Consider the Orlando Magic a winner in the Damian Lillard trade

Damian Lillard is off to the Milwaukee Bucks, providing some relief to the Orlando Magic he is not landing elsewhere. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
Damian Lillard is off to the Milwaukee Bucks, providing some relief to the Orlando Magic he is not landing elsewhere. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports /

Well, it finally happened.

The Portland Trail Blazers have reportedly agreed to a three-team deal that will send Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks to team up with Giannis Antetokounmpo with Jrue Holiday heading to the Trail Blazers along with Deandre Ayton from the Phoenix Suns. The Suns will get depth with Jusuf Nurkic heading to Phoenix along with Grayson Allen and Orlando Christian Prep alum Nassir Little.

With that, perhaps the last piece of business that needed to get done before the start of the NBA’s preseason is completed. Everyone can report to camp relatively happily and prepare for the season.

The Bucks heeded Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shot across the bow to keep the Bucks in championship contention, the Suns added some depth to a roster that is top-loaded and the Blazers. . . they got out of the Lillard situation and can finally move forward.

For a little while, the Orlando Magic were tied to the Lillard trade either as a team waiting in the wings to pounce on the superstar or as a third team to help get things done like the Phoenix Suns ended up being.

Those reports always felt a bit off considering what the Magic value and where they are at developmentally.

The Damian Lillard trade saga is finally over. The Orlando Magic can breathe a sigh of relief he did not end up at the other rumored spots and landed with a contender like the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Magic are not getting Lillard and reaping the benefits of adding a superstar to their team. The benefits of such a move are certainly part of the debate among Magic fans. But Lillard landing in Milwaukee certainly feels like a victory for the team.

The Magic obviously are not involved in this deal. But things could have turned out much worse for Orlando with how negotiations surrounding Lillard were shaping up in the public. There is at least some sigh of relief for the Magic to accomplish their goals.

Orlando spent its offseason betting on its internal improvement. The Magic liked what they saw to end last season and seemed content to let their roster grow and improve just based on age. They expect Paolo Banchero to be more efficient and for Franz Wagner to take another step up. They are among several other young players on the roster who are expected to improve.

There are a lot of people who believe the Magic will at least match what they did to end last season and compete for a Play-In spot. They may not be ready to pull the trigger on the Magic appearing in the Playoffs, but everyone senses they could be among the teams on the rise.

The league does not stand still though. And the prospect of Lillard landing with archnemesis Miami Heat or with Playoff competitors Toronto Raptors always had to have the Magic at least a little bit worried.

It is a lesson that those who stand still in the NBA are certainly falling behind. If there is a criticism for president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman it is that he has been overly patient and has not looked to be aggressive to improve the roster.

The time to do that is surely coming. But Weltman opted for stability and continuity for his young roster this summer.

Still, there are 10 spots in the postseason and they are precious to reach for. And if Orlando is going to get into the Playoffs, the team would need to displace someone.

The prospect of the Raptors getting Lillard, as reporting seemed to be building momentum toward this week, certainly put at risk one of the teams the Magic could knock out of the postseason picture.

Toronto was the 9-seed in last year’s Play-In Tournament. And they seemed to be a team on decline after losing Fred VanVleet in free agency. They were rumored to be shopping their own star in Pascal Siakam as they reset.

The Raptors are not out of the Play-In discussion. But almost certainly if they had added Lillard, they would have been favorites to make the Playoffs proper and not just the Play-In Tournament. That would have been one less team battling at the bottom of the pile.

The Heat, Lillard’s preferred destination for a trade throughout this whole process, are not the typical 8-seed. But they are another team that the Magic would not have liked to see get measurably better.

At the end of the day, when it comes to the standings, the Bucks were already considered contenders. They are not competing for the same thing as the Magic — at least as far as we know. They are reinforcing an already good team. It is a different thing than the Magic having now to compete directly with Lillard for a postseason spot.

To that point about the playoff race, the Magic also receive a benefit.

Orlando is hoping to get off to a good start this season. That is something that several players have been open about after the 5-20 start last year completely derailed the team.

The prospect of facing a Portland team with Lillard in the second game of the season was at least a little bit concerning when the team takes that early West Coast trip. Facing teams that are expected to be at the bottom of the standings at the beginning of the season is often fraught with peril — everyone has a chance early in the season.

Portland will not be a pushover. The Blazers still have talent and Deandre Ayton will have the ball in his hands much more and be a good center. But that is still a young team with a lot of unproven scorers without Lillard. Lillard is what made Portland dangerous.

Conversely, the Magic see the Bucks late in the season and those games feel daunting.

Orlando’s four games with Milwaukee are spread out. The Magic face the Bucks early in the season in November in Orlando and December in Milwaukee. Then they do not face them again until the final week of the season.

The first two weeks of the season and the last two weeks of the season can be difficult to predict. So the Magic getting the Bucks late in the season when they may be more focused on resting stars for the postseason (even with the star rest protocols) could give the Magic some opportunity to steal some critical wins late in the season.

Orlando is going to operate on its own. The Magic are focused more on themselves than other teams as they try to improve. And that is the stage of the rebuild the team is at. They are not trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Still, there was the potential that Lillard could have tipped some teams the Magic are directly competing against right now. And Orlando dodged that bullet.

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In that sense, the Magic are a winner today. And they will continue to grind and work on themselves to take their next steps this season.