Magic Now Turn Their Attention to Offseason Matters

Free agency, draft and player development headline Magic's summer activity
by John Denton

ORLANDO – In Jeff Weltman’s first two offseasons on the job as the Orlando Magic’s President of Basketball Operations much of his time was occupied by building a staff in 2017 and hiring a new head coach in 2018.

Weltman has no such concerns this offseason, and the Magic hope to benefit greatly from the continuity they have in the front office and with the coaching staff. However, that doesn’t mean that Weltman is free of concerns and responsibilities as the Magic head into what figures to be another very important offseason.

In addition to wanting to keep the team’s veteran core together by retaining key free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, Weltman said he feels a great responsibility to make sure that the Magic – fresh off their first playoff bid in seven years – carry their momentum throughout the summer and into next season.

To do that, the Magic will need to address their team weaknesses through the draft, free agency and trades, retain as many veterans as possible and make sure a young core of Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz and others grow their games over the summer.

Taking a step back, after working so hard to make significant gains this season, is not an option, Weltman said. He said the weight of that task is omnipresent for him every day when he looks out over Orlando’s practice courts from his office at the Magic headquarters and when he attempts to go to sleep at night – a feat that is sometimes a difficult proposition.

``You know, everything keeps you up every night,’’ Weltman said, semi-jokingly and semi-seriously.

``Honestly, the league is such about operating on a thin margin every day, so it’s about keeping your pulse on the team and the nuances and the signs and communications. Everything matters,’’ Weltman added. ``So, going into the summer we have to establish a program for all our players so that they get better, we have to keep them together and we have to keep going forward. We have to deal with the draft, and we have to deal with free agency. There’s no one thing that kind of keeps you up at night; it’s everything. … So, all this stuff matters and it’s all important to us pulling in the right direction. So, all that stuff keeps you up at night.’’

Weltman, a 30-year veteran of the NBA, needed less than two years on the job in Orlando to help the Magic end the longest playoff drought in franchise history. Under the direction of he and GM John Hammond, the Magic masterfully hired Steve Clifford as head coach last May, coaxed flashes of greatness out of Orlando’s veterans, practiced great patience with Isaac and Bamba when injuries hit and promoted/acquired point guards Isaiah Briscoe and Michael Carter-Williams to put Orlando over the hump late in the season.

The result was a 42-40 season where the Magic nabbed the No.7 seed and a spot opposite the veteran-laden Toronto Raptors in the playoffs. Orlando shockingly grabbed Game 1 behind a game-winning 3-pointer from D.J. Augustin – the veteran point guard who Weltman believed in and backed all season – but it proceeded to drop the next four games to the Raptors and was eliminated.

Weltman balanced the disappointment of how the Magic were steamrolled in the playoffs with his satisfaction over how much the team improved as the season progressed. All of that will go into the final evaluations of the season, he said.

``To me, there’s still kind of a bitter taste with the way the season ended, but when you look back on it, we won 17 more games than the previous season and most importantly our guys gained an understanding of the togetherness and intensity that it takes to be successful in this league,’’ said Weltman, who will soon shift his full focus to the NBA Draft Combine and the NBA Draft, where the Magic are slated to pick No. 16 in the first round. ``That’s something we hope they will keep throughout the summer and will bring into next season.

``We’re not a perfect team and we’ve got improving to do, both organizationally and on the floor,’’ Weltman continued. ``Playoffs are a different experience, so there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the playoffs. (Making the postseason) is one step to improving a team and understanding the intensity that it takes to be successful in the playoffs. You have to put all of that into context, look at where we got better and where we still need to get better. When we all regroup, that’s what will be discussed as we look to move forward.’’

Moving forward, Weltman’s top priority will likely be trying to find sensible financial points where the Magic can retain Vucevic and Ross, who both become unrestricted free agents on July 1 on the heels of career-best seasons.

Vucevic, a member of the Magic for seven seasons and an all-star this year for the first time in his pro career, posted career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12), assists (3.8), double-doubles (60) and 3-pointers made (84). However, Vucevic slumped badly in five playoff games (11.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists on 36.2 percent shooting) while facing Toronto standout center Marc Gasol.

Ross also had his finest year as a professional, averaging career highs in points (15.1) and rebounds (3.5) while shooting 42.8 percent from the floor and 38.3 percent from 3-point range. He became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers (217) while never starting a game.

