As much as anything, Nikola Vucevic’s four-year, $53 million extension from the Orlando Magic is being viewed as a bellwether for how the NBA’s new multibillion dollar TV deal will affect future player salaries.
More pressing for Magic fans, however, is what bearing the Vucevic deal might have on the prospects of fellow 2011 draftee Tobias Harris, who is likewise eligible for a four-year extension (prior to the October 31 deadline).
Just 24 hours before, Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler reported it was unlikely that Orlando would move to lock down its young frontcourt duo for the long term.
Now, with Vucevic officially in the fold, Harris’ future with the Magic only feels more tenuous.
At the very least, Orlando’s considerable frontcourt depth—highlighted by Harris, third-year scorer Maurice Harkless and rookie Aaron Gordon—means the team will likely take its time in weighing the myriad options at its disposal.
Essentially, if the Magic opt not to extend Harris, the combo forward’s $3.6 million qualifying offer would automatically kick in. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Orlando would be able to match any offer above and beyond that number once the free-agent market officially opens next July.
As things stand, the Magic have $14.9 million committed for the 2015-16 season. Throw in the surefire team option on second-year guard Victor Oladipo ($5.2 million), and the team’s commitments rise to just north of $20 million.
At that point, Orlando would have seven additional player options at its disposal: Ben Gordon ($4.5 million), Luke Ridnour ($2.8 million), Harkless ($2.9 million), Evan Fournier ($2.3 million), Andrew Nicholson ($2.4 million), Devyn Marble ($850,000) and Dewayne Dedmon ($950,000).
Here’s what we know: Given their cap situation and variable rookie-scale contract obligations, Orlando has about as much flexibility as any one team can have.
With so many financial balls up in the air, the Magic's decision to extend Vucevic was as much about locking in the former USC standout’s double-double potential as it was securing a stopgap at the team’s shallowest position—center.
Meanwhile, for Harris, Gordon, Harkless and Nicholson, the 2014-15 season is about who can find the best, most sustainable niche on a team that could be just a year or two away from legitimate conference upstart status.
The good news for those who wish to see Harris remain an Amway Center fixture: He’s been a revelation in the preseason, tallying 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds on a stellar 57 percent shooting, including 45 percent from three-point range—the one area (aside from defense) where Harris could stand to author the biggest improvement.
In a recent interview with NBA.com’s John Denton, Harris spoke at length about how working with the sharpshooting Ben Gordon—often in workouts that last late into the night—has helped him rediscover his confidence as a shooter.
"Being able to make that shot sets up my game real well,’’ Harris said. "It keeps the defense on their heels. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that I’m going to settle for those jumpers. I still want to attack.’’
For a player looking to recapture his career trajectory following a somewhat disappointing 2013-14 campaign, Harris’ preseason play is nothing if not encouraging.
Ditto the fourth-year forward’s conditioning:
At the same time, there are some who see Harris as little more than a solid rotation player padding his stats for a perennial loser. Take ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, who included Orlando’s burly big man in his recent list of terrible-team stars (Insider subscription required):
…Harris is on a team that is trying to do better and develop winning habits, and he represents the best scoring option on the roster. Sure, Channing Frye and Ben Gordon have more experience, Victor Oladipo will have the ball in his hands a ton and Nikola Vucevic is going to get more than his fair share of touches out of pick-and-roll action and on offensive rebounds, but in terms of being the go-to offensive option, no one else on the Magic brings Harris' skill set or efficiency when it comes to scoring.
He's a big wing with a nice touch around the basket and the versatility to play up a position at power forward. While his 3-point range is still a work in progress, he does a good job of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line, where he converted at an 81 percent clip last season.
But while Elhassan’s analysis might come off as one big backhanded compliment, the fact that Harris is even mentioned in the same breath (or on the same page) as Kobe Bryant and DeMarcus Cousins speaks to the onetime Tennessee standout’s latent—but very real—potential.
The question now becomes whether Harris’ fourth-year leap will be enough to convince Orlando to make him a key piece in its talent-rich youth movement, or if his NBA future will unfurl somewhere else entirely.
It’ll likely take another year of swaps and signings before the ramifications of the NBA’s TV megadeal can be fully sussed out. But if Vucevic’s extension is any harbinger, Harris can rest assured that a productive year four will net him quite the payday. Even if it's not from his first NBA employer.