Magic Re-Sign Khem Birch
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic’s mission of keeping together the core of a team that went 22-9 down the stretch and reached the playoffs for the first time in seven years was completed with the retention of reserve center Khem Birch.
Birch, an unrestricted free agent after the Magic made him a qualifying contract offer at the end of June, reached an agreement late Tuesday night with the franchise that made his NBA dreams come true two seasons ago. Birch, who will turn 27 just two days before the Magic open training camp at the Amway Center on Sept. 30, will be back with the Magic to potentially push starter Nikola Vucevic and promising 7-footer Mo Bamba for minutes at the center position.
Determined to continue the momentum built this past season when they posted an NBA-best 17-win improvement, the Magic retained unrestricted free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and hung onto Birch despite all of them having interest from various NBA teams. Reserve point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a March addition who gave the Magic an enormous defensive lift down the stretch, also re-signed earlier in the evening.
President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said on Monday that the team waived Timofey Mozgov and planned on using the NBA’s ``stretch provision’’ on the veteran center’s remaining contract so that Magic could specifically hang onto Birch without exceeding the league’s luxury tax threshold.
Weltman said repeatedly throughout the offseason that it was the Magic’s top priority to bring back the team that got the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Now, after doing just that, Weltman said the Magic must continue to work throughout the rest of the offseason to ensure that the team is ready to go by the time of the start of training camp.
``I will say that it’s abnormal the extent that this team will be the same,’’ said Weltman, who has 30 years of professional basketball experience. ``It doesn’t happen too often that you’re able to bring back pretty much the exact same team. I think that continuity will serve us well. That being said, just because you have the same roster, it doesn’t mean that you get to carry that momentum from four or five months ago into next season. So, you have to really challenge yourself to reignite the things that got you going in that direction in the first place.’’
Birch got the Magic going in the right direction not long after he was inserted into the regular rotation. His opportunity came after Bamba suffered a tibial stress fracture in his left leg that shelved him for the season. Birch proved himself ready, giving the Magic’s second unit a boost with his rim protection and opportunistic offense.
In his first game filling in for Bamba on Feb. 2, Birch had four points, six rebounds and a block shot in a Magic defeat of Brooklyn. Days later, he helped to key the Magic to a five-game winning streak just before the break for the NBA All-Star Game, including a spectacular four-block night in a win in Milwaukee.
Late in the season, as the Magic were surging toward the playoffs, Birch had four double-digit scoring nights, including a career-high-tying 13 points on March 14 at the Amway Center. He pulled down 10-or-more rebounds twice, blocked at least one shot 20 times and swatted two-or-more shots five times.
Despite being undersized for a center at 6 feet, 9 inches and just 220 pounds, Birch proved his abilities as a rim protector late in the season. Using his expansive wing span and his quick-off-the-floor and explosive leaping abilities, Birch ranked fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed in the restricted area (50.6 percent) after Feb. 2, according to Second Spectrum Sports. To put that into perspective, the top three were Milwaukee MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (48.6 percent), Portland 7-footer Zach Collins (48.7 percent) and Utah’s two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert (49.7 percent).
After averaging 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds on 69.9 percent shooting in 23 games after the NBA All-Star break, Birch said he must continue to grow his game. Undrafted out of UNLV, Birch chased his hoop dreams by playing in the G League and later in Turkey and Greece before making the Magic’s roster out of training camp in 2017. He said following the season that no one will ever have to wonder about his hunger for wanting to improve.
``Next season basically starts in the summer time,’’ Birch said following the Magic’s playoff ouster. ``We can’t (slack off) and go down. We’ve got to build off this season to make sure that it carries over to next season. Shooting, in the midrange, and being more aggressive (are areas where he wants to improve). That comes with confidence. Sometimes I’m tentative going to the basket or shooting shots, but that will come with building more confidence.’’
Returning much the same team that played at a .710 winning percentage in February, March and April should give the Magic plenty of confidence going into next season. Still, Weltman warned that there’s still plenty of work to do in the months ahead to ensure success next season.
``I think you have to be careful about assuming that just because you have the same team that you will have the same momentum next season,’’ Weltman said. ``It has to be re-established and it takes hard work, pulling together and the tightness of the group that went into the closing of last season has to be re-earned.’’
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