There is an elephant in the room in the NBA.
Well, there are two actually. Two pieces of business that are left to handle before the season starts. And it is increasingly looking like their respective teams will not deal with them, letting them linger into training camp.
The first is the impending Damian Lillard trade. He requested his trade and made it clear he would like to play for the Miami Heat and only the Miami Heat. That has cooled his trade market and even drawn a stern warning from the NBA to all parties involved not to withhold services.
Now that the Orlando Magic know they will face the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the season, that is not going to make the team feel any easier for a Blazers season that seems destined to crash and burn as they start to rebuild.
The other bit of business is the impending trade of James Harden. Or the drama that will unfold because he was not traded.
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey let loose that the Sixers do not intend to trade Harden before training camp, unable to work out a deal with James Harden’s preferred destinations — the Houston Rockets or the LA Clippers, if rumors are to be believed.
Harden only increased the tension by calling Morey a liar at a shoe event in China. And everyone has run with the story that Harden may make things difficult for the Sixers as he has in previous instances he wanted out.
What a mess.
Every NBA team has to weigh every major player that comes onto the trade market. The Orlando Magic are right to stay patient and avoid the pitfalls of trying to shortcut their growth.
Harden is an incredibly talented player. But the repeated cycle of him asking out and seeking greener pastures at the first sign of trouble makes it hard to believe any team should want him.
Yet, talent wins. Harden is a former MVP and a very productive player — he still averaged 21.0 points per game and 10.7 assists per game. No one can ignore talent.
And so the entire league is wondering what it will take to get Harden out of Philadelphia and whether they are the team to do it, assuming they could convince Harden to stay long-term since he will be a free agent in 2024 and assuming that is something they want.
What a mess, indeed.
It is not a mess the Orlando Magic seem willing to volunteer for.
Not that Harden would accept a trade to the up-and-coming Magic. It is hard even to imagine the Magic being interested in such a deal.
Yet, here we are. Openly chasing the hits of putting Harden in the headline since everyone is doing it and explaining why the Magic are not the fit for Harden at this point.
Obviously, Harden is seeking a team that is contending for a championship. That seems to be the sole purpose in his career right now.
The Magic are not that for the 2024 season. And so the door is closed to a lot of the elite players who are trying to force their way out. Harden likely would not even consider staying in Orlando beyond this season unless they made significant progress as a title contender.
That is the underlying reason why the Magic have been so reticent to make splashy moves. Their aim is to one day compete for championships and they are not going to take a shortcut there or lock themselves into an underachieving team.
This offseason, with tons of cap room to spend, the Magic stood virtually pat. They only added their two draft picks in Anthony Black and Jett Howard and a free agent signing in Joe Ingles.
Orlando likely paid above market for Joe Ingles and Moe Wagner to get to the payroll floor. But the team maintained the flexibility to get out of those contracts early. That does not even get to the non-guarantees on Jonathan Isaac’s contract or other deals on the Magic’s books.
Orlando will have cap room to spend even with the impending extensions for Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony, like the most pressing matter for the Magic to consider.
President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman is very calculated with his moves. The Magic have plenty of cap room to spend, but the team has not been ready to make the move to go all-in. That was what the Magic did this summer.
To be sure, the Magic seem capable of making that kind of move. They have all the elements and pieces to push some chips in the middle of the table. And that is the flexibility the Magic are trying to maintain.
It is all about finding the right time. And now is not the right time.
Orlando is still a team in development. That is still clear.
This is a team that believes it is on the rise but is still waiting for the team to prove itself. It still needs to find out whether Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are players the team can build around, although certainly, all indications are that they are.
This team has not yet been to the playoffs. And while chasing after James Harden would certainly push the team into the postseason — just like chasing after Fred VanVleet in free agency likely would have — the question is whether that maximizes the group the Magic have.
It does not feel like it would if Banchero and Wagner are as good as they seem to suggest at this early stage in their careers.
This is likely why the Magic did not push all of its chips in to acquire Donovan Mitchell last summer. Weltman likely felt the team needed to prove itself and play a season with little pressure to maximize their development.
That bet worked out as the Magic looked positive and seem to be on an upward trajectory. But the jury might still be out on that.
The Magic are going to have to make that trade at some point. The question is who and when.
That when is not now. Orlando is on the precipice of making the postseason and the team wants to see if what it has can get it there and what weaknesses remain. The Magic want Banchero to be its star and have every opportunity to grow unimpeded.
That who is certainly not Harden with the disruptions he has brought to every franchise he has come to. The Magic are not going to hand their franchise to Harden and let him dictate its future — whether that is with him on the floor or what the team would have to give up for that one-year audition before he hits free agency.
That time is coming when the Magic will have to be aggressive with its trades. Figuring out what the team needs to target and how far it is from the playoffs and future contention is part of what this season is about.
But that time is not now.