Having Additional Future Draft Picks Gives Orlando Magic Greater Opportunity to Build a Contender

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - The only team to acquire any future first round draft picks on Thursday prior to the NBA’s 3 p.m. trade deadline was the Orlando Magic, who netted three of them – two from the Chicago Bulls and one from the Denver Nuggets. The Magic also landed two future second round picks from the Boston Celtics.

Any time teams are seriously considering trading a marquee player, it’s those first round picks, particularly those with limited to zero protection on them, that are most coveted by “sellers.” There are exceptions, as with anything, but most of the championship teams over the last 40 years got to that level because they made the right draft selections.

The Los Angeles Lakers chose Magic Johnson with the No. 1 pick in 1979. The Celtics picked Larry Bird, sixth overall, the prior year. In 1981, with their second overall pick, the Detroit Pistons selected Isiah Thomas. In 1984, the Houston Rockets chose Hakeem Olajuwon first and the Bulls made Michael Jordan the third pick. The San Antonio Spurs drafted David Robinson with the first pick in 1987 and Tim Duncan, also with the top pick, in 1997. The Lakers, via a draft night trade, landed Kobe Bryant in the 1996 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers kept LeBron James near his hometown of Akron by taking him with their first pick in 2003. That same year, the Miami Heat chose Dwyane Wade. Several years earlier, the Dallas Mavericks, via a draft swap, picked Dirk Nowitzki. The Golden State Warriors drafted Stephen Curry in 2009 and Klay Thompson in 2011.

The Lakers and Celtics combined to capture eight NBA titles in the 1980s with Johnson and Bird leading those teams. The Pistons closed out the decade with two championships with Thomas steering the ship. Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in the 1990s and Olajuwon guided the Rockets to two that decade. Robinson and Duncan led the Spurs to the 1999 title.

The Lakers, obviously, don’t win five rings in the 2000s without Bryant, even though the first three they also had Shaquille O’Neal, who signed with L.A. as a free agent in 1996. The other dominant team of that decade was the Spurs, who had Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, all San Antonio draft picks. The Heat, with Wade in his prime, won the trophy in 2006. The Celtics, who had drafted Paul Pierce 11 years earlier, won the 2008 title. Without Pierce already on the roster, they probably don’t trade for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

The Mavs, Spurs and Warriors combined to win five championships in the 2010s. Kevin Durant, we can only assume, doesn’t sign with the Warriors without Curry and Thompson already there.

Rarely do teams – like the Heat did in 2010 when they inked James and Chris Bosh to deals and teamed them up with Wade or the Lakers in 2018 did when they were the ones to bring in James – rise from the bottom or even from mediocrity through a free agency splash. All-time great players don’t typically join new teams unless there’s already a fellow all-time great or two already there.

Adding superstars through trades is certainly a part of it. But, almost never do they launch a team into championship contention unless a fellow superstar is already on the roster.

The point of this history refresher is to emphasize that everything starts with the draft, and the more picks a team has to play with, the greater the chance they have of ultimately landing a franchise-changing luminary.

Granted they’ve been struggling a bit this season, but the Celtics retransformed into a title contender because they had so many picks in their possession thanks to a few brilliant trades – one being the one that sent Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn in 2013. Without that deal, they don’t get Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – Boston’s 2016 and 2017 picks via the Nets.

Another key point that needs to be made is that teams don’t need to score the first overall pick in the draft or a top five pick for that matter to climb the ladder. Several of the game’s top players at the moment were taken outside the lottery. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in 2019, were both taken 15th overall in their respective drafts. There actually weren’t any lottery picks on that title-winning Raptors squad. Nikola Jokic, who might capture the MVP award this year, was a second round selection.

The core players the Magic traded on Thursday – Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier – are all very good players, but none are superstars, obviously. Thursday’s decisions were the right moves. They clear a path to give the franchise a greater opportunity to bring in an eventual superstar, or two, or even three of them.

Once a team is able to add just one of them, that opens the door for them to supplement that player with more of them via free agency and/or trades. The Lakers traded for Anthony Davis in 2019 with James already on the roster. To get Davis, they had to ship out nearly all of the players they drafted the prior few years, including Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. The Cavs, with Kyrie Irving already on the team, won the draft lottery in 2014, took Andrew Wiggins and used that asset to trade for Kevin Love after James returned to Cleveland in free agency. Already mentioned was Durant’s decision to go to Golden State in 2016 with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green already there.

The Magic are very likely to have two first round draft picks in 2021 – their own, which will likely be very high with where they currently sit in the standings and based on where they are projected to finish, and the Bulls’ pick, assuming it’s not in the top four. One would assume with Zach LaVine and Vucevic, they will sneak into the playoffs in the East. It would be even more advantageous for the Magic, though, if the Bulls miss the playoffs but don’t soar up in the lottery. If by some chance Chicago’s pick isn’t conveyed this year, the protection on it will be light again in 2022.

The 2023 pick from the Bulls and the 2025 pick from the Nuggets also only have light protections on them, so chances are high they will be conveyed in those particular years.

2021 could prove to be a great year to have more than one first round pick, as many believe there will be plenty of top-tier talent available to choose from.

Aside from all the upcoming draft selections, the Magic have a collection of young players, several of whom will now have more minutes available to them to showcase their skills. A few are in the midst of rehabbing injuries, while others are ready now to take the next step in their on-the-court development.

Two of those players were acquired on Thursday. Wendell Carter Jr., the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, has shown flashes of what he can become with more opportunity. R.J. Hampton, meanwhile, is a promising 20-year-old with a unique blend of skills. Another player Orlando added was Gary Harris, just 26 years old and known throughout the league for being an exceptional defender.

Another perhaps overlooked component of Thursday’s transactions was creating more salary cap flexibility. Through the Fournier-to-Boston deal, the Magic now have a sizeable traded player exception, which is precisely how the Celtics were able to acquire Fournier for themselves. Subtracting Vucevic’s, Gordon’s and Aminu’s contracts from their books could also prove to be significant. Otto Porter Jr., acquired with Carter in the Vucevic deal, is in the last year of his contract.

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