Grades: Magic continue odd makeover with iffy spending spree
There is one team in every NBA off-season that distinguishes itself by operating in a way that is impossible to understand. The Orlando Magic have made an early run at the honor by:
• Trading Victor Oladipo, the No. 12 pick, and Ersan Ilyasova to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka
• Absorbing Jodie Meeks, who missed 96% of last season's games due to injury, into cap space
• Signing backup point guard D.J. Augustin for four years, $29 million
• Re-signing Evan Fournier to a surprising five-year, $85 million deal
• Signing Jeff Green for year at $15 million (into the cap space cleared by trading away Tobias Harris for placeholders)
Certain elements of that list are striking—even complementary to the existing Magic roster. Not only is Ibaka a better overall player than Oladipo, he makes more sense working alongside Nikola Vucevic and Elfrid Payton. Fournier was brought back on a deal that came in around $40 million cheaper than Washington's five-year agreement with Bradley Beal and some $50 million cheaper than Toronto's agreement with DeMar DeRozan. Incomplete though Fournier's game may be, the distinction in salary is notable for a talented, 23-year-old scorer. Every free agent wing to fly off the market thus far suggests that Fournier could have signed a bigger deal; the one he agreed to allows Orlando to build around a relative value.
What's been done with that space, however, muddles the entire composition. This isn't a disaster-in-waiting on par with Sacramento's work last summer; it's not as if Orlando traded away pick swaps meaninglessly or brought together combustible elements near an open flame. Instead, the Magic have attempted to accelerate their competitive timeline in the most underwhelming fashion possible. Signing Green for one year at $15 million is a wild swing at the concept of competitiveness. Green is not the answer. He is a perpetual non-starter (meant in the less literal sense) and another body to stand between Aaron Gordon and the developmental opportunities he needs. Nothing about the way Green plays—even at 30—suggests he would offer much help to a team looking to leap.
Teams around the league churn through their rosters to create cap space and opportunity all the time. Rarely has it seemed so pointless as when Orlando re-signed Harris to a long-term deal after it had acquired him only to then ship him off to Detroit for the ability to sign an older, lesser player in Green. Whatever there was to be said in defense of carving out cap space was shouted down to nothing by the opening rage of the free agent market. Almost every team has room under the cap or the means to create it. That left Orlando to trade for a shooter who might not be able to play at an NBA level anymore, sign a backup at a position it already had covered, and work for the right to forsake the cap room they had cleared.
Deals like Green's aren't so much destructive as instructive. A year from now the Magic will move on without Green's $15 million on the books without much issue. Yet Orlando is an organization that, for whatever its reasons, has looked to move forward by pairing its developing prospects (Payton, Gordon) with a less reliable sort of veteran. These are professionals in approach but basketball players who, beyond Ibaka, don't actually much serve the purpose Orlando seems to be after.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a basketball team ramping up its efforts to contend for a playoff spot. Every organization is free to decide for itself what matters and when. There's nothing wrong, either, with signing a player like Green in abstract. What's murky is why such a signing would make sense for the Magic given all that came before and all they would hope to accomplish in the season to come.
Orlando isn't doomed—it's just odd. It has good enough players (Fournier included), enough potential for internal development, and a smart enough coach in Frank Vogel to avoid most routes to disaster. The path to improvement simply never had to be so convoluted as this. Even a well-meaning trajectory could be challenged by scattered movement.