Orlando Magic may have no choice but to re-sign Mo Bamba

Mo Bamba showed promise in his fourth season. But free agency will present a tough dilemma for him and the Orlando Magic. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
Mo Bamba showed promise in his fourth season. But free agency will present a tough dilemma for him and the Orlando Magic. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic seem squarely focused on the NBA Draft.

Everything about this offseason revolves around who the team will take with the top pick. It is an important pillar for the franchise and how the team will build in the future. And the debates about who the Magic will take in a draft with a lot of uncertainty at the top.

That debate still rages on.

Soon after the draft is completed, Orlando will move to its next phase.

Free agency will be just as critical for the Magic in setting up their future and developing their future. And the team has a lot of decisions to make.

The biggest free agency question facing the Magic is not how they will use their nearly $30-million in cap space. It is what the team will do with restricted free agent Mo Bamba.

The Orlando Magic face a tough decision with Mo Bamba as they aim to fill out their roster and continue investment in the former high draft pick.

Bamba is still an interesting player with a unique set of skills. He showed plenty this past season to believe further investment is warranted. All the problems that put him in this precarious situation are also plenty present.

And in a tight free agency market, there simply may not be that many better options for the Magic to fill the all-important backup center role for the team.

The quickly approaching reality for the Magic might well be that they have no choice but to re-sign or match any qualifying offer for Bamba, keeping a talented young player who is already integrated with the group and also maintaining a future trade asset.

There are bigger decisions for the team’s future ahead. But deciding whether to re-sign Bamba and for how much — or who his replacement will be — could have the biggest effect on the Magic’s flexibility moving forward.

Bamba’s career season

Mo Bamba had a career season last year for the Orlando Magic, averaging 10.6 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game. That is what having consistent playing time will do. And this was the first time Bamba was given some slack to make mistakes, play and grow.

Bamba’s career to that point was filled with injury (most notably a fractured leg that kept him out just as the Magic’s 2019 playoff run began), the shifting needs of a team suddenly expecting to make the playoffs and a coach with little patience for mistakes and a small margin for error.

In the end, the team that drafted Bamba was very different than the one he played for. He needed the kind of opportunity he got under Jamahl Mosley with a rebuilding team to start to round his prodigious talent into form.

Of course, that delay meant Bamba is out of time. He faces the wide world of restricted free agency (albeit in a market with very little money to spend beyond the mid-level exception).

And the Magic face the tough decision of whether to re-sign him and commit some of their ample cap space to retain him — Bamba will not hit his cap hold of $22.7 million unless something goes really well for Bamba in negotiations.

Figuring out where Bamba might fit into the team’s future gets muddy. Orlando is likely to draft someone to take a spot in the frontcourt next to Wendell Carter in either Jabari Smith, Jr. or Chet Holmgren.

This is all to say, regardless of the Magic’s decision, Bamba’s role, if he returns to Orlando, will be quite different. His minutes will get constricted — and that does not even get into the battle between Jonathan Isaac and Chuma Okeke for their minutes too.

That will go into the decision of how much Bamba is worth. That is surely a debate around the league as much as it is within the Magic’s front office.

Bamba showed enough in his starting role last year that there may be some team willing to invest in him to be their starting center moving forward. He is certainly young enough and skilled enough as a shooter to warrant that attention.

Then again, there is not a lot of consistency there either.

While he is a great shot blocker, he is not a particularly impactful defender (the Magic had a 111.3 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor and 110.7 defensive rating with him off the floor). And while he is a good 3-point shooter for a player of his size, there is not much else to his offensive game.

What else is out there?

This only further complicates his story this offseason. What is the dollar value for a young player with clear talent that is unrealized?

The Orlando Magic, if they want to keep him, surely would like to avoid the perhaps embarrassment or chance of him getting outpriced on the open market, even if they have matching rights.

The next question then might be who the Magic target is.

Right now, Orlando’s biggest immediate need is to find a backup center to play behind Wendell Carter. And considering Carter’s injury history — the 62 games Carter played last year were the most he has played in his career to date — the Magic likely need to invest in a center they feel comfortable starting.

They could resolve this by investing in a center in the draft. If Orlando does this, it would be a surer sign that the team will let Bamba walk in free agency.

There are some good options early in the second round though from Arizona big man and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Christian Koloko to Senegal prospect Khalifa Diop or French center Ismael Kamagate. Rookies though, especially rookie centers, need time to develop.

Free agency could easily be a path for the Magic too.

Beyond Deandre Ayton, perhaps the biggest free agent most likely to leave his team this offseason, the center class in this free agency is not particularly strong. Especially considering the Magic are not likely looking for a starting center with Carter already in place and likely a forward coming in the draft to start alongside him.

The best options on the market might be Thomas Bryant, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond or Isaiah Hartenstein. That list contains veterans like McGee, Howard or Drummond who probably would be more interested in playing for winning teams.

Bryant or Hartenstein could make more sense for a young Magic team as both need something of a refresh or an opportunity to play a bigger role.

Bryant has shown promise but has dealt with injuries throughout his career — he averaged 7.9 points per game 4.0 rebounds per game last year in 27 appearances and has played in only 37 games the last two years after tearing his ACL.

Hartenstein got his biggest opportunity last year, playing 68 games and averaging 17.9 minutes per game. He averaged 8.3 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game and 1.1 blocks per game for the LA Clippers last year. He also showed some 3-point shooting ability, making 14 of 30 attempts.

Hartenstein might be the best backup center target on the market for teams not seeking an outright veteran. He showed enough to earn a look at a bigger role next year. And there will certainly be heavy competition for him on this free agent market.

That is simply because the market gets pretty cold quickly.

Bamba’s future

And that brings the Orlando Magic back to Mo Bamba.

They will, in all likelihood, still offer him the qualifying offer and retain those matching rights. Those can be revoked if the Magic need to clear cap room to sign someone else. Orlando would be smart to retain those rights.

But they need to fill that backup center role. And having someone they can trust and rely on to play and start if need be is vital to the team’s success next year — especially if there are hints of the team playing for more than development at some point.

To Bamba’s credit, he has spoken since the season ended as if he wants to stay in Orlando and be part of the growth that is happening. He is invested in what the team is building.

Mo Bamba is still working out at the Amway Center, walking in while the media were waiting for Jabari Smith’s workout to finish last week. His key card/fingerprint for the building still works until July 1 and the NBA calendar changes.

His value could also be beneficial to the team too.

The Magic could use a mid-sized contract for future trades and that might be worth a four-year deal in the $40-45 million range to hold onto. It could also become an albatross if Bamba struggles to build on his career season.

There may not be better options — barring a trade, which are too hard to predict and project for this kind of a post.

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Orlando will be right to maintain their flexibility with Bamba for now and leave all doors open. But the ultimate conclusion may well be that Bamba is the best the Magic can do for now.