would have been a big boost rather than entrusting a rookie point guard or a converted point guard in Victor Oladipo.

The veteran the Magic acquired in the Dwight Howard trade in Arron Afflalo was a solid player who put in good work and gave the Magic some offensive stability, even if it was more than the team should have asked him to do.

Orlando was never able to replace that set of players who had institutional knowledge of winning in Orlando. Willie Green was a good veteran for the locker room but the team relied on him too much on the court. Channing Frye took a four-year, $32-million contract from the team but was not a great example. He never really bought in to the team’s rebuilding.

The team never really learned how to win and when the front office began pushing for the team to do so, they infamously struggled.

It can be tricky to find the right balance and it is one of the more perilous parts of a rebuild. Especially if the team does not have a surefire star to begin the rebuild with. That part remains the biggest mystery of the Magic’s offseason — one that gets partially solved Tuesday.

Full roster

The Orlando Magic will perhaps still be looking to shop aggressively this offseason. The team’s dealings are not likely done as Jeff Weltman reshapes the future.

The Magic currently have a full depth chart with a lot of young players. Markelle Fultz, Chuma Okeke, Jonathan Isaac, Wendell Carter, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton and Mohamed Bamba are all going to vie for playing time. Add in two more draft picks (and maybe even a third with the 33rd overall pick) and the Magic already have 10 players competing for playing time.

That is before the team gets to consider under-contract veterans like Gary Harris, Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams. Or even veteran free agents James Ennis and Dwayne Bacon.

It certainly feels like the Magic could be looking to make a few deals to free up space and time — although the uncertainty of both Isaac and Fultz’s returns might allow this situation to simmer.

The Magic probably feel their triumvirate of veterans in Harris, Ross and Carter-Williams will be enough to get them through this year.

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Harris, when healthy, has proven himself to be a capable defender and a decent shooter. He already seemed to establish himself as a locker room leader in his short time with Orlando.

Ross’ contributions go without saying. He was the one player who seemed capable of taking and making tough shots on the team. And his ability to get hot and even begin to expand his game last year were things the team desperately needed — tipping point skills to their playoff run in 2019.

Carter-Williams gives the team a needed edge. He is not afraid to mix things up with opponents or get into the middle of a scrum. While his shooting is still a major concern, his ability to create some chaos is necessary off the bench.

All three can be leaders and exemplars in their own way for the team. It is hard to see the team retaining Ennis with his desire for a long-term contract. And Bacon is not likely to return despite a career season.

But that roster crunch above certainly would suggest the team cannot bring all three back. There may definitely be one more move involving at least some of these players in the works this offseason.

Orlando still cannot neglect these veteran players. Who the Magic bring in to be examples for the young players and help supplement their skills is going to be vital to the team’s rebuild. It was something Rob Hennigan did not value or include enough in his rebuild plan.

While certainly there will come a time when the team has to decide and make sure their young players are leading, this is a tricky thing to figure out.

The Magic rightly decided Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson were ready to lead in 2007 when they let Grant Hill leave in free agency. They were wrong that Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic could when they let Jameer Nelson leave in 2013.

As the Magic begin to plan their roster for next year and rebuild again, they are almost certainly going to be looking to rely on veterans for at least some guidance and stability next season.

Next. Orlando Magic should reach out for playing experience in next coach. dark

This cannot be a part of the plan the team neglects or gets wrong.