The NBA is less than two weeks away from opening up its training camps for the 2024 season. And there is still offseason business to take care of.
Players with the Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers and plenty more have to be a bit on edge on the eve of training camps as dramas over Damian Lillard and James Harden’s future continue to circle. The Sixers seem content to try to make things work with Harden.
Lillard though continues to push for a trade out of Portland. It may not be enough that he will not report to Portland in a few weeks, but there is a public battle going on where Lillard is ready to move on and still singularly focused on going to Miami.
It has been a summer-long drama that has made it difficult to get a grip on the full Eastern Conference picture. And it will hover over the team until a trade gets done.
There seems to be little movement on the Damian Lillard trade front. Although a “mystery team” has emerged trying to get in on the deal. The Orlando Magic certainly are not that team, but their time is coming.
Lillard making it clear he only wants to play for the Heat has only made small markets nervous about their future superstars and the way power players force their way out before free agency. The Heat, for their part, do not have any motivation to change their initial offer as there is no one else seriously bidding for Lillard and the Blazers are kind of handcuffed into their position.
But there is now perhaps some movement to get a deal done. There is reportedly a “mystery” team inquiring about Lillard and trying to create some movement on this front.
Nobody really knows who this mystery team is. Matt Moore of Locked on NBA suspects it is the Toronto Raptors. Others suspect it is the Milwaukee Bucks, dealing with their own internal pressure Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting on the franchise to remain title contenders.
Who is really to say? It could all be a giant smokescreen.
But this little trickle of news has every Eastern Conference team thinking at least a little bit about the potential of adding Lillard. He would undoubtedly swing any season — whether that is swinging the Miami Heat into a title contender or swinging a team like the Orlando Magic from an up-and-coming team to a surefire playoff team and maybe more.
The idea is awfully tempting even if it means giving up some long-term assets and going all-in on the team the Magic have now.
Orlando is not that team.
Lillard certainly is not interested in joining another young team (even one that has considerably more talent than his current Blazers team). Lillard wants to join the Heat at least for the perception that he would be immediately competing for titles. Orlando is still a few steps away from that.
The Magic have never indicated they are looking to make a quick move up the standings either.
President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman has openly said the team is not looking for “shortcuts” to make the playoffs. They want to build something sustainable and long-lasting with the players they have.
Adding a 33-year-old Damian Lillard certainly would transition the team to the time when Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are in their mid-20s and in their prime, but it is no guarantee that Lillard would turn the Magic into a title contender in the near future. Both Banchero and Wagner have lots more to develop before they are playing at a championship level.
Weltman has, and sometimes frustratingly so, been patient with his team building. The Magic had massive amounts of cap room the last two summers. Yet, they decided each time to roll over their roster and maintain flexibility.
Orlando seems to be waiting for the right move and the right moment to make that big push. And some of it might come with understanding how good this team really is. And that is a big part of this season.
That time of patience though is running out.
Orlando will have to start committing some money to retain some of these young players. Markelle Fultz is a free agent at the end of the season and should command a salary around $20 million per year. Cole Anthony will also hit restricted free agency this summer. He could get a salary north of $15 million per year depending on how he plays this season.
And then there is Wagner’s expected max extension in the summer of 2024 and Banchero’s expected max extension in 2025. The numbers on those contracts could look very big depending on how much the salary cap increases based on the league’s new TV deal.
Orlando is going to have to commit to a team very soon. And that is why there should be some urgency this season to take a significant step forward and tell the front office what kind of team this can be.
It is instructive though that there are at least a few people who can foresee the Magic getting into the Lillard sweepstakes. Even with Antetokounmpo, there are people projecting the Magic as a team that could get involved (even if the positional fit feels weird).
The Orlando Magic are expected to be in a position to make a move similar to what the Cleveland Cavaliers did in acquiring Donovan Mitchell. They have the pieces to do it with several young players on affordable deals and tons of cap flexibility and contracts they can move off of.
At this point, Orlando should be the boogeyman for a lot of teams. The Magic are the team capable of doing anything. They are the sharks circling in the water. At some point, they are going to attack.
Lillard is not the right player or moment to attack — although certainly Lillard’s skill set would fill some major needs for the Magic and make them a better team. This Magic team needs to get its winning experience first and prove it can win on a big stage before adding the player to get them over the top.
That is typically how these things go.
At this stage, the Magic being on the periphery of these conversations is a positive. It is a sign of the team’s potential to strike.
Almost assuredly, Orlando is not the mystery team in these Lillard conversations. But that time when the Magic are seriously getting involved in these kinds of trades might be happening sooner than later.