ORLANDO – The Toronto Raptors are the envy of the basketball world right now – and not just because they threw a massive party and a parade on Monday to celebrate winning the franchise’s first NBA title.
In a day and age usually dominated by splashy stars and super teams created by top players joining forces, the Raptors became the first NBA team since 1989 to win an NBA title without a lottery pick on the roster. In fact, no Raptors’ player was even picked in the top five of an NBA Draft, differing greatly from squads such as the 1993 Chicago Bulls that had nine top-five picks, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks that were loaded with 11 top-five picks and the 2012 and ’13 Miami Heat teams that had six top-five selections.
How all of this relates to the Orlando Magic and their preparation for Thursday’s NBA Draft is this: Jeff Weltman, Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations, worked previously for the Raptors and helped to build the foundation of the reigning champions’ roster. Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell were all acquired while Weltman worked in Toronto as the Raptors’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations from 2013-17, and Kyle Lowry became an all-star then, too. Three of Toronto’s other key pieces – Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Danny Green – were acquired within the past year by using trade assets (DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl) who were in Toronto while Weltman and Toronto President Masai Ujiri were helping construct the Raptors into winners.
Asked on Monday how the Raptors were able to defeat the dynastic Golden State Warriors and win an NBA title without a lottery pick, Weltman cracked: ``That says that (NBA talent evaluators) probably don’t do our jobs that well.’’
``If those (Raptors) guys are getting that deep into the draft, then (NBA GMs) need to do a better job,’’ Weltman continued. ``You know, every team is built differently and part of what you want to do is draft players who will hold value and that other teams want, and that’s what (the Raptors) were able to do this year. They were able to turn some of those guys that other teams wanted into players who could help them move the need even though they were already a good team.
``So, that’s why this part of the year is exciting,’’ added Weltman, who is set to conduct his third NBA Draft with the Magic. ``That’s why I always say we want to draft the best player and draft a player who will identify with us as an organization and who we feel the league will covet in years to come.’’
After making the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Magic will be picking outside of the lottery (picks 1-14) for the first time in six years in Thursday’s NBA Draft. This past season, the Magic had the NBA’s biggest win-improvement total (17 more victories), went 21-9 in February, March and April and defeated the eventual-champion Raptors in their first playoff game before losing, 4-1.
After picking franchise building blocks Jonathan Isaac (2017) and Mo Bamba (2018) with the No. 6 picks each of the past two drafts, the Magic will now be tasked with trying to better their roster with the No. 16 pick. It is the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise that the Magic will pick at No. 16 although it has selected 15th three times and at No. 17 once.
Two of the best players in Magic history – Hedo Turkolgu (2000 by Sacramento) and Nikola Vucevic (2011 by Philadelphia) – were plucked out of the No. 16 spot. Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton is easily the most accomplished player ever to be picked No. 16, but in recent years teams have hit on notable players such as Terry Rozier (2015 by Boston) and Jusuf Nurkic (2014 by Denver) with the No. 16 pick.
Leonard, the MVP of the NBA Finals for the Raptors, defied the odds and became a superstar from the 15th draft position in 2011 NBA Draft. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a heavy favorite to win this season’s regular-season MVP award, was also picked No. 15 in 2013. The famed ``Greek Freak’’ was discovered by Weltman and Magic GM John Hammond, who are hopeful they can uncover another hidden gem in Thursday’s draft.
``You never expect that,’’ Weltman said of drafting a superstar midway through the first round of the draft. ``Those guys who are drafted outside of the lottery and become superstars – you never expect that the day that you draft them. You just want to draft the best player that you can, and he gets coached up and he’s the right person. Those guys are self-made players in a sense and they’re such incredibly hard workers, so we’re always looking for those guys – guys who are going to outperform their draft slot and then you just hope for the best.’’
Because they are picking in the second half of the draft and there is so much uncertainty ahead of them in the pecking order, the Magic have spent much of the past three weeks interviewing and working out dozens of players who could be available to them. Does the team address its obvious need for outside shooting by drafting a wing such as Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Kentucky’s Tyler Herro? Do the Magic look to fill their backup point guard position with Virginia’s Ty Jerome? Or do they opt for lengthy big men such as Mfiondu Kabengele (6-foot-10), Rui Hachimura (6-foot-8) or Bol Bol (7-foot-2) as a means of insurance in case they lose Vucevic in free agency?
``It’s always a sliding scale with (picking for need as opposed to simply picking the best player),’’ Weltman said. ``I don’t know how good we are, and we have to reestablish everything this summer to even be as good as we were last season. Then, it becomes more difficult to expect a rookie to play for you. We’ll approach this as we always do – looking for the best player that we can add to our team. And the best person – someone who cares about his teammates and cares first and foremost about winning. Those are the sorts of things that we’ll look for.’’
Weltman knows how critical the coming weeks are for the Magic with the draft taking place on Thursday and free agency opening at 6 p.m. on June 30. The Magic desperately want to keep unrestricted free agents Terrence Ross and Vucevic, while also adding to their roster via the draft and free agents. Time and again, Weltman has stressed the importance of making sure the Magic carry the ``momentum’’ established in the run to the playoffs throughout the summer and into next season.
If he’s looking for a perfect example of that, Weltman needn’t look any further than the World Champion Raptors, a successful franchise that he helped to construct.
``I take pride (in Toronto’s success) for a split second and I’m happy for those guys, but my focus right now is on the Magic and we have a lot of work to do and a lot of improving to do,’’ Weltman said. ``Seeing (the Raptors) do that is just a reminder for what we want to get.’’
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