By John Denton
July 6, 2017
ORLANDO – In the role of top decision-maker for a team for the first time in his 28-year NBA career, Jeff Weltman easily could have spent the Orlando Magic’s remaining salary cap dollars today in an attempt at making a showy splash in free agency.
Instead, Weltman – Orlando’s new President of Basketball Operations – has chosen a strategic approach to the courting period for free agents, displaying great restraint and discipline – traits that made him the perfect candid to dig the Magic out of their worst stretch in franchise history.
Even though a Magic squad that finished 29-53 last season certainly could have used injections of shooting, defense and/or playmaking, Weltman has resisted the notion of spending cavalierly in an attempt to make quick fixes to the roster. He doesn’t want to further the restrict the Magic’s future flexibility by making additions that don’t make sense beyond the coming season, and thus the relative inactivity as teams throughout the league began signing free-agent acquisitions on Thursday.
“We’ve really looked to take a kind of long-view, cautious approach,’’ said Weltman on Thursday following the Magic’s final game in the Mountain Dew Orlando Pro Summer League. “There’s a lot less money in the free-agent market this year than there was last year. And so, the approach that we’ve taken is to kind of wait and see how some of that shakes out toward the next phase of free agency and see which players we may be able to get into discussions with at that point. But we’ve been touching base with a lot of guys and just kind of gauging the market.
“I think being reckless is never the right answer,’’ Weltman added. “When I say `being cautious,’ I think we’re trying to read the market, trying to understand where the market becomes a value proposition and enter it at that stage.’’
Weltman and new GM John Hammond were hired in late May to replace deposed GM Rob Hennigan and help to turn around a Magic franchise in a five-year rut where it has failed to reach the playoffs since 2012. Fixing what ails the team – a dearth of shooting and the lack a dynamic, difference-making leader – won’t come easily, especially since the Magic lack significant salary cap space following a 2016 spending spree that netted them Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks.
Rather than spending their approximately $15.1 million in salary cap space on one player, Weltman has turned the attention to finding under-the-radar players who might be deemed as good values. And if the Magic can lure those players to Orlando on one-year deals – something that wouldn’t impact their salary cap space next summer – all the more better, Weltman said.
Weltman stressed that just because the Magic haven’t signed anyone yet doesn’t mean that the franchise isn’t aggressively looking to upgrade the roster with players who fit where the Magic are now as a franchise.
“We are working to improve the roster,’’ said Weltman, who made the calls on Orlando drafting Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu at No. 6 and No. 33 in last month’s NBA Draft. “We feel that we got better in the draft, and we are trying to assess how we get better in free agency. We’re speaking with other teams. We’ll see if we’re able to get anything done or not. But we will take the long-view approach. We will do it the right way and we won’t rush into decisions just to get something done.’’
Because they are well under the salary cap, the Magic could be strong candidates to acquire talent and/or future draft picks via trades with teams looking to dump salaries. Because the NBA’s luxury tax is increasingly penal for teams repeatedly beyond the threshold, there could be as many as 10 teams offering draft picks or young assets to teams such as the Magic if they will take back veteran players with sizable salaries.
Magic head coach Frank Vogel, who took over the franchise last May, said he has the utmost confidence in Weltman and Hammond – two executives with a combined 54 years of NBA experience – will make the moves that take into account the franchise’s need to improve in both in the short term and long term.
“We’re going to be smart,’’ Vogel said. “Cleaning up our cap situation is one of (the front office’s) top priorities. You have to be smart about what you’re doing and calculated in how you’re going to improve the team.’’
Though the Magic have yet to add a marquee free agent, Weltman feels the franchise might have added the dynamic player it has sought in Isaac, the 6-foot-11, 210-pound forward with the 7-foot-3 wingspan and the 9-foot-2 wingspan. The 19-year-old averaged 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 44 percent and showing the Magic the fluidity and high-level defensive skills they coveted in the days and weeks leading up to the NBA Draft. Orlando is willing to be patient on the 19-year-old forward, but it likes what it saw from Isaac before suffering a hip strain injury that isn’t thought to be serious.
“We were very pleased with Jonathan and I think he showed a lot of the potential that we saw in him coming into the draft,’’ Weltman said. “Not just his talent, but his ability to make others around him better (is impressive). I think his team orientation came through. A lot of the league feedback that we got was other teams seeing a lot of the same stuff that we saw.
“He makes good basketball decisions, he makes others better and he’s a very intelligent player,’’ Weltman added. “As his body matures and he gets a better understanding what the NBA game is about, I think his potential is great.’’
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