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Trade grades: Pistons send Jennings, Ilyasova to Magic for Harris

What are the Magic doing? grades the deal that sent Tobias Harris to the Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. 

The Orlando Magic have agreed to send Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova, grades the deal for both teams.​

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Orlando Magic: C-

Magic receive: Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova

The motivations for the Magic here are, at best, quite fuzzy. Squint and you might see some vague value in the outline of a rebuilding team bailing on an enigmatic forward somewhat underwhelming in the first year of a $64 million contract. It’s hard to know what Harris is, exactly, at this point; he doesn’t defend especially well, tends not to read the floor all that quickly, and hasn’t yet built a reputable record of long-range shooting. The volume scoring is nice, but how redeemable is it when Harris’ greatest success has come while stopping the ball on a losing team?

It’s understandable that a player of Harris’s style would be divisive among talent evaluators. Even still, it’s far less understandable that he would be moved for so little. The trade as currently reported would see the Magic receive no long-term pieces, developmental prospects, or draft picks of value—only a decent, stretchy power forward on a cheap deal and the partial season that Jennings has left under contract. If the market for Harris’s services was indeed this barren, perhaps it would have been wiser for Orlando not to deal him at all. A move of some kind was inevitable given the awkward fit between Harris, Nikola Vucevic, and Aaron Gordon, among others. Yet rarely do NBA teams sell low on 23-year-olds who have shown as much game as Harris.

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That alone won’t sink the Magic, though it does them so little good. Ilyasova can scrap and help give one of the worst offenses in the league some room to breathe. If Orlando goes on to move Channing Frye before the deadline (as has been suggested by’s Marc Stein), Ilyasova is a natural substitute – a forward who can make up for some of the shooting the Magic sacrifice at other positions. He and Jennings both likely appeal to Orlando for their experience and familiarity; that both found some success under Skiles bodes well, as does their potential as stabilizers of a developing team.

That might seem a strange description of Jennings, who is shooting 37.3% from the field after rupturing his Achilles tendon last season. Consider the alternatives: Elfrid Payton is learning but not entirely trustworthy; Victor Oladipo assumes ball handling responsibilities but isn’t perfectly suited to that role; C.J. Watson is injured and unreliable; and Shabazz Napier is a third-string guard masquerading as a backup. A little depth at point guard could be healthy to Orlando’s performance this season.

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​​Jennings, though, will cost the Magic the financial flexibility they gained in this deal should he choose to stick around. Part of the reason for moving Harris lies in spending that same salary slot (around $16 million a year) to fill different needs. Ilyasova, who has a lightly guaranteed $8.4 million on the books for next season, could claim part of it. The rest (and the full value of Harris’s contract in future seasons) will augment Orlando’s salary cap space, giving more options to a team that has young talent to spare but no clear way forward. That’s something. The value of that cap space will be mitigated by the prevalence of it league-wide (such is the trouble with clearing salary around the time of a historic salary cap jump), though a Magic team resolved against Harris’s potential might still find some reason to prefer it.

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It’s really an odd move. At a time when the best teams in the league are fueled by dynamism, the Magic part ways with an already productive player who could grow into a healthier style over time. Their return might be more defensible if it were merely a matter of taste, but there is no basis for asserting Ilyasova and Jennings as equal talents to Harris. Ilyasova is a fine player with an exceedingly simple offensive game. Jennings can contribute but might not stick around and shouldn’t stall the development of Payton and Oladipo. The Magic, then, have succeeded in filling rotation spots without actually improving – a shame given that they saw enough value in Harris last summer to sign him to his current contract in the first place.

Detroit Pistons: A

Pistons receive: Tobias Harris

This was set to be a deadline of interest for the Pistons, who after missing the postseason for six straight years are finally back on the bubble. Even a smaller transaction could have aided a shallow Detroit team in its pursuit of the eighth seed. They aimed higher; Harris isn’t just a quality starter whose game suits Stan Van Gundy’s preferred style, but also a player aligned in age with Detroit’s core. Harris (23), Andre Drummond (22), Reggie Jackson (25), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (22) is a group worth cultivating—and one cemented by sacrificing only Ilyasova and Jennings’s expiring contract.

Harris should eventually find comfort in Detroit’s offensive and defensive systems, though some adjustment will be in order. Ilyasova is a far better shooter; while Harris could project as a stretch four in concept, the Pistons will be trading one away in reality. Harris’s development as a shooter and his teammates’ growing familiarity with his off-ball game will help to bridge that gap in time, though the coming weeks could prove trying as Detroit effectively re-works its spacing. What’s nice is that Harris can help churn out offense in those situations just as well—a task he’s prepared for after all his practice in Orlando.

Some of the post-ups earmarked for Marcus Morris might instead go to Harris. A few of the frantic, end-of-possession sequences forced by Jackson or Caldwell-Pope might alternatively end up as Harris isos. The open threes will be created and encouraged, though the beauty of Harris’s game is that his offensive value isn’t limited only to his ability to stretch. There’s some scoring versatility there, even if it hasn’t yet been consistently applied in the healthiest ways. Van Gundy and his staff will confront the riddles of Harris’s game eagerly; the best problems in the NBA tend to involve the challenge of getting the most of multi-talented players.

Drummond, through inconsistencies and all, will complement Harris in ways that Vucevic never could. Morris, Caldwell-Pope, and Stanley Johnson, too, will give the Pistons complete freedom in their defensive orientation. Those structural factors don’t absolve Harris of the need to improve on that end (nor will they spare him from Van Gundy’s specific, insistent coaching), though on the whole they make his situation more manageable. What matters most is that Harris is situated in a way where he and his teammates cannot be easily exploited. The switchable balance of the 2-3-4 spots in Detroit’s rotation would seem to achieve that—particularly if all involved grow into their games as expected.

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The value that Detroit surrenders is largely contextual. Ilyasova was good for the Pistons due to his shooting. Jennings was helpful in that he wasn’t Spencer Dinwiddie or Steve Blake. What the Pistons gain in return, however, builds their situational worth atop a more significant foundation. Harris is the best and youngest player in the deal. He is also, by virtue of that, the most expensive—an important part of this trade’s calculus. From Detroit’s perspective, this deadline addition requires some free agency concession. Players like Ryan Anderson (a Van Gundy favorite) would surely be ruled out by the Pistons’ new cap realities. 

In that way, it’s a similar format to the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. Both were added via trade as a means of effectively sidestepping free agency. Jackson was the piece that might trigger the Pistons’ rebirth. Harris is the player that might amplify it. Following that course demonstrated an internal recognition of what the Pistons had become. Free agents wouldn’t be lured to Detroit to play for a franchise mired in losing season after losing season. They would need to be shown the process at work from the inside and sold on its value. Harris won’t need to be wooed in the same way that Jackson, a restricted free agent, was, though his arrival similarly serves the goal of returning the Pistons to respectability.