The Orlando Magic reached the playoffs for the first time since trading Dwight Howard in 2012. The Magic even beat the eventual Eastern Conference champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their first round series. After six years of being largely forgettable, this season was a major success for Orlando. Now it’s about building upon this promising season, while also not handicapping their promising future.
Behind new coach Steve Clifford, the Magic built a top-10 defense and found just enough offense to get back to the playoffs. Nikola Vucevic emerged as an East All-Star, Terrence Ross was one of the league’s top sixth men, and younger players like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac took steps forward in their development. By any measure, it was a successful year for Orlando, and now free agency looms large over this team’s future.
Vucevic and Ross are both free agents. It’s no surprise the Magic would love to have both players back. The challenge comes with how far Jeff Weltman should go financially to bring both back. Vucevic will be 29 years old at the start of next season. While he’s a good player, there is some sense that he may have reached his peak last season. But that isn’t the worst thing. He was an All-Star, an improved defender, and showed more offensive versatility than at any other point in his career. Vucevic should be able to sustain this level of play for at least another two to three seasons.
Ross is an ideal sixth man for any team in the league. He’s a terrific shooter and a good athlete running the floor. Ross is also a good defender. He’s the type of 3&D player that all teams are looking for and he’s also at a point in his career where you can see plenty of productive years to come.
So, both players are good. Both players should have some productive years ahead of them. Why is re-signing them any sort of challenge? For Vucevic, he has promising youngster Mo Bamba behind him. While Bamba predictably struggled as a rookie, he has tremendous upside. He’ll need to play to develop. That becomes a challenge if Vucevic is signed long-term in front of him. With Ross, the question is how much of your cap can you devote to a sixth man?
For both Vucevic and Ross, the Magic should be focused on years and not dollars. The team isn’t likely to have enough cap space to make a major move this offseason even if both players leave, which makes it an easier decision to retain both players. The preference is to re-sign them both to big contracts, maybe even overpay them a bit, but for only two years, with maybe a third year with an option attached. That allows Orlando to continue to build on this past season without clogging the cap sheet down the line.
For Vucevic in particular, this strategy may not work. There are a lot of teams with cap space this summer and several of those teams need centers. He could easily garner a four-year offer this summer from another team. At that point, Weltman has a major decision to make. Ross, given his status, is less likely to have such a big offer come his way, but Orlando may need to make a decision there as well.
As for the rest of Orlando's free agents, it’s a lot more cut and dried. The Magic will pick up their team option on Wesley Iwundu as he became a key rotation player and he’s signed to a minimum contract. Michael Carter-Williams was signed late in the year when injuries hit Orlando hard and he became an integral backup to D.J. Augustin, making him someone the team will look to bring back. Khem Birch developed into a solid backup to Vucevic, with Bamba missing the second half of the season due to injury. He’s a restricted free agent and someone the Magic will likely bring back as well.
The other players are ones Orlando will probably move on from. Jerian Grant never developed the way the team had hoped for and they have better options at the point guard spot. Jarell Martin was fine in moments, but he’ll only be back if it’s on a minimum contract.
As for additions, assuming the team can re-sign Carter-Williams, they have good depth at the point guard spot. Evan Fournier is entrenched as the starting two-guard, while Gordon and Isaac are locks at the forward spots. That leaves filling out the rotation. The Magic would like to add a big with some range to play behind Vucevic and the two young forwards. Orlando should also be looking to add someone who can create offense off the dribble for himself or others, as that was all too often lacking this season, especially in the playoffs.
Fortunately for Orlando, that player may already be on the roster. At the trade deadline, the Magic acquired Markelle Fultz from the Philadelphia 76ers for the low price of Jonathon Simmons and a protected first round pick. Simmons was out of the rotation for Orlando and not a part of the future, so to get the former first overall pick for a protected first round was a low risk/high reward transaction.
Fultz is still recovering from shoulder issues, but the Magic have high hopes he’ll be ready to go for the start of next season. If so, he could give the team the dynamic playmaker in the backcourt to pair with the young frontcourt that they’ve lacked. Additionally, Fultz will be able to develop with less of a spotlight on him in Orlando than he would have had in Philadelphia.
This offseason is about being smart about balancing the present versus the future for the Magic. If they can retain Vucevic and Ross on smart deals, and the young players develop, the Magic should be able to continue the momentum from last year. If Vucevic and Ross leave Orlando, it’s something the team can recover from. The Magic probably take a step back under that scenario, but the roster still has lots of exciting young talent. For the first time in years, both the present and the future are bright in Orlando.
Guaranteed Contracts (8): D.J. Augustin, Mo Bamba, Evan Fournier, Melvin Frazier Jr., Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Timofey Mozgov
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (0): None
Potential Free Agents (9): Khem Birch (RFA), Michael Carter-Williams (UFA), Troy Caupain (RFA – Two-Way), Jerian Grant (RFA), Wesley Iwundu (RFA – Team Option), Amile Jefferson (RFA – Two-Way), Jarell Martin (RFA), Terrence Ross (UFA), Nikola Vucevic (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($333,333): C.J. Watson
First Round Draft Pick(s): #16
Maximum Cap Space: $21.4 million
Projected Cap Space: None. $44.1 million over