Rival NBA Execs See Major Trade Opportunity in Orlando's Available Stars

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IMarch 15, 2021

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic walks back to the team's bench during a timeout in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

It seems for years now the Orlando Magic have debated moving on from their veteran core, transitioning past the remnants of former general manager Rob Hennigan's vision.

As this wonky 2020-21 NBA season inches closer to the March 25 trade deadline, a 13-25 record has yet again brought Orlando to this annual crossroads. And whether the circumstances are because of increasing pressure on the front office or a slew of injury misfortune, the Magic appear more willing than ever to engage in trade talks, according to league personnel polled by Bleacher Report. "They're claiming they're ready to swap it up," one Western Conference official said. "They know what they have doesn't move the needle."

Some rival teams believe Orlando can set the tone for this year's trade market, with Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and—albeit to a far lesser extent—two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic each categorized as available. "They're listening on all those guys," one assistant general manager said. The name to watch closest of all: Aaron Gordon, considered to be particularly available, and the 25-year-old forward is also eager to welcome a change of scenery, sources said.

"They should sell," an Eastern Conference executive added. "They own their first-round pick. If you can get that pick into the top five, and you're adding back Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz next season, all of a sudden things could look very different."

Those whispers have increased since the calendar flipped to March, and that's likely stemmed from Orlando's significant conversations with Minnesota in early February. Until Gordon's left ankle sprain that sidelined him for six weeks, the Timberwolves and Magic were nearing an agreement on a package for Gordon that centered on Ricky Rubio and future draft capital, sources said.

Houston, Dallas, Denver and Golden State have also expressed notable interest in Gordon dating back to November's draft. Orlando's asking price appears reasonable, seeking a combination of picks and young players. It's uncertain what youngster the Timberwolves would have sent the Magic, but before the Nets acquired James Harden in mid-January, Brooklyn first presented an offer involving either Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie for Gordon, sources said, yet the Magic were seeking a higher 2020 draft asset than the Nets were able to secure.

Aaron Gordon
Aaron GordonChris O'Meara/Associated Press/Associated Press

Gordon doesn't turn 26 until September, and there's a belief among many talent evaluators that Orlando's regime and coaching changes during his seven-year tenure has left him with untapped offensive potential. There's still a year and change left on his contract, with a descending salary that drops to $16.4 million in 2021-22. Acquiring him now would also allow Gordon's new team to evaluate him closely before he becomes a free agent in 2022.

That's likely why the Rockets, Mavericks, Nuggets and Warriors all remain interested. With Denver, sources said its package would center around Bol Bol, yet there's an apparent hesitation from the Nuggets front office about having to potentially pay both Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. next summer. For Dallas, Dwight Powell has been rumored among league personnel as the centerpiece in any deal.

Some lead members of New Orleans' front office are also quite high on Gordon, sources said, but it's Houston that appears particularly motivated to land him. In several conversations before the Rockets moved Harden, sources said Houston asked interested teams to engage Orlando as a means for the Rockets to ultimately net Gordon, similar to how they ended up acquiring Victor Oladipo. That same line of thinking now seems to be taking place in Houston's early talks gauging Oladipo's own trade value. "Whatever happens with this Oladipo situation, they want to turn into Aaron Gordon," one person with knowledge of the situation said.

Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Vucevic's market does not seem nearly as vast. Boston, Charlotte and San Antonio have all been rumored among league executives as potential destinations, but the center's career season, and second All-Star selection, appears to have clouded these waters. "They'd have to get a motherload for him," another league source with knowledge of the situation said. Orlando would likely require a starting player and multiple first-round picks as a baseline for any Vucevic haul, sources said.

"It would have to be to a point where [a team] offers what someone hasn't yet been willing to offer," another Western Conference executive added.

Fair value for Vucevic lies somewhere short of what Jrue Holiday brought back for New Orleans —Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, two future first-round picks (via Milwaukee), right to swap two additional first-round picks (via Milwaukee)—yet more than what Gordon will likely bring Orlando. That allows for plenty of wiggle room in any Vucevic discussion.

And like Gordon, Vucevic's contract also deescalates in its final two years, dropping to $24 million in 2021-22 and $22 million in 2022-23. But Boston's overtures, for example, have fallen short of piquing Orlando's interest, sources said, and the same goes for the Celtics' conversations about Gordon. Plus, after recent weeks in which it seemed Boston was more interested in acquiring Harrison Barnes, league personnel now say Boston is primarily focused on landing LaMarcus Aldridge.

Fournier and Ross, of course, are far more attainable than Orlando's two biggest names, and both shooters can seemingly plug right into any system as complementary floor-spacers with additional strengths as secondary creators. Similar to Gordon and Vucevic, Ross' salary declines over the final two years of his contract, which pays him $12.5 million in 2021-22 and $11.5 million in 2022-23. "It's a very movable deal," one rival scout said.

Orlando could command a pair of second-round selections for both wings. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver and the Clippers are said to be searching for perimeter help. "All those teams are just trying to get better around the edges," one team analytics staffer said. Some executives B/R polled suggested the Magic could even draw a late first-round pick for either player if the right team feels inclined to pull such a pricey trigger, yet that would seem less likely in Fournier's case.

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Fournier, in the last year of an expiring $17 million contract, may be difficult for a front office to surrender significant draft capital for, especially since at 28 he could depart in free agency this summer for another significant payday. Yet for an asset-strapped contender like the Bucks, Clippers or even Lakers, dealing a handful of second-rounders could make sense. In the current NBA landscape, there are also many paths to reacquiring picks on draft night.

"If you know you can get better, I would give up all my seconds. Who cares?" the assistant general manager said. "I think he's a good sixth man, maybe a fifth starter. One night he might give you 20, the next night he's giving you eight. But he definitely can put that thing in the basket, and you gotta guard him."

All the while, there are still opposing front offices skeptical the Magic will actually strike a deal. Orlando is still just four games from the 10th seed and this year's play-in tournament. Despite all of the Magic's willingness to hold conversations, few teams have generated significant traction in those calls. "You talk to them and it's just like, 'Well, you know, we're open to this…' It's just like talking in circles," an assistant general manager said. Another league source with knowledge of Orlando's talks added, "They don't pick up the phone and call."

Yet optimism does still persist that the Magic will finally choose the other option at this fork in the road. Gordon could feasibly become the biggest name to change teams before the deadline, and Orlando's front office has one notable, recent transaction on its resume of midseason moves. "They did pull the trigger on Markelle Fultz..." another Eastern Conference exec said.

Will Orlando strike again?


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.