Weltman Excited to Bring Back Core of Last Year's Team
ORLANDO – Asked just after the Orlando Magic’s stirring late-season run and their experience in the playoffs what worried him most about the upcoming offseason, President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman cracked, ``everything’’ with a semi-serious and obviously nervous chuckle.
Weltman, the architect of Orlando’s first playoff team in seven years, has one less thing to worry about now that the Magic accomplished what he dubbed as ``Priority No. 1’’ in retaining franchise cornerstones in all-star center Nikola Vucevic and record-setting reserve guard Terrence Ross in free agency.
Still, Weltman reiterated recently that the Magic can’t afford to let their guards down or assume anything this summer with so much riding on the team’s ability to take momentum into 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 warned. ``It has to be reestablished and it takes hard work, pulling together and building the same tightness of the group that went into the closing of last season, that has to be re-earned.
``I will say that it’s abnormal the extent that this team will be the same again next season,’’ he added. ``It doesn’t happen too often that you’re able to bring back pretty much the 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.’’
Undoubtedly, two players who served as driving forces for getting the Magic going in the right direction again were Vucevic and Ross. Vucevic, 28, became an all-star for the first time in his eight-year NBA career while averaging career highs in nearly every major statistical category. Ross, also 28 and still in the prime of his career, also posted career highs while becoming the first player in NBA history with at least 200 made 3-pointers (217) without ever starting a game.
Their dynamic success helped a Magic franchise out of the postseason since 2012 win 42 games, make an NBA-best 17-victory improvement, go 22-9 down the stretch and topple the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the playoffs.
Armed with the goal of making sure Orlando carries over the momentum built last season throughout this summer, Weltman was determined to keep Vucevic and Ross in Magic pinstripes for the foreseeable future. Making his job easier, Weltman noted, was the fact that Vucevic – the longest-tenured member of the Magic for seven years – and Ross – a fixture of the franchise for 2 ½ seasons – felt an ownership in Orlando’s turnaround and wanted to stay.
Weltman is hopeful that the team will also be able to retain free-agent guard Michael Carter-Williams and reserve center Khem Birch in the coming days and weeks. Carter-Williams is ultimately expected back with Orlando, while Birch is a restricted free agent and the Magic possess the right to match any contract offer that he might receive from another team.
``We’re really excited that we were able to bring our guys back. We thought they really pulled together and really played for each other last season,’’ Weltman said. ``The roles that Terrence and Vooch played in that were significant, so it was Priority No. 1 to have those guys back.
``Vooch made it clear to us throughout the whole process – `I want to be here … I love the fans … I love the city … I love our group (of players) and we have unfinished business,’’’ Weltman noted. ``I really think that was a big part of why we were able to get something done with him.’’
In the case of the Magic courting Ross, Weltman said: ``I think Terrence will tell you that he’s kind of found a home (in Orlando) and he’s grown up a lot – on the court and off the court. He has a great understanding of (Magic head coach Steve Clifford) and our coaching staff and where he slots in on our team. He’s such a unique talent and a great person. He’s just another guy who’s grown to love Orlando and wanted to be back with us.’’
Clifford, an assistant coach on the Magic teams that made the playoffs five straight years from 2008-12 and the head coach on the squad that got back there back in the spring, said that Orlando has once again become a destination for elite players because of the work that Weltman and GM John Hammond have done in their two years in Central Florida. Though constrained in what they could do because of the team’s lack of salary cap space, Weltman and Hammond have been able to add key young pieces in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Wes Iwundu through the draft, they signed Al-Farouq Aminu in free agency, traded for Markelle Fultz and scoured the basketball world to find former Magic guard Isaiah Briscoe and Birch. Now, that they have also retained Vucevic and Ross, Clifford feels the Magic are on the right path to more success in the near future.
``I think at the end of the (season), for almost all of the guys, the thing that I felt good about is that they all talked about how everybody is on the same page, starting with Jeff (Weltman) and John (Hammond), and it works all the way down,’’ Clifford said. ``That’s the way it works. (Former Knicks and Rockets coach) Jeff Van Gundy always said, `Your team chemistry is greatly determined by your staff chemistry and your staff chemistry is greatly determined by your organizational chemistry.’ (Weltman and Hammond) set the tone and it’s important that we continue to build upon that.’’
Weltman said it’s ultimately his responsibility to make sure that the Magic continue building toward next season. To accomplish that mission, he said, the Magic must stick to their policy of ``the only guys we’re looking for are ones who impact winning,’’ such as Aminu, Ross and Vucevic. There’s still plenty to worry about, Weltman warned, because the Magic have to push for more and expect more from the team going into the 2019-20 season.
``What I think about is, `How are we going to reestablish the momentum?’ And I know that’s what our coaches are thinking about already, too,’’ he said. ``Obviously, there’s a tightness and togetherness and responsibility to each other that was achieved last year that led to an understanding of, `This is how we do it.’ Now, you don’t have to search for that because you know how we do it here. Now, you just have to do the work to do it. That’s what I think about all the time.’’
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