By John Denton
June 30, 2017
ORLANDO – Tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, NBA Twitter goes bonkers and marquee free agents start changing teams at even more alarming rates than in the previous week, the Orlando Magic most likely will be … waiting patiently.
While that thought might be somewhat frustrating to a Magic fan base desperate for their team to make the kind of moves that will help it return to contending status, the plan of new President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman to wait patiently is a prudent one considering the squad’s current state.
With the Magic hoping to further develop a promising, young core of Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and rookie Jonathan Issac and it still being fully committed to veterans Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin, Orlando might be hesitant to upset that mix with major roster additions. Also, because of last summer’s free-agent spending by the previous administration – adding Biyombo and Augustin to long-term deals – the Magic are in the precarious position of not having enough financial flexibility to chase the biggest of free agents when the courting period opens just after midnight.
Three of Orlando’s players from last season, Jeff Green, Jodie Meeks and Damjan Rudez, are unrestricted free agents, while C.J. Watson’s contract for next season is only partially guaranteed.
Instead of chasing some of the NBA’s marquee fragents when the clock strikes 12 a.m., the Magic will most likely wait patiently on players who can fit a certain role with them and can slide into a salary slot that works in their structure.
“I think, for where we are now as an organization, we would like to bring in players that could either grow with us or help those younger (players) grow themselves,’’ Weltman said. “So we’ll focus in on that. Now that the draft has come and gone and the dust has settled, we’ll visit more with Coach (Frank Vogel) and figure out mechanically what the roster needs.’’
Teams can start wooing and negotiating contracts with free agents just after midnight. The NBA forbids team executives from consummating contracts, commenting or speculating publicly regarding the free agents they might reach handshake deals with until noon on July 6.
On the heels of Chris Paul’s blockbuster trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant’s landscape-changing, free-agent defection from Oklahoma City to Golden State last July and more superstar players than ever showing a desire to team up together, Weltman – a NBA front-office executive the past 28 years – understands fully the dynamics of player movement. He wants the Magic to eventually be an appealing destination for stars looking to leave other teams or a franchise that is fully capable of keeping its own talent in Orlando.
“Contracts are shorter now and when you have players reaching unrestricted free agency, which means they are probably toward the peak of their prime, if they are in situations where they don’t see immediate winning, they may look to be elsewhere,’’ said Weltman, who worked for the Clippers, Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks and Raptors before being hired by the Magic on May 22. “Ultimately, we’ve learned through a couple of difficult episodes that you have to be ahead of that curve from an organizational standpoint. That’s what we’re seeing more of now in the NBA.’’
Out of the playoffs last season for a fifth straight year and saddled with a disappointing 29-53 record, the Magic are hopeful that internal growth among their existing players and continued continuity with Vogel as head coach will be their most reliable path to improvement next season.
If the Magic’s pursuit of needs come into play, shooting and defensive toughness will likely shape their pursuit. In an era of “space-and-pace’’ basketball where shooting has never been at more of a premium, Orlando ranked 29th in the NBA 3-point accuracy and 25th in 3-pointers made. Defensively, the impacts of Serge Ibaka (since traded to Toronto for Ross) and Biyombo were minimal, and the Magic had trouble getting consistent stops for much of the season.
So when the bar drops on free agency, the Magic are likely to patiently waiting for a free-agent fit – one who wants to be in Orlando and one who they want around their young and impressionable core players.
“You’re always looking for the best player and we’re looking for the best players we can find, but we have to work within the confines of the salary cap and understanding what guys are looking for,’’ Weltman said. “Free agency isn’t a one-way conversation. We’ll reach out to guys and see what they are looking for and we’ll try to target the best players we can get if they fit our model of character, work, team-first and fit. Hopefully there’s a marriage there.’’
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