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New Magic front office not changing Orlando overnight

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic fired general manager Rob Hennigan last April, but a rough overview of their offseason would hardly show it. Orlando hit all the Hennigan classics:

But look closer, and new president Jeff Weltman fared better than his predecessor.

Isaac, a shaky ball-handler, is far from a sure thing. But he was my second-best available prospect (behind Dennis Smith, who went No. 9 to the Mavericks) and is certainly a reasonable pick.

Unlike Watson and Augustin, Mack received only one guaranteed season. He’ll even earn less this year than Augustin, who’s still guaranteed $21.75 million over the next three years (blegh).

I’m not convinced Afflalo deserves even a roster spot, but at least he’s on just a minimum contract. That’s far better than the amounts paid to Maxiell ($2.5 million), Gordon ($4.5 million) and Green ($15 million!) for their lone seasons in Orlando.

Speights is also on a minimum contract. More importantly, he can shoot 3-pointers, providing a vital element on this space-scarce team.

So, no, Weltman isn’t necessarily Hennigan. But Weltman hasn’t proven himself not be a continuation of the Magic’s front-office problems, either – mostly because he hasn’t had the opportunity.

Weltman inherited a team too good to tank all the way to the bottom of the standings. Though overpaid, Biyombo (three years, $51 million remaining on his contract), Vucevic (two years, $25 million) and Augustin (three years, $21.75 million) are still helpful contributors. Dumping them to tank would have required significant sweeteners, undermining the whole idea.

So, with little choice but to plod ahead with a similar roster… Weltman is plodding ahead with a similar roster.

At least he squeezed in Jonathon Simmons (three years, $18 million with just $1 million of $5.7 million final-year salary guaranteed) on a team-friendly contract.

If Aaron Gordon taps his otherworldly athleticism while finally returning full-time to his natural power forward position… if Elfrid Payton builds on his strong play late last season… if Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross provide enough shooting to make up for the rest of the starting lineup’s downtown deficiencies… Frank Vogel-coached Orlando could challenge for a playoff spot in the lowly Eastern Conference.

Sure, that’s probably a longshot. But what choice did the Magic have but to keep that dream alive and hope for the best?

With more than $78 million already committed for 2018-19 – not counting possible extensions for Gordon and Payton – it might be a couple years before Weltman can put his stamp on this team.

He’s not wasting his capital while the team is overrun with Hennigan players. Orlando traded the Nos. 25 and 35 picks this year for future picks. Reasonable enough, though it’s possible the Magic wind up with no first-rounders in return for No. 25 and a lower second-rounder for No. 35.

One small cause for concern: After wisely waiving Watson, paying his $1 million guarantee rather than his $5 million salary, Orlando stretched his payout. That opened $666,666 in cap room – superfluous as long as the $4,328,000 room exception remains unused. The Magic will pay the price with a $333,000 cap hit each of the following two seasons.

These are obviously small amounts and unlikely to affect future plans. And the Magic had to decide on this in mid-July. Maybe they had a logical plan for the extra cap space this summer that fell through.

But taking their medicine and eating the entire $1 million this season – a year unlikely to go anywhere regardless – was the most obviously sensible solution. Given the results, it would have also been the correct course.

At some point, Weltman must show whether he’s pulling Orlando out of its hole or digging it deeper. With minimal opportunities to display his acumen, he did a little of both.

I think the Magic are in slightly better shape than they entered the offseason, but not enough to move even a partial letter grade.

Offseason grade: C

NBA lowers 2020-21 salary-cap projection to $116M

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The Knicks, Raptors, Hawks and Grizzlies project to have major cap room next summer.

Just a little less now.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The salary cap won’t be set until the summer it takes effect. So, there’s plenty of time for the exact number to fluctuate. But this projection was updated after evaluating how teams spent this summer – a key factor.

For perspective, the salary cap is currently $109,140,000. So, going to $116 million next offseason would still be a significant increase – just not as large as previously expected.

Next year’s free agent class is weak. It’s Anthony Davis then… maybe not a single other star. So, small shifts in the cap projection will create only minor ripples.

Everyone has their eyes on the 2021-22 cap. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could all be unrestricted free agents that summer. That amount of talent availability requires careful planning.

Magic exercise Markelle Fultz’s $12M team option

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Magic general manager John Hammond said he had “no idea” when Markelle Fultz will play.

A couple encouraging assessments and an uneventful video later, and Orlando is guaranteeing Fultz $12,288,697 in 2020-21.

Magic:

That’s the power Fultz still holds as a former No. 1 pick. Even Anthony Bennett had his third-year option exercised. (He just never made it to the third season of his rookie-scale contract, taking a buyout instead.) It’s tough to cut bait on premier young talent.

But Fultz’s NBA career has been so miserable so far. With the rookie scale increasing under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’s due a significant salary.

Because the 76ers drafted Fultz, Orlando had more leeway to decline the option without embarrassment. But the Magic are clearly committed to Fultz.

They had until Oct. 31 to decide on these options, which are for the 2020-21 season. These were easy calls on Jonathan Isaac ($7,362,566) and Mohamed Bamba ($5,969,040). But it’s nearly unfathomable Orlando didn’t evaluate the mysterious Fultz in training camp, preseason and even into the regular season before deciding on his future.

Perhaps, the Magic believe the early show of faith will give Fultz much-needed confidence. If so, this is an expensive bet on a player totally unproven at this level.

At least there’s major upside to it.

Rockets owner: Harden and Westbrook talk like brothers ‘instead of one thinking that he’s the mentor’

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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hasn’t hidden his discontent with Chris Paul‘s shortcomings.

Sure, Fertitta says plenty of niceties about Paul, whom Houston traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. But even Fertitta’s optimism about James Harden and Westbrook – who were friends as kids and played together in Oklahoma City – includes what sounds like criticism of Paul.

Fertitta, via Sam Amick of The Athletic:

James and Russ go back a long ways in California, so they can talk to each other like brothers, you know, instead of one (player) thinking that he’s the mentor. I just think it’s going to go well.

At the very least, it’ll be impossible to convince anyone that assessment is uninfluenced by seeing Paul throughout the previous two seasons. At most, it’s a deliberate shot at Paul.

Paul has always been the general. As he has gotten older, that has bended into being the mentor.

It’s often very helpful. Paul’s focus, discipline and intensity have generally served his teams well. His teammates have benefited from following his lead.

But Paul can also wear on people. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened with Harden, who’s better than Paul and had established himself as Houston’s franchise player before Paul ever arrived. Paul had never even gotten past the second round before teaming with Harden. If you were Harden, how much would you want to hear Paul telling you the right way to do things? There were clearly issues between the two.

Now, Harden and Westbrook get a fresh start together. They sound quite eager about teaming up.

But don’t assume it will definitely go better. It’s like friends becoming roommates. Sometimes, it strengthens the relationship. Sometimes, it ruins the relationship. It’s often difficult to tell which way it will go until moving in.

Remember, Harden and Paul were initially enthusiastic about their partnership.

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A