The Orlando Magic made their first playoff appearance since the Dwight Howard era in 2018-19, but future success is anything but certain. All-Star center Nikola Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent and will generate interest across the league as a score-first center who made positive strides defensively under Steve Clifford this past season. In theory, Orlando has their frontcourt of the future in Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and Mo Bamba, but Bamba’s disappointing rookie year and the realization that he’s further away from being an NBA-caliber player than previously thought puts them firmly in the market to keep Vucevic and attempt to add around the edges to build on last season’s success.
Orlando can realistically open up about $17.6 million in cap space if they decide to move on from their incumbent free agents (other than Khem Birch), but they’d really like to operate as an over-the-cap team and bring back Vucevic and Terrence Ross along with Birch. A full max contract for Vucevic is going to be a bad deal by the last year or two, but the value they could get in the first three years would make it worthwhile. As friend of the site Keith Smith pointed out in his offseason preview on RealGM, convincing him to sign a shorter-term deal would be ideal; even if they could do a 3+1 with max raises, that offer would beat any offer another team could make, though that difference is somewhat negligible when the numbers get as big as they are these days. The difference for Vucevic in taking a 3+1 with Orlando versus a 3+1 with any other team is less than $6 million in total money, which is hardly much of an advantage for the Magic when we’re talking about nearly $150 million in total earnings.
On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear which team is offering Vucevic a four-year max this offseason. The Sacramento Kings were heavily tied to him over the last few months, but they will reportedly not go after him after all. There’s a lot of money out there to be had this summer, but there are also a ton of free agents and center is the position most easily replaced on the open market.
If Vucevic is only interested in coming back to Orlando on a five-year max, then management really has something to think about. Assuming they think Bamba can eventually take over the starting job, does it make sense to tie themselves to up to five years of Vucevic? Their No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft is nowhere near ready to step in on a full-time basis right now, particularly if the Magic want to continue their playoff aspirations, but they have to think that he’ll be ready at some point in the next year or two.
Ross is who he is at this point. A solid sixth man who can come in and juice a bench offense, he’s not growing into a larger role than that and should be paid as such this summer, whether it’s Orlando or elsewhere. If they can bring him back at about what he made on his last contract to back up starter Evan Fournier, then that’s a good use of his Bird rights, but if he gets a larger offer or is ready to move on to another team with a better chance of winning than Orlando, they’ll be able to use their mid-level exception or first-round draft pick to replace most of what he brought to the table. He’s a fine scorer and shooter, but the defensive limitations put a ceiling on his role within a winning team.
Orlando’s trio of potential restricted free agents – Birch, Jerian Grant, and Jarell Martin – don’t inspire a ton of confidence, with Birch the best among them despite being a minimum player the last two years. Birch has just two years of NBA service under his belt, but he’s older than you think after spending a year at Pitt, two more at UNLV, then multiple years overseas. He’ll be 27 by the time next season starts despite his lack of NBA experience, and while that’s certainly not a death knell for his chances of getting solid money this summer, he’s not as young as most guys finishing up their first minimum contract as a second-round pick or undrafted free agent. Grant and Martin are likely minimum players at best in their next destination and neither is worth the qualifying offer Orlando would have to tender to make them restricted free agents. They can always pull those qualifying offers later if they need to open up additional cap space, but they run the risk of both players signing those one-year pacts, which would also come with an implicit no-trade clause, making them even harder to move at a later date.
The elephant in the room in Orlando is Markelle Fultz, who joined the team at the trade deadline but has yet to suit up in a real game. He’s battling thoracic outlet syndrome in his shoulder and while the Magic are reportedly happy with the progress he’s made physically, there are still plenty of other obstacles for him to overcome before he will be able to return to the same player he was at the University of Washington a few years ago. How Orlando treat the free agent market this summer will depend on how much they can rely on Fultz to give them something, anything, at the backup point guard spot this season. A point guard tandem of D.J. Augustin and Fultz wouldn’t be the end of the world if the latter is going to be ready to go in October, but there’s absolutely no way anybody outside their organization can know that at this point. Bringing back Michael Carter-Williams on a small deal would be a nice insurance policy in case Fultz can’t go. He played well for them down the stretch and in the playoffs, though expecting that to be his baseline going forward is risky.
The Magic are pretty well set up on the wing, where Fournier, Isaac, and Gordon give them nearly everything a team could want out of a starting group. There’s not quite as much shooting as you’d like, but Fournier’s secondary playmaking and the defense from Isaac and Gordon give the Magic good production from that wing trio. Should Ross be back with the team, he provides that shooting and scoring punch, but takes too much off the table defensively to push Fournier or Isaac for their spots in the starting lineup.
They have their own picks at Nos. 16 and 46 in this year’s draft and all their own picks going forward, no more, no less. In fact, they’re the only team in the league without either a future obligation to another team nor a future pick coming in from another team. Going with a guard or wing with their first-round pick this year would be ideal – Matisse Thybulle would give them another wing defender who takes something off the table offensively, as would Chuma Okeke, who’s a safer pick than Thybulle but has less upside. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is one of my favorite fits for them, as his secondary playmaking makes him a strong backup guard and, ideally, an eventual replacement for Fournier in the starting lineup. Kevin Porter Jr. or Romeo Langford would be strong options if they want more scoring than playmaking from that spot.
The Magic aren’t necessarily championship contenders, but after more than a half-decade in the lottery, things are turning around. Adding significantly to this team will still likely come through the draft, however, as Orlando is clearly not a free agent destination. Nabbing that sort of player is going to be difficult; they’ll either need to hit a home run with one of the middling first-round picks in the next few years or hope that Bamba or Fultz can put it together to fully reach their respective ceilings. Otherwise, Orlando’s path to a superstar isn’t clear. Like the Detroit Pistons, it doesn’t have to always be the goal of every franchise to win a title or win the draft lottery; stringing together multiple playoff appearances and putting a fun team on the floor to sell tickets can be the goal of management and ownership without championships being the be-all-end-all for the organization as a whole.