By John Denton
Feb. 8, 2018
– Not just by every statistical measure, but also by the raw look and feel of the Orlando Magic of late, the team has functioned significantly better with reserves D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack on the floor than with long-time starter Elfrid Payton.
For those reasons, combined with the fact that the team didn’t envision Payton as their long-term starter, the Magic cut ties with their primary point guard of the past four seasons on Thursday.
Payton, a Magic starter since the 2014-15 season, was traded to the Phoenix Suns for a 2018 second-round pick just minutes prior to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. The pick heading to the Magic will be the second-most favorable of Phoenix’s three second-round selections – ones that belonged previously to Charlotte, Memphis and Miami. Based on Thursday’s NBA standings, that pick would be the 41st overall selection in the June NBA Draft.
``The NBA is evolving, and we have to fit this (change at point guard) into our team and into the context of the league,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, referring to the desire to get better shooting and defense out of the point guard position. ``Certainly, as we grow the team, there are certain principles and cornerstones that we want to build with. These all go into the mix of free agency, draft and timing of where we are as a team. Do we want to lock in financially to a team that struggled in recent years? These are all factors that figure in.’’
Playing their first game in 3½ years without Payton on the roster, Orlando beat Atlanta 100-98 at the Amway Center on Thursday. Augustin (18 points, nine assists and two steals) and Mack (nine points, three assists and a steal) were major factors again in what proved to be Orlando’s third straight victory.
Payton, 23 years old and noticeable throughout the NBA for his high-arching and floppy hairstyle, is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1 after he and the Magic couldn’t work out a contract extension prior to this season. Unlikely to match any lucrative offers that Payton potentially would have received, the Magic traded the point guard now so as to guarantee that they will at least get some compensation.
``We added a draft pick, we retained a little flexibility and that’s what we got today. We’re excited to have those (things) and we feel that we need those (factors) to have a little bit of wiggle room and creativity as we assemble the roster,’’ Weltman said while looking ahead to what should be another busy offseason for the Magic. ``All of that stuff comes to bear in June (for the NBA Draft) when we start to do this all over again.’’
A starter in 44 games this season, Payton was enjoying his finest statistical season in the NBA, but major problems persisted with his defense and lack of a reliable jump shot. This season, Payton averaged a career-best 13 points a game, while also contributing 6.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game. He also shot 52 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from the 3-point line – both career bests – largely because of his reliance on driving instead of shooting from the perimeter.
The trade is the first of major significance for Weltman and GM John Hammond, who took over the front office last May and have been charged with turning around the franchise’s fortunes on the court. Weltman and Hammond said this first season in Orlando would be used to evaluate the talent on hand before deciding which direction the franchise would head with personnel in the future. On Thursday – approximately a half-hour before the NBA trade deadline – the Magic decided to head in a different direction at point guard.
Undoubtedly, Weltman and Hammond were aware of numbers like these: This season, Orlando was significantly worse defensively with Payton on the floor (113.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) than with him off the floor (104.2 points per 100 possessions allowed). As for Payton’s overall net rating, including his offensive and defensive play, the Magic were a minus-7.6 with Payton on the floor and nearly level (minus-0.7) with him out of games.
In the Magic’s 10 games prior to Thursday, the gulf in production between Payton (a minus-11 net rating), Augustin (plus-9.5 net rating) and Mack (plus-11.5 net rating) had grown even wider. In his final two games with the Magic, Payton had a plus/minus ratio of minus-eight against Miami and a plus-four against Cleveland – both Magic victories. In those two games, the Magic offense and defense flowed much better with Augustin (plus-10 and plus-14) and Mack (plus-five and plus-14) at the controls.
``(Three-point shooting) has become increasingly important … and this is where the league is going,’’ Weltman said. ``You can design teams in certain ways that aren’t the norm, but in the NBA right now – and it’s only going in that (shooting) direction even more – it’s to have off-the-bounce shooters in the backcourt. Elfrid outweighs that with some of the other things that he does, but that (need for 3-point shooting) is certainly a consideration moving forward.’’
