Nikola Vucevic didn’t ask for a trade. He said a few weeks ago that he loves it in Orlando, that he “knew we weren’t going to turn into a championship team right away” when he re-signed in 2019. At 30 years old, he is squarely in the prime of his career and has been playing the best basketball of his life for a team that depends on him to an absurd degree, is overmatched on most nights and receives little national attention, but hey, he made the All-Star team this year. Next season, with Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz back in the fold and some tinkering from the front office, maybe the Magic could rise above mediocrity. Maybe that would mean more to him because he stuck around.
So much for all that. On Thursday, Orlando pivoted. Vucevic is off to the Chicago Bulls with Al-Farouq Aminu in exchange for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter and top-four-protected first-round picks in 2021 and 2023. Evan Fournier is joining the Boston Celtics in exchange for Jeff Teague and second-round picks in 2025 and 2027. Aaron Gordon is going to the Denver Nuggets with Gary Clark Jr. in exchange for Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2025. (Teague is expected to be bought out.)
To understand where the Magic might be going, you must understand what they have just traded away. Entering the trade deadline, Vucevic, the last vestige of the Dwight Howard trade, was on pace to become Orlando’s all-time leading scorer in less than three weeks. At the rate he’s scored this season, he’d have passed Howard for the top spot 14 games into 2021-22. Vucevic has made more field goals than anyone in franchise history, and on opening night the length of his tenure with the team eclipsed Howard’s. All of this seemed somewhere between unlikely and unimaginable not only in the summer of 2012, but at almost any point in time until it happened.
At the midpoint of Vucevic’s Magic career, the 2016 offseason, they signed Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo in free agency. The following season, his playing time dipped, as did his efficiency. He was always a skilled player, but he looked like a big man stuck in the wrong era — not a lob threat, not a rim protector, not a floor spacer. If you’d suggested that, two years later, he’d make his first All-Star appearance at the age of 28 by expanding his range and becoming the fulcrum of the offense, you’d have sounded delusional. If you’d suggested that, two years after that, he’d make another leap by making more than 40 percent of his 3s and shooting them at a higher volume than J.J. Redick ever did in Orlando, while taking on an even bigger playmaking role, you’d have sounded like you’d completely lost your mind.
The Magic hired Jeff Weltman as team president and John Hammond as general manager in the summer of 2017. Rather than blowing up the 29-53 team they inherited, they didn’t trade anybody initially, nor did they fire the coach. Early in their first season at the helm, Weltman told me that they’d have a “cautious approach” and Hammond preached the importance of building flexibility into your plan. In Toronto, Weltman had seen a team come together at the exact moment the front office was about to tear it down with a Kyle Lowry trade. With the Pistons, Hammond had seen Chauncey Billups go from a guy they signed with the mid-level exception to the Finals MVP.
As weird as Vucevic’s development curve has been, neither executive can say he has seen nothing like it. Given that Lowry ended up following in Billups’ footsteps by winning a title, perhaps it’s not so strange that Orlando chose to re-sign Vucevic after his breakout 2018-19 season rather than trading him in the middle of it. It is far from easy to get a player of his caliber on your roster. You don’t want to trade one for an unremarkable return, if you can possibly avoid it. I don’t know if Weltman talked to his old boss Masai Ujiri after the 3 p.m. ET deadline, but while they ended up having extremely different days, they’ve surely been having similar debates.
Orlando valued its continuity, but everything has its limits. Having a flexible plan means that, when the universe is screaming at you to trade your veterans, you do it. This season was going nowhere, thanks to horrific injury luck that this roster had no hope of withstanding. Gordon wanted out, and the Nuggets offered some real stuff for him. In Fournier’s case, turning down two second-rounders and the chance to create a trade exception would only have made sense if both he and the Magic were committed to working out a new contract in a few months. Vucevic is a trickier one, for reasons both sentimental and not, but if they’re high on Carter, that’s about as good of an offer as they were going to get.
Doing all three of the deals simultaneously comes with an added bonus: Orlando is about to lose a ton of games. At all times, NBA teams are being pushed toward the middle of the pack — good teams become too expensive to keep together, the lottery delivers bad teams the best prospects — and, while residing there for a little while with a bunch of young players, plentiful cap space and a surplus of draft picks can be perfectly fine, the Magic were too expensive and getting too comfortable. As painful as this year has been, it represents a golden, albeit icky opportunity. They already have the fourth-best lottery odds in the league, and their offense, which has been dreadful, is about to be hopeless, particularly whenever Terrence Ross is not on the floor. If Orlando buys out Porter, it could be the worst-shooting team in years.
If you take each trade individually, you can fairly quibble with what the Magic got back, especially considering how long all of these guys have been there and how many times they could have traded them before now. In the aggregate, though, they have added three-first round picks, two second-round picks, a starting center about to turn 22 years old and a high-upside guard who recently turned 20, while cleaning up their cap sheet in a meaningful way. These trades will be ultimately judged by whatever comes next.
About that: How the front office will go about reshaping the roster in the offseason is something of a mystery, which in it itself is refreshing. Presumably Orlando will put together something much more functional than the team that is going to finish this season, and ideally it will have a franchise-changing rookie on the roster. Given that Isaac and Fultz will be coming back and Ross is under contract until 2023, it is not as if the Magic are going full Process (or full Presti, to use a present-day example). What they’re doing, though, is ending an era in which, at their best, they were competent, professional and disciplined. Admirable as those attributes are, Orlando now has a chance to be more than that.