In February of 2021, the Orlando Magic decided enough was enough. After six years with the same core, consisting Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vučević, the team was going nowhere, much to the frustration of the fan base.
One NBA Trade Deadline Sledgehammer later, where the team moved off all three players, it was time to start anew.
It’s not even three years later, but Orlando’s ceiling now looks exponentially higher. They might have found a true franchise player in Paolo Banchero, a true second star in Franz Wagner – courtesy of the Bulls – and a small army of productive guards in Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and Anthony Black.
They also have Wendell Carter Jr and Moe Wagner on a sweetheart contracts, and a long-term project in Jett Howard waiting in the wings, not to mention tradable assets in form of Markelle Fultz and Gary Harris.
Oh, and they rank third in the East this season.
The Magic have done very well for themselves over the past few years. They’ve replenished what used to be an empty cupboard, and done so with productive players, and have installed a defensive culture after hiring Jamahl Mosley, who should be a strong candidate to win the league’s Coach Of the Year award after the season.
All this isn’t to say they won’t have challenges ahead of them.
They still need to figure out exactly what they have in the crop of aforementioned guards. While they have players with differing skill sets, they don’t have that one guard who can do it all.
Suggs is becoming an elite defender, but he still lacks offensive pop. Anthony is an explosive offensive guard (who’s also an incredibly good rebounder for his size), but he lacks the defensive discipline of Suggs. Black is frankly too young to even know what he’s going to turn into, but the early returns seem to indicate defense over offense, not unlike Suggs.
Perhaps the Magic wish for a player merger machine from Santa this Christmas, that collects all the individual skills from each guy, and merge them into one new player.
Fortunately, the Magic can survive for the time being. Both Banchero and Wagner (Franz) are capable playmakers who feel comfortable with the ball in their hands. They can initiate plays off the dribble both for themselves and others, providing Orlando’s guards with a lower burden when that proves necessary.
Looking three years down the road, however, the Magic will need to have someone in the backcourt who consistently is in All-Star discussions, as to best balance the talent at the bigger positions.
This begs the question: When is the time to go all-in for a player in a trade?
Orlando, presumably, won’t have a chance to pick high up the draft for a while. They’re simply too good to get a selection in that area.
This opens the door to some possibilities.
Knowing that they’re on the right track, the Magic should go into the 2024 offseason with an openness to fork over draft selections – for the right player.
It’s always an incredibly difficult step when transitioning from rebuild into being buyers. If one big move falls flat, it could set a team back years.
So, in order to minimize risk, the Magic will have to follow a small checklist before they can the answer to the above question.
That checklist includes finding out if Banchero is going to become a perennial All-NBA player who is good enough to be the best player on a title contending team. If they aren’t sure whether he is, then they should be in no rush to make significant alterations to the roster.
Secondly, ownership and management need to be on the same page when it comes to spending. NBA title winners are often paying the tax, and Orlando should thus be willing to do the same, if they wish to push for a championship. Should ownership find itself unwilling to pay for quality, then fans can expect a re-run of the 2021 trade deadline, but with the current group instead.
(This further underlines how quality ownership is the biggest advantage in professional sports.)
Should the stars align, however, with Banchero becoming a superstar, and the DeVos family, who owns the Magic, be willing to pay for a contender, that’s when the team should be ready to pounce if a quality guard hits the market.
Of course, should one of the players in the current guard group suddenly break out, that only helps the Magic to avoid going all-in on a big trade. But that’s a big assumption, which is why there’s a need for them to keep their powder dry.
Overall, though, the Magic are well positioned. While they will need to spend big on Banchero and Wagner, their books are clean. Carter Jr, still just 24, is on a declining deal that’ll pay him just $10.8 million at age 26. That’s an enormous luxury for a team still laying the foundation for the future.