December 16, 2017

Can an NBA team amass too much promising young talent for its own good?

The Orlando Magic are at risk of becoming a cautionary tale in that regard.

Since trading Dwight Howard in August 2012, the Magic have done a masterful job of accumulating intriguing players on dirt-cheap rookie contracts via trades (Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, Evan Fournier) or the draft (Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Andrew Nicholson). While they haven’t yet found a superstar along the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Jimmy Butler, much less an Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, they’ve still managed to stock their cupboard with plenty of high-upside youth over the past few years.

However, that strategy has some drawbacks, as the Magic are quickly learning.

While rookie contracts are often the league’s best bargain, there comes a time where teams have to pony up and pay those players market value. Even before then, there are only so many minutes to divvy up between those on the roster. By virtue of assembling so much under-25 talent at one time, the Magic found themselves in a situation where they simply couldn’t afford to retain everyone, both in terms of minutes and future contracts.

Over the past nine months, they began preemptively shedding those who didn’t fit into their long-term vision. Their seeming desperation to move on from two such players, in particular, generated less-than-optimal returns in exchange.

That process began last summer, when the Magic shipped Harkless to the Portland Trail Blazers for a 2020 top-55-protected second-round pick. (Orlando later sent that pick to Cleveland in exchange for a 2017 top-55-protected second-round pick from the Sacramento Kings.) While it’s too early to say that pick won’t convey—who knows, maybe the Kings become an overnight title contender next year and finish with a top-five record?—the odds are certainly against Orlando ever receiving anything in return for Harkless, a former first-round pick who they obtained in the Howard trade.

Harkless isn’t the second coming of Michael Jordan by any means, but there’s not much of an argument in favor of giving him away for basically nothing. The fourth-year forward is hardly lighting the NBA landscape ablaze in Portland—he’s averaging 5.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 17.4 minutes a night—but he’s been productive enough, particularly of late, to wonder what Orlando was thinking.

At the time of the trade, Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post offered an explanation for the Magic’s paltry haul:

Trading a former first-round pick for a future second-rounder isn’t great asset management; that Orlando essentially punted Harkless, after investing three seasons in his development, looks at first blush surprising.

But when one considers that Harkless’ playing time dropped in each of his three Magic seasons, and that Orlando added Mario Hezonja to a wing rotation which also includes Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon, the trade makes a bit more sense. The Magic have some young talent on the wings but only so many minutes per game to devote to their growth.

This “not enough minutes to go around” rationale would become a common theme for Orlando over the next nine months, particularly at the trade deadline.

Two days prior to the deadline, the Magic decided to cut bait on Tobias Harris, sending him to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. At the time, it looked like an underwhelming return for a 23-year-old forward who had just signed a four-year, $64 million contract the prior summer, seemingly solidifying himself as a long-term building block in Orlando. Once the trade deadline passed and teams had sent out protected first-round picks for Markieff Morris and Donatas Motiejunas—Markieff Morris, who effectively tanked the first three months of the season!—it became even more egregious that the Magic netted no draft compensation for Harris. (Though the Pistons eventually backed out on the Motiejunas trade due to him failing a physical, the point remains the same—they gave up a protected first-rounder for him but not for Harris.)

Harris’ scoring had plunged a bit in 2015-16, perhaps leading Orlando to reconsider whether was capable of anchoring a championship-caliber team, but that coincided with a significant drop in his usage. Based on his early returns in Detroit—through five games, he’s averaged 17.6 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 triples and 1.0 steals in 33.0 minutes a night—Harris appears to be a perfectly capable No. 3 option offensively.

In a press conference following the trade, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said “additional minutes for Mario , for Evan and for Aaron Gordon” factored into the decision to ship Harris to Detroit. While the underlying theory makes sense—giving young players a hefty helping of minutes should aid in their long-term development—there was nothing stopping head coach Scott Skiles from starting Fournier and Gordon while bringing Harris off the bench alongside Hezonja. (For what it’s worth, Hezonja’s playing time hasn’t significantly increased since the trade deadline, further making that point moot.)

If the Magic were that intent on shedding Harris, they could have waited until free agency began in July, as teams that strike out on their No. 1 options would be far more desperate to land a big fish. The return would almost assuredly be better than a point guard coming off an Achilles tear who’s on an expiring contract and a stretch 4 with a largely non-guaranteed 2016-17 salary who largely replicates what Channing Frye brought to the table. Though Hennigan spun the deal as a way to “balance the roster and provide valuable experience” while the Magic make a last-gasp playoff push, the team clearly had ulterior motives in mind.

Viewed in conjunction with their decision to send Frye to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jared Cunningham (who they promptly waived) and a 2020 second-round pick—a move motivated by the desire to open salary-cap flexibility for the summer, per John Denton of the team’s website—it appears as though the Magic have their eyes on a far bigger prize. In a recent column, Sean Deveney of Sporting News teased at what Orlando may be angling for this July:

But a source told Sporting News that the Magic will have an interest in Hawks big man Al Horford — and the interest would be mutual. Horford helped lead Florida to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, spending three years as a student in Gainesville. …

An additional bonus: injured Bulls center Joakim Noah is a free agent and unlikely to be back in Chicago next year. While Noah butted heads with coach Scott Skiles as a rookie with the Bulls in 2007, much has changed, and the opportunity to join Horford back in central Florida — he played next to Horford on those Gator championship teams — would be tempting.

Without providing specifics, Brian K. Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel also expects the Magic to try selling two free agents “on rescuing Orlando” in a “package deal,” much like they did with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady back in 2000. Whether that’s the Noah-Horford duo or a yet-to-be-named pair of other free agents, Orlando has set itself up for a make-or-break offseason after shipping out Harris for two players who very well might not be on its opening-night roster in October.

Theoretically, opening up $40-plus million in cap space (even after factoring in Fournier’s cap hold) does give the Magic all sorts of flexibility to make major maneuvers this offseason. But in a summer where two-thirds of the league figures to have at least enough cap space for one max contract, striking out on the top-tier free agents could lead to some egregious overpays elsewhere. If the Horford-Noah plan doesn’t come to fruition, are the Magic forced to pay Fournier upwards of $20 million annually to stick around in O-Town? Do they talk themselves into Rajon Rondo, Ryan Anderson or Al Jefferson as veteran difference-makers?

Much like the Philadelphia 76ers’ “Process,” Orlando’s overarching youth-centric rebuild strategy is perfectly logical. It’s the execution that’s been flawed.

Loading up on talented young players locked into four-year, cost-controlled contracts gives your franchise considerable salary-cap flexibility in free agency and extension negotiations. Eventually, however, there comes a time where you have to consolidate that talent into a franchise cornerstone-type player.

Contracts aren’t the only limitations. Playing time is, too. There are only 240 minutes and so many touches to divide among your roster each game, which limits teams’ ability to amass competent role players and keep them all happy. Having too much good-but-not-great talent without a true superstar in place significantly hampers a franchise’s chances of emerging as a legitimate title contender.

Because the Magic haven’t yet found their heir apparent to Howard, they remain in rebuilding purgatory four seasons after trading him away. Gordon, Hezonja, Fournier, Oladipo and Payton are all perfectly suitable complementary young players to build around, but none appear to have the ceiling of a true game-changer.

The Magic still have the flexibility to alter course at a moment’s notice—it’s far too early to bury their rebuild as dead on arrival—but their activity at the trade deadline has ratcheted up the pressure to take a momentous step forward this summer. If they aren’t able to obtain a superstar in a trade or free agency, the impending extensions for their young players could significantly hamper Orlando’s long-term outlook.

Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin’ about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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