Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic/Wendell Carter trade has been key to this restart

Wendell Carter has established himself as a consistent force for an Orlando Magic team finding its identity. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter has established himself as a consistent force for an Orlando Magic team finding its identity. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

This has been the most exciting Orlando Magic offseason in some time. For the first time since Dwight Howard left, the Magic have a clear path to the postseason and the chance it feels for sustainable and prolonged playoff berths.

Why is this the case? What has gone right this time around under Jeff Weltman that went so wrong with Rob Hennigan?

There are obviously a lot of personnel decisions and foundational franchise and culture decisions that went differently. Jacque Vaughn has turned out to be a good coach and has done much better with his second job than his first, but he was as inexperienced as his general manager when he took over the Magic. Mistakes were made and a culture and identity were never established.

Contrast that to Jamahl Mosley who had a decade-plus in the league as an assistant and a strong player development reputation before Jeff Weltman, who had two decades-plus in the league as an executive and scout, brought him in.

The difference in the foundations are evident.

But just as important is that genesis trade that started everything off and the decision trees those set up.

The Orlando Magic’s restart under Jeff Weltman has gone very differently than its restart from a decade ago. The founding trade that started that rebuild and the decisions that came after have made all the difference.

The Nikola Vucevic/Wendell Carter trade between the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls in March 2021 was truly a foundational trade and something that set up this entire rebuild for success. The Magic may not have completely detonated their roster without the kind of return they got in that deal — and the subsequent choices they made with the assets they acquired.

Every rebuild’s success is not measured by this “Genesis trade,” the deciding moment when a team decides to restart and trade all of its present-value assets to restart something new, but it is a big moment in any team’s history.

Orlando certainly is not feeling the kind of optimism it is feeling this offseason without winning the NBA Draft Lottery in 2022 and taking Paolo Banchero. Banchero has proven himself to be a potential All-Star as soon as this year after a historic rookie year.

But the team is also feeling that optimism because Carter has proven himself to be a strong starting center — perhaps already more impactful than Vucevic — and the two draft picks acquired in that trade have been an added bonus.

Franz Wagner was an absolute find with the eighth pick in the 2021 Draft and Jett Howard appears to be an impact player for the 2023 Draft. It is hard to say this deal was not an absolute win for the Magic.

And that alone has accelerated this team’s rebuild. It has put the Magic in a strong position.

Orlando got a restart and a jump start to its rebuild by getting this deal right in a way they did not get from the Dwight Howard trade.

Some of that is just timing — the Magic traded Vucevic before anyone truly realized he was on the market, catching everyone seemingly by surprise, whereas the Magic traded Howard too late when his market dried up and he had already limited which markets he wanted to play.

But it is stark to see how different these trades did to set up the team’s future.

The Magic did as well as they could in the Howard trade considering all the restrictions they were under. They got creative to expand that to a four-team trade and objectively, the Magic came out as winners.

Every other team traded or lost the key players in that deal while Orlando got a future All-Star in Nikola Vucevic and several young players plus the cap room and restored draft capital to rebuild. Not to mention two good years from Arron Afflalo that turned into several good years of Evan Fournier.

This is where it is clear the trade alone does not make a rebuild. The choices of what to do with the flexibility a team gains from that rebuild matter just as much.

For as much talent as the Magic have collected in the last decade — the problem with the Hennigan era was not always about the players he brought in, although there were plenty of mistakes and misjudgments personnel-wise — they never had a team that had this clear upward trajectory.

There was never a team that had seemingly started to figure things out and stepped up out of the Lottery ringer. The closest team that came to this was the 2016 team that collapsed after a 19-13 start and finished with 35 wins.

Nobody felt that team was growing though as they traded away Tobias Harris for cap room at the trade deadline and coach Scott Skiles resigned. From there, the Magic as a franchise was flailing trying to stay relevant and Hennigan ultimately lost his job the following year.

The 2019 season and the breakthrough into the playoffs certainly brought some hope that young players like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac could take the reigns. But the core group were all off their rookie contracts and nearing their peaks at that time.

For example, is the Magic spun their wheels through the first decade of the rebuild after Howard, it was easy to feel frustrated that so many teams who started rebuilding after the Magic were racing ahead.

Lottery luck had something to do with this — the Magic never improved their Lottery standing until winning the Lottery in 2022. The team never got the chance to draft the top talent in any draft and kickstart the rebuild even though Orlando did select useable players most of the time.

But a lot of it had to do with getting this first trade right. For example, in trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Boston Celtics got three future firsts that would become Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz (traded for Jayson Tatum) and Collin Sexton (he was traded as a future pick in the Kyrie Irving trade).

This first trade is the founding statement of any rebuild project. And it is one that can indeed change a team’s future.

That is why this group is different. The Magic traded Vucevic for a young player who needed a fresh start in Carter. And then made a brilliant decision to draft Wagner when a lot of people did not have Wagner that high on their draft boards.

Orlando has all of its key players on their rookie or second contracts. That bodes for a bright future. And one that could compound as the team gets better and it takes advantage of the team being so good while players are on cost-controlled rookie contracts.

If there is an argument the Magic should be more aggressive, this is the argument. And that tie is running out with Wagner entering the back half of his four-year rookie contract.

The team has gotten good while maintaining the flexibility and opportunity the Vucevic trade created. This is a perfect example of what a restart trade can bring to a team when it is done right.

This trade undoubtedly has set the table for the Magic’s bright future. Everyone believes this team is near the precipice of a long playoff run because of what this trade set up for the team.
It is always difficult to compare rebuilds. But this trade was undoubtedly an accelerant to getting the Magic back on solid ground.

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It was a great Genesis moment if you will that has started off a great story for the Magic to take advantage of.