After a sixth consecutive season outside the playoffs, the Orlando Magic made their fifth coaching change of the decade, relieving Frank Vogel of his duties and hiring former Hornets head coach Steve Clifford to lead the team on the court. While appearing as just another retread hire by a franchise famous for hiring retread coaches, Clifford should bring a level of offensive execution out of his players that Vogel was unable to. Charlotte ranked in the top ten in offense two of the last three seasons before Clifford was removed from his job and while the defense wasn’t fantastic the past two seasons, he retains his reputation as a strong defensive coach stemming from his time serving under the brothers Van Gundy in New York, Houston, and Orlando. The change should be a positive one for the Magic, who have been searching for consistency from the head coaching position since Stan Van Gundy was let go in 2012.
Unlike most of the teams picking at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic likely won’t have cap space with which to work this summer, limiting them to their draft picks and the mid-level exception as their primary ways to acquire new players. While they can generate up to $19.0 million in cap space, that would require dumping the $16.5 million cap hold of Aaron Gordon, their prize restricted free agent who will almost certainly be brought back at whatever price it takes to retain him, whether through an offer sheet or agreement between Gordon and the Magic. Gordon is rumored to be looking for a max contract starting at $25.3 million for 2018-19 and Orlando’s front office is prepared to give it to him, which would make him the highest-paid player on the team by a significant margin.
A full max for Gordon and their first-round pick would put the Magic about $6.7 million from the tax, enough to use the full mid-level exception and sign their two second-round picks to contracts without edging above the $129.1 million apron. With second-round picks at 35 and 41, it’s likely that those players will be rostered by the Magic next season, as both of those selections are high enough that teams can count on some modicum of production from those rookies. Orlando may also package those two high second-round picks to buy their way back into the bottom of the first round, as teams in those spots may value two bites at the draft apple to add to their veteran-laden teams rather than a single late first-round pick. Still, this scenario puts the team in the tax without a clear path back to the playoffs, so ownership will likely nix any plan that leaves them with a tax bill at the end of 2018-19.
Orlando can buy themselves a bit more wiggle room by dumping Shelvin Mack’s non-guaranteed contract, but that decision will likely be based on which player they can nab with the sixth overall pick in Thursday’s draft. Mack’s contract fully guarantees for $6 million on June 25th, which gives them plenty of time post-draft to assess their point guard situation and decide on Mack’s future with the team for 2018-19. If Orlando comes away from the top of the draft with Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or Collin Sexton, it becomes far more likely that they’ll let Mack go.
Despite being able to overhaul their roster with cap space signings, Orlando will still be active this summer, specifically on the trade market. Assuming Gordon is back in the fold, that gives the Magic three centers all making more than $12.8 million in Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Bismack Biyombo. Gordon and 2017 draftee Jonathan Isaac are the future of the team’s big man positions and moving Vucevic as an expiring contract to exchange like-for-like bad salary with another team at another position would benefit Orlando. Vucevic likely has more trade value than Biyombo, who is the better player but has another year and almost $22 million in extra money owed to him on his contract. The center market is entirely overstuffed and the top of this year’s draft won’t help that, but finding a home for the offensively-focused Vucevic as a backup center on a playoff contender should be possible, especially if Orlando is willing to take back more money in the process. For example, if Orlando doesn’t fix their point guard situation in the draft, they could call Detroit about Reggie Jackson (2 years/$35.1 million left on his deal), Atlanta about Dennis Schröder (3/$46.5 million left), or Minnesota about Jeff Teague (2/$38 million left). At other positions, there’s the Lakers’ Luol Deng (2/$36 million left) or Portland’s Evan Turner (2/$36.5 million left). All of these guys are varying degrees of bad money but could come to Orlando with a first-round pick attached in exchange for Vucevic, adding to the Magic’s salary the next two or three seasons but clarifying their roster at important positions going into next season. Orlando could afford to take on any of those players without triggering the tax and could later use the mid-level exception to replace Mack, if they do choose to let him go.
Orlando is still picking up the pieces almost six years after jettisoning the unhappy Dwight Howard in 2012. Gordon, Isaac, and whomever they pick at No. 6 are the future of the team, but with so much other money on their books, it would behoove them to play the long game—they’ll probably have Gordon for the next five years, Isaac for the next seven or eight, and No. 6 for the next eight or nine. While tough to swallow for a team that’s been finished with their season by mid-April for more than a half-decade, the long view is still the best way to operate for the Magic.