Heading into this year's trade deadline, the Orlando Magic front office was reportedly under pressure to make a push toward making the playoffs. They were expected to chase a veteran difference-maker and they did receive Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings from Detroit.
At the same time, a different path emerged. The Magic made trades to clear up cap space for next summer, freeing them to chase big names in free agency this summer.
On Tuesday the Magic kicked off the trade deadline by shipping Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Jennings and Ilyasova. Then they parted ways with Channing Frye on Thursday, sending him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Magic received a conditional first-round pick from Cleveland that will be conveyed in 2018 at the earliest and is top 10 protected for two years.
Both trades opened up cap space for the Magic heading into the 2016 offseason. While Jennings and Ilyasova could help the Magic, they both have expiring contracts (Ilyasova's contract has a team option for a 2016-17). Harris was in the first year of a four-year, $64 million deal and Frye had two years left on a four-year, $32 million deal he signed in 2014.
Because they parted ways with Harris and Frye, the Magic are on the books for about $35.5 million guaranteed next season, when the salary cap is expected to jump up to around $92 million. (It should be noted that Evan Fournier, the team's leading scorer, turned down a four-year, $32 million extension, so his salary is not on the books for next year. He will be a restricted free agent this summer, but the Magic will likely try to persuade him to stay with the team.)
The Magic will have enough money to sign a max free agent and get another significant player as well, but will they be able to entice top players to go south in a top-heavy free agency class? Is the strategy wise when almost everyone else will have cap space?
Why this strategy could work
Harris and Frye weren't lighting up the scoreboard for the Magic. After a solid start to the season, the Magic were 19-13 at the end of 2015. But 2016 has been miserable. The Magic have lost 13 of 17 games and are on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
Neither Jennings nor Ilyasova are immediate game-changers, but they could be just the boost the Magic need -- and a 4-13 stretch proves just how much a boost is needed. Jennings is instant offense off the bench and Ilyasova is a stretch 4 that, at this point, could be a bigger help than Harris was this season. Despite his age and potential, Harris' numbers were down after a breakout year in the 2014-15 season. Ilyasova is hitting 36 percent of his shots from deep this season compared to Harris, who is shooting 31 percent this season.
It's feasible that Jennings and Ilyasova could help the Magic win now and make up a 3.5-game gap and make the playoffs. Jennings will be splitting time with a young core that includes Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Ilyasova is going to be working alongside youngsters Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. Making the playoffs would be a coup, especially when the Magic are chasing free agents this summer.
Even if Orlando sits out the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, they could go after Al Horford or Nicolas Batum, or perhaps they'll think Harrison Barnes is worth sending a maximum offer sheet. Orlando has not been a free-agent destination recently, but it was in the past. It plays in a state that has no income tax and warm weather, after all.
Orlando has a young core in place. If it can boost it by signing a big name this offseason, it could be dangerous not only in 2017, but beyond.
Why this strategy won't work
Who the heck are the Magic going to get in free agency? Landing Durant is impossible, and the free agency class thins out quickly. Andre Drummond will be a restricted free agent, and Detroit isn't going to let him go. DeMar DeRozan has a player option, and it's doubtful he's leaving the Raptors.
Mike Conley and Horford are the top two unrestricted free agents that the Magic will have a fighting chance to sign. Both are great players, but will they fit with the young core the Magic have built? Batum and Barnes are good options, too, but at some point the Magic will have to move some of the young guys if they want to rebuild completely through free agency.
The Magic spent big money on Harris last summer, only to trade him away midway through the season. What are the chances they sign anyone better?
It's unlikely when you consider that the Magic are going to be fighting with just about every other team in the league for players. Everyone is chasing Durant -- including the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Orlando is choosing to enter a race that everyone else has already entered. When only one team ends up with Durant, they're all going to have money to chase these free agents, too.
Instead of giving Harris a chance to develop after an admittedly down first half of the year, the Magic are setting themselves up to overpay another middling free agent. It doesn't help that they sent Harris packing -- other free agents may believe that they could be traded away easily, too.
Give the Magic an A for execution. If the plan was to clear long-term money, they certainly did it well.
But give them a C for planning ahead. Who can they really sign that deserves this money? The jump in the salary cap is already going to cause teams to overpay stars and middle-of-the-road players. Chances are the Magic won't find anyone better than the man they traded away. Then, they'll be in the same position they're fighting their way out of now.