Weltman made it clear that he wants both players back on the Magic next season, stressing that even though both players struggled in the postseason, Orlando almost certainly wouldn’t have made the playoffs without them. Weltman has known Ross for years after both worked previously for the Raptors, and he’s enjoyed seeing the 28-year-old guard mature immensely. As for Vucevic, who will turn 29 prior to next season, Weltman has a genuine respect for the 7-footer because of his serious-minded approach to the game and him always wanting what’s best for the Magic.

``Bringing Vooch back is a priority, but with that being said Vooch is going to have a lot of teams that will make him a priority for them, too. We’ll meet with his representatives at the appropriate time,’’ said Weltman, who noted that Vucevic is represented by Bill Duffy, who also is the agent for Magic forward Aaron Gordon. ``Hopefully we can get something done (with Vucevic and Ross). It’s the NBA, and as I always say, `There’s a lot of real estate between the intentions and what gets done.’ But, yeah, it is a priority.’’

Clifford, who guided the Magic to a 22-9 finish and the franchise’s first playoff berth since he was last in Orlando as an assistant coach, raved all season about the detail and dedication the franchise has committed to winning. The credit for that, Clifford insisted, goes to Weltman and Hammond.
``We’ve already started to speak a little bit,’’ Clifford said of his postseason discussions with Weltman and Hammond. ``They are on top of it, they have great knowledge and they know what it takes to build a winning roster and they know a lot more about it than I do. … I feel fortunate to work with them because they have a vision of what winning basketball looks like. They study the league, they study trends and they know players. So, I’ll be involved, but they know what they’re doing.’’

What Weltman is doing now is trying to figure out ways that the Magic can be better by the start of training camp in September. For him, that includes additions by external means (the June 20 NFL Draft, the July 1 start of free agency and via trades). Also, Weltman is banking heavily on the individual improvements of Isaac (2017 No. 6 pick), Bamba (2018 No. 6 pick) and Fultz (2017 No. 1 pick, acquired in a Feb. 7 trade).

Weltman pointed to Isaac as a perfect example of the approach the Magic will continue to take regarding the development of young players. The 21-year-old Isaac played in just 27 games as a rookie because of a series of ankle injuries and the front office shut him down early in 2018 so that he could focus strengthening his body and improving his game to be ready for NBA play. That patience paid big dividends this past season as Isaac was a breakout star over 75 NBA games while averaging 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.31 blocked shots.

The same approach will be taken with Bamba (left tibial stress fracture) and Fultz (thoracic outlet syndrome in right shoulder) after they were limited to 47 and 19 games, respectively, this past season, Weltman insisted.

``There are just certain guys who aren’t physically equipped to deal with the NBA when they first show up,’’ Weltman said. ``You have to be patient. You can’t just say that on draft night; you have to actually be patient. I think that Jonathan is starting to show that he can be a very high-level player in this league, and one thing I know is, he’s going to work at it.

``Mo had a similar timetable as Jonathan in that he was injured and unable to show what he can do,’’ Weltman added. ``Mo’s timetable is Mo’s timetable. I really believe we’re going to look back on this injury with Mo and look at it as a blessing. … For us to throw out Mo (in game action) before he’s ready would be doing a disservice to him. I strongly believe that Mo will be an elite level player in this league and Mo has all the ingredients – the skills, the size, the intelligence and the desire – to put it all together. As I said, you can’t just say on draft night that we’re going to be patient; you have to actually be patient. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an urgency for Mo to work hard and get better. He understands that, but that will happen as it happens.’’

Weltman also stressed that the Magic can’t just assume this summer that because they had a tight team that fought throughout games (11 fourth-quarter comeback wins) and throughout the season (they battled back from a 20-31 start) that those characteristics will carry over to next season. That’s why Weltman and his staff are working to make sure that there is nothing taken for granted over the summer in terms of growth, development and team unity. After all, those will be the areas of concern that keep him awake night worrying about in the leadup to next season.

``We saw our team come together, and we became one of those teams that other teams didn’t want to play against,’’ Weltman said. ``But those things, you can’t just take them for granted that they just show up next season and you have to work over the summer to keep those threads aligned properly, keep our guys together and keep them working and hopefully you bring that momentum into next season. That’s where we are right now.

``We’re at a stage right now where we have a lot of issues to address this summer, but to me, nothing is more important than establishing what an Orlando Magic summer means,’’ Weltman added. ``We’ve got a lot of new faces and it’s important that we establish that going forward. … Internal improvement has to be a big part of what we’re doing. We have too many quality young players to ever say that can’t be a big part of how we get better. Whether (Vucevic) and (Ross) come back or not, that (player development) is a very important part of our future growth.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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