Orlando Magic Head Into ‘Chaotic Week’ of NBA Draft and Start of Free Agency

Jeff Weltman
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- In a year that’s offered many twists and turns, it should be of no surprise that the Orlando Magic’s draft night and free agency plans are anything but predictable.

It’s possible that the Magic could move up on draft night, fall back, or just stand pat. There are potential paths where Orlando could add veterans to their roster this offseason, retool around youth or maintain the structure of their roster and lean on internal development.

The one thing that is clear is that the Magic are prepared for whatever unfolds.

Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond have worked tirelessly this offseason developing strategies around all of the aforementioned potential outcomes and determining the best course of action for the franchise. Those plans will be put to the test starting on Wednesday night for the 2020 NBA Draft and on Friday as free agency negotiations commence.

“I can answer unequivocally that it’s going to be a chaotic week, and the reason I can is because it already is,” Weltman said with a laugh. “It’s crazy. We have three months of work to do in ten days. This is where … the planning comes in.”

Among the many front office personnel and scouts that have assisted Weltman and Hammond through the planning phase are Assistant General Managers Matt Lloyd and Pete D'Alessandro, who both have been instrumental in breaking down the draft and free agency process.

“I can’t tell you how impossible this whole process would be without those guys,” Weltman said. “Matt is so on point, he’s so knowledgeable. And all the rest of our crew has just done yeoman's work and you guys know what an amazingly compressed schedule this is right now.”

Once the season was halted during the pandemic, the Magic basketball operations staff spent countless hours breaking down film preparing for both the upcoming whirlwinds of the draft and free agency. Although life in a pandemic has presented new challenges such as a shortened college basketball season, no combine in Chicago and limited in-person workouts, Orlando has done its best to adjust to the circumstances.

“This year has provided the opportunity to even dig deeper into video work and throughout the whole shut down of the league we were meeting three times a week, we had different breakdowns of video assignments, and putting the draft into different buckets – not just the draft but free agency as well,” Weltman said. “It’s actually been very productively used -- our time.”

Over the last two seasons, the Magic have made tremendous progress. After hiring head coach Steve Clifford, Orlando ended a seven-year playoff drought and notched back-to-back postseason appearances. Prior to being decimated by injuries in the bubble, the Magic had the No. 1 ranked offense in the league over a 16-game stretch dating from Feb. 10 through Aug. 7.

Point guard Markelle Fultz showed steady improvement through the course of the season and center Nikola Vucevic rebounded from a rough 2019 postseason with a sensational showing in the 2020 playoffs. Numerous players up and down the roster flashed development and started to find their roles within Orlando’s system.

However, the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jonathan Isaac has ramifications that will certainly play into the strategy employed by the Magic’s brass. Without the 7-foot elite defender, one of the foundational pieces of the franchise, for their upcoming campaign and amidst an improving Eastern Conference, should Orlando continue to make moves maximized for a postseason push this year or instead strategize to build a roster that will be most effective in 2021 and beyond as Isaac returns?

Those are just a few of the questions that are sure to weigh on Weltman’s mind in the upcoming days.

“We have to get better; our priority is to always get better,” he said. “We have to be barking up every tree, turning over every stone, and finding out what opportunities there are to get better. I can’t predict if those opportunities come through free agency (or) whether they come through the draft. Obviously, whatever we talk about, it takes a partner, whether it’s a player in free agency or a team in a deal. The only control you really have is who you want to pick when your number is called in the draft.”

Orlando is currently slotted to pick No. 15 in the draft. Rumors have swirled that the Magic are interested in trading up, but so far, it’s nothing more than talk.

“We’ve had discussions to move up, we’ve had discussions to move down, and as I always say, ‘the greatest likelihood is that we pick where we are,’” Weltman said. “It’s our job to talk to teams and it’s our job to explore all options and to explore all avenues.”

Last year, the draft brought Orlando Chuma Okeke, who signed his rookie contract with the Magic on Monday after spending the last year recovering from an ACL injury. What will it deliver this year?

“Part of the trick of the draft is to figure out what the draft is giving you,” Weltman said. “Unless you’re a team that’s in The Finals and you feel that can’t acquire a sort of player that you need and this player fits, and he can actually move you towards getting over that hump, I think you have to look at the available talent and the character.”

Also part of the equation, is how much money the Magic will have available under the salary cap. Evan Fournier was one of several players on Orlando’s roster that had an option for next season. On Monday night, he officially opted-in for the 2020-21 campaign and will reportedly earn over $17 million. His choice – among others – will certainly have an impact on the team’s free agency decisions.

“Evan is just a great guy, he’s a great guy,” Weltman said. “You just look forward to seeing him every day. He’s a really interesting person, he’s fun to be around and he’s a real competitor. He’s a team guy. He means a lot, he means a lot. Obviously, I haven’t even talked about that he’s a good player, he’s a shot creator and he plays with a toughness. He’s meant a lot to us.”

Regardless of what happens, it’s certainly going to be an exciting week of NBA offseason action.

“I do think there will be a lot of deal making,” Weltman said. “No one is really sure how cap space and cap flexibility is going to be regarded going into this new landscape … but I do anticipate a lot of activity.”

How much of that activity will involve the Magic remains to be seen.

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