The Orlando Magic are confusing.
They have one of the most promising rosters in the NBA, chock full of potential at each of the five primary positions. Almost every player on the team would undoubtedly be asked to show ID in a liquor store, assuming they were legally allowed to be there in the first place.
But instead of letting the young guns learn on the job, the Magic have made a trio of signings that added veterans to the roster—veterans who are going to suck minutes away from their more youthful counterparts.
Willie Green was picked up after he was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers, allowing him to finish out the last year of his deal in Orlando. Ben Gordon inked a two-year, $9 million deal after his disastrous tenure with the Charlotte Bobcats drew to a close before he ever got to experience being part of the Hornets.
How does this make sense? Why are the Magic crowding their rotation and handing veterans minutes on a rebuilding team, minutes that come at the expense of developmental opportunities for promising rookie-scale players?
According to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, teams must have their payrolls meet 90 percent of the salary cap in order to avoid a surcharge that's paid out at the end of the season. The numbers won't become official until after the moratorium lifts, but ESPN.com's Marc Stein projects the cap at $63.2 million for the 2014-15 season.
And since 90 percent of $63.2 million is $56.88 million, that's the number the Magic have to hit with their payroll (payroll is different than the sum of the individual salaries, as it includes all money paid throughout the season) to avoid handing out unnecessary and possibly undeserved money to everyone on the roster.
With a team this young, collecting veterans is sometimes necessary because rookie-scale contracts don't add up too quickly.
Going into the offseason, Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo were the highest-paid players on the roster, according to ShamSports.com. The former was set to make $8 million, though only $2 million was guaranteed, and the latter was on the books for $7.5 million. Well, Nelson was waived to save $6 million, and the 2-guard was shipped off to the Denver Nuggets for a much cheaper salary (Evan Fournier's $1.48 million) and a draft pick.
After that, it was Victor Oladipo, making a shade under $5 million, who had emerged as the most expensive player on the roster. To put that in perspective, the Magic could roster 10 Oladipos and still be just shy of the cap floor.
By making these surprisingly expensive signings, Orlando is still well shy of the floor but getting closer.
Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton will be paid a combined $6.4 million in 2014-15, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. Adding them to the roster, along with Green, Frye and Gordon, pushes the salary expenditures to just over $38 million.
Throw in Roy Devyn Marble's eventual rookie contract, the money still owed to Al Harrington and the guaranteed portion of Nelson's deal, and the Magic are coming in almost $13 million under the floor. They'll surely make a few more signings in order to push closer to that number, and the closer the better.
After all, the surcharges just shrink as the total expenditures draw closer to the floor.
However, there's more to these moves than that; otherwise, the Magic wouldn't be waiving players like Jason Maxiell and Nelson, thereby pushing themselves further below the floor.
By adding these veterans, the Magic are gaining two quality locker-room presences and mentors for their wealth of young talent, as well as a wild card (Gordon).
As Robbins writes, that's the primary benefit of acquiring Green, whose small salary would be a bargain in a contract year even if he wouldn't be such a good influence for the younger players:
Magic executives like the character of their young players, but a team — even a team that’s not close to being a contender — needs to have some veterans who have been around the league for a long time.
Green fits the mold perfectly. He’s played in the NBA since the 2003-04 season and has appeared in 679 regular-season games, which exceeds even Nelson’s 651 regular-season games played.
Green also is known as a class act. He should provide a good example to the Magic’s legion of younger players.
But what about the other two guys?
Last season Gordon played 279 minutes total in 19 games for the Bobcats, battling some injuries but basically quitting on a team that was all about hustle and effort. He was petulant and when he wouldn’t help with a buyout the Bobcats waived him one day after the deadline for him to sign up with another team and make their playoff roster.
He was a disgruntled shooter who didn't make as much of an impact as his salary figures would indicate, but this is now a different situation. No longer is Gordon making guaranteed money, as the second year of his deal with the Magic contains a team option.
If he flames out again, good luck finding more work in the NBA at anything more than a minimum salary. There's now an incentive for him to mentor the younger players and provide quality contributions to the best of his abilities.
Then there's Frye.
"As a kid, I used to watch all his college games at Arizona," Tobias Harris told Robbins back in March. "I used to know all his stats. So I followed him. ... It made me want to get in the NBA even more. He's somebody I looked up to. I just always wanted to get to the NBA and be at that same level."
Frye and Harris are first cousins, so there's a nice familial connection there, but look beyond the bond of blood: The former Phoenix Sun is a sharpshooting big man, which is a skill the Magic are trying to develop in virtually every one of their frontcourt players.
Some, like Harris, have a jumper that occasionally hits. Others, like Aaron Gordon, don't.
All could use one.
"In an effort to stretch the floor and add someone who can mentor their legion of young players, the Orlando Magic have reached an agreement with free-agent power forward Channing Frye on a four-year, $32 million contract," Robbins wrote when he originally reported the signing, also noting that the stretch 4 is expected to emerge as a "locker-room leader."
No longer are the Magic prohibitively young.
But this can't be the only explanation that doesn't involve the cap floor. If that were the case, the Magic never would have released Nelson, who had emerged as a quality leader and terrific mentor for the young guards on the roster. He and Oladipo worked together throughout the former Hoosier's rookie season, and the developments were quite noticeable.
So what gives?
If Green thrives in his contract year, there's a solid chance he will return to the team and keep providing quality minutes off the bench. Gordon is already under contract through 2015-16 (assuming he meets the expectations), and Frye is now signed to a four-year deal.
Chances are at least one of these veterans will end up playing a large role when the youthful roster comes into its own. And given the potential of a starting five comprised of Payton, Oladipo, Harris, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic, that role player might end up working with a contending team before too long.
But there's a hidden benefit as well.
Without the aforementioned veterans on the market, the Magic had absolutely no salaries to send anywhere in trades. Oladipo was the only player on the roster making more than $3 million in 2014-15, and it was going to be impossible to get salaries to match in a trade going forward. After all, this team will eventually find a way to be over the cap, possibly in 2015-16 when extended contracts and rookie-scale jumps are necessary.
Ben Gordon could easily become trade bait as a player making $4.5 million on an expiring contract. Frye could be swung to a contending team for a new piece, and that new piece could be nicer and affordable due to of Frye's $8 million salary.
Gordon is more of a flier than anything else, and his salary fits in perfectly for that ultra-tradable range, especially if a team is trying to shed salary to avoid the luxury tax next year and needs a player back in return. Green is a locker-room presence on a cheap deal who could presumably be extended for a similarly reasonable amount.
But Frye is on a four-year contract and is the highest-quality player of the bunch. Sure, he could be used as a trading chip down the road, especially if Aaron Gordon, Kyle O'Quinn and Andrew Nicholson prove that they can handle the power-forward rotation by themselves. But he's also a uniquely talented stretch 4 who can play a huge role when this team becomes competitive.
Yes, that's a "when," not an "if."