Moving forward, the Magic plan to use Augustin as the starter and Mack as the primary backup at point guard. Augustin, a 10-year NBA veteran, was the starter on Thursday night when the Magic hosted the Atlanta Hawks.
``He’s played extremely well this year,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said of Augustin. ``Whether it was starting for us early in the season or coming off the bench most of the season, he’s been far better for us than he was last year. That’s what’s going to be asked of him now.’’
Over the last three weeks (10 games), Augustin (plus-9.5 net rating) and Mack (plus-11.5 net rating) have played especially well for the Magic – winners against Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers since Jan. 16. To put the numbers for Augustin and Mack into perspective, Payton (minus-11 net rating) struggled mightily in the past 10 games.
``Spectacular,’’ Vogel said when summarizing how good the Magic have been with Augustin and Mack on the floor of late, even sometimes while playing together. ``It’s weird type of thing because you wouldn’t envision those guys playing together being one of our best combinations the last three-to-four weeks. Shelvin playing the back-up (shooting guard) and D.J. playing off the ball as the back-up (point guard) has really worked for us. With D.J. starting now, we’ll see less of (them playing together), but we’ll still try to manipulate it some so that they’re out there together some.’’
Payton is Orlando’s all-time leader in triple-doubles with eight, racking up five such performances last season. He also was the winner of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award for the 2016-17 season for the work that he did in the Central Florida community.
Late last week, Payton said he wasn’t concerned about a potential trade because of his faith and his desire to keep his focus on the present.
``I always say that God’s got me, so whatever happens, it’s meant to happen,’’ said Payton following Orlando’s loss to Washington last Saturday. ``Whatever is for me is for me and it doesn’t concern me at all. As long as I’m here (in Orlando), I’m going to give 100 percent here until they say, `It’s time to go,’ or whatever.’’
Mario Hezonja, Payton’s best friend on the team for the much of the past three seasons, said Thursday was a sad day in that his buddy was traded. However, he is happy for Payton in the sense that he should receive more playing time that could garner him a bigger payday in the offseason.
``I’m really, really happy for him because I know that it’s going to be good for him,’’ Hezonja said. ``I mean, it (stinks) because I’ve been really close to (Payton), talking every day, going to lunch and dinner and our families are close. But I’m extremely happy for him because it’s the right spot for him.’’
At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Payton was expected to have the size and strength to be a dominant defender at the point for the Magic, but that kind of play never materialized. The Magic have had fits all season at slowing opposing point guards and in recent weeks alone, Houston’s James Harden (forced into a point guard role because of injuries), Sacramento’s Garrett Temple and Washington’s Tomas Satoransky have registered career-high scoring nights against the Magic.
Also at issue for the Magic was Payton’s often-wayward jump shot. A career 30.5 percent 3-point shooter and possessing a just a 61.5 percent success rate from the free throw line, teams would often go under screens against the guard and dare him to fire from the perimeter. Washington coach Scott Brooks said as much last Saturday, while Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer would use lightly regarded defender Kyle Korver to check Payton in years past.
``Sometimes, we did want him to shoot it and he tended to make them against us for whatever reason,’’ Budenholzer said prior to the Orlando-Atlanta game on Thursday. ``But (Payton) is a good, young player and I think Phoenix is probably excited about having him.
``(Three-point shooting) is certainly a big part of our game. To have a point guard who can make threes and be a threat from the 3-point line, certainly it’s helpful,’’ Budenholzer added. ``Whether it’s (Atlanta’s) Dennis (Schroder), Elfrid or anybody, when you’re that fast and athletic and can get to the basket, if you can make threes on top of it, it just makes you tougher to guard.’’
Payton was acquired by former Magic GM Rob Hennigan in a draft-night trade with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014. In his 3½-year career with the Magic, Payton started 234 of the 281 games that he played in. He averaged 11.1 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals in a Magic uniform. In Payton’s three-plus seasons of manning the point guard position in Orlando, the Magic compiled a 106-193 record (.355 winning percentage).
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