Once Upon a Time, the Magic Traded Away Two Future All-Stars

The 2024 NBA Draft and free agency will be opportunities for the Orlando Magic to improve their roster from playoff qualifiers to conference challengers. For a history lesson on how it can go wrong, consider the aftermath of these decisions beginning on Draft Night 2016.
Apr 19, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA;  Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis (10) brings the ball up court against the New Orleans Pelicans in the second half during a play-in game of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 19, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis (10) brings the ball up court against the New Orleans Pelicans in the second half during a play-in game of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO — Beginning on NBA Draft Night 2016, the Orlando Magic suffered through several seasons of poor personnel decisions and were left with a history lesson about the All-Stars who got away.

The Magic were firmly in the Eastern Conference's underclass but had improved their record by 10 games thanks to a young core of Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, and Nikola Vučević. That offseason, they hired Frank Vogel as coach.

The first round of the 2016 NBA Draft was filled with misses: 15 of the 30 players selected are out of the league entirely, but with quality players such as Malik Beasley, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam, and Dejounte Murray still on the board, Orlando drafted versatile big man Domantas Sabonis.

He would become an NBA All-Star, just not with Orlando. In a series of unfortunate decisions, the Magic traded away two players who would become All-Stars and Orlando became one of the five worst teams in the NBA. Vogel would lose his job.

The hindsight is bearable now. The Magic are riding a streak of good choices. Seven of their past nine draft picks were significant contributors to this past season's playoff team.

But in 2016, the dominoes tumbled badly.

Draft night, June 23, 2016
Magic trade Victor Oladipo, Eryan İlyasova, draft rights to Domantas Sabonis
Magic get Serge Ibaka

Sabonis, one of the best college players in the nation, was considered an uncertainty. He lacked the defensive credentials of Utah’s Jakob Pöltl, who was a more traditional shot blocker and was drafted ninth.

That Sabonis was an unconventional big man ran in his family. His father, Arvydas Sabonis, was considered one of the best international players ever and one of the greatest passing big men in history. Arvydas was 31 years old when he joined the NBA — perhaps past his prime — but he still finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.

As a sophomore at Gonzaga, Domantas Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting better than 61 percent from the field. Despite those numbers and his lineage, he was projected as a contributor, not a star.

“I'd bank on him carving out a lengthy NBA career as a fringe starter or valuable, spirited reserve,” Bleacher Report wrote. 

Since then, he’s been a nominee for Most Improved Player twice, finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting, made three All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams, finished top 10 in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and top eight in MVP voting. Over the past five seasons, Sabonis has averaged 19.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists while shooting 57.3 percent from the field.

But shortly after the Magic drafted Sabonis, they traded him. And not just him.

To get Ibaka, a three-time NBA All-Defensive team selection, the Magic added:

  • Ersan İlyasova, a 28-year-old power forward who was a career 10-point-per-game scorer and shot a reliable 37 percent from the arc;
  • and Victor Oladipo, 23, who had averaged 16 points, four assists, and 1.6 steals in three seasons for Orlando.

Two seasons later, Oladipo would become an All-Star and earn Most Improved Player. He was All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA Third Team, and received votes for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

Oladipo was injured in his second All-Star season. He averaged 25 games played in his final four years.

But Orlando was sold on Serge Ibaka. 

"Serge [Ibaka] is a young veteran who brings tremendous athleticism and toughness to our frontcourt," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said at the time. "His tireless work ethic and wealth of playoff experience will help enhance our culture and roster. We thank Victor [Oladipo] for all of his contributions both on the court and in the community. We wish him and Ersan [Ilyasova] the best of luck in the future."

The hope was that, outside the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Ibaka could become more of a focal point. In Oklahoma City, he had averaged 13 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks. 

"The defense we played at Indiana that we hope to bring here to Orlando is predicated on having a guy like Serge Ibaka that can protect the rim and be that lead shot-blocker," said Orlando’s new head coach at the time, Frank Vogel, who had just joined the Magic after his contract with the Pacers was not renewed. "The way the NBA is going, defensive versatility is huge."

DECISION 2, February 14, 2017
Magic trade Serge Ibaka to Toronto Raptors
Magic get Terrance Ross and 2017 first-round pick (No. 25)

The Serge Ibaka Era lasted 56 games.

To his credit, he had maintained his OKC averages while improving his three-point shot to nearly 39 percent on 3.8 attempts per game.

Nevertheless, Ibaka was a pending free agent so the Magic sent him to Toronto in exchange for Terrence Ross, a former 2012 first-round pick. 

Ross would spend seven seasons in Orlando as a core piece coming off the bench and averaging 12.7 points per game. 

Ibaka would help Toronto a championship in 2018-19.

Rob Hennigan, the architect of these personnel moves, was fired after that season. In his five years as general manager, Orlando posted a 132–278 record — the worst five-year stretch in team history.

DECISION 3, June 22, 2017
Magic trade draft rights to No. 25 pick Anžejs Pasečņiks to Philadelphia 76ers for a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 first-round pick (OKC top-20 protected)

Pasečņiks played just two seasons for the Washington Wizards after being renounced by Philly. But that 2020 draft pick would turn into something.

DECISION 4, Feb. 8, 2019
Magic trade 2020 first-round pick (OKC), 2019 second-round pick (Cleveland Cavaliers), and Jonathon Simmons for Markelle Fultz

So the 2020 first-round pick is part of a package of assets sent to Philadelphia for 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz.

It’s hard to knock the Magic for pursuing Fultz, who had star potential before an injury, plus the cost was low on paper.

Fultz is a free agent now after five seasons in Orlando, where he developed into a solid contributor and averaged 11.6 points and 4.8 assists.

The sting in this trade is who those draft picks became. 

The 2019 second-round pick became Bruno Fernando, whom the 76ers flipped to land Matisse Thybulle, an All-Defensive team selection twice for Philly. Worse, that 2020 first-round pick became All-Star Tyrese Maxey, the reigning Most Improved Player of the Year and one of the best young scorers in the league. 

Connecting the dots, the Magic acquired solid players Ross and Fultz while trading away Oladipo, Sabonis, and a pick that became Maxey.

The 2024 NBA Draft and free agency are less than three weeks away. The Magic's push to grow from playoff qualifier to conference challenger depends on these decisions.

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Isaiah Deanda