By John Denton
July 31, 2017
ORLANDO – When he heard last week about veteran guard Arron Afflalo wanting to set an example for the Orlando Magic’s young players by dropping 15 pounds and ramping up his offseason workouts, President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman smiled and felt a great sense of pride.
Charged with re-tooling both the Magic’s roster and its culture this offseason, Weltman and new GM John Hammond set goals of acquiring experienced players who possess as much character and grit as they have talent. The two executives, who have a combined 54 years of experience at the NBA level, know that the Magic’s fortunes in the season ahead will depend largely on the squad’s ability to come together quickly and establish a culture of selflessness and hard work. So when Weltman heard about Afflalo wanting to send a message about his level of commitment – not just with his words, but also with his actions – the new leader of the Magic’s front office reveled in delight.
“For someone in our shoes, that’s just music to your ears,’’ Weltman said of Afflalo’s words and actions. “When you have a guy who is an established player and someone who has had personal and team success, him talking about actions to affect the team, that’s what we’re trying to create around here. I absolutely loved hearing that.’’
Something else that Weltman loved was the offseason that the Magic had in being opportunistic in going after players who can help them win both in the short term and long term. Orlando drafted the player – 19-year-old forward Jonathan Isaac – that many analysts feel has the biggest upside in the years ahead. In Wesley Iwundu, the Magic snagged a four-year college standout who appears ready to contribute right away on the defensive end of the floor.
In free agency, the Magic were big-time winners despite having limited financial flexibility. Less than 24 hours after the San Antonio Spurs shockingly renounced their rights to restricted free agent Jonathon Simmons, the Magic sprang into action and came to an agreement with a player who was a surprise star in the playoffs this past spring. Orlando also added proven veteran standouts Marresse Speights, Shelvin Mack and Afflalo on team-friendly, short-term deals. They should fortify depth and be leaders for young players such as Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Khem Birch, Isaac and Iwundu.
Weltman, always humble and more focused on growth than plaudits, said his excitement over the Magic’s offseason is tempered.
“We’re never going to be pleased and we’re never going to be content,’’ Weltman said. “We’re always going to be looking to improve and looking for opportunities to get better. But we’re very happy to have the guys that we were able to bring in. We feel like we’re getting high-character guys, we’re getting good players and we’re getting them at the right time in their careers.’’
Afflalo and Speights certainly fit into that category. Afflalo said that he’s never been happier in his NBA career – on and off the court – than when he played for the Magic from 2012-14, and he was delighted to return to Orlando this summer. Speights, a nine-year veteran, said he’s waited his entire career to play for the Magic – a franchise he called “my dream team,’’ because of his roots in nearby St. Petersburg.
What Weltman is most pleased about from this offseason is the fact that the Magic were able to load up on versatile players capable of playing multiple positions and adapting to various styles of play. That also should give the Magic much improved depth and offer head coach Frank Vogel options when it comes to making in-game adjustments.
Also, it should help the Magic that many of their newcomers – namely Simmons, Mack and Afflalo – come with reputations as players who have had to fight and work to make it in the NBA. Orlando’s hope is that their habits, selflessness and professionalism will have a major impact on developing a new culture around the franchise.
“You want to create roster balance, depth and competition. That’s what good teams do and it’s easier said than done, but we hope we’re going in the right direction,’’ Weltman said. “The NBA can be a humbling experience and all 30 teams have their summer plans and it’s up to players, coaches and management to execute those plans and apply all of the discipline to execute our vision. The more fighters, the more veterans you have in there, the more you feel that you have a chance.’’
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