Storyline: Magic Front Office

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Elfrid Payton always knew a midseason trade could happen to him. Slated for free agency and with the Orlando Magic in the hands of new front-office executives Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, Payton realized he might not finish the season in Orlando. On Feb. 8, just before the annual NBA trade deadline expired, the Magic sent him to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round draft pick. “It did not hurt my feelings,” Payton said in a phone interview with the Orlando Sentinel.

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“Coming into the season, I had already prepared myself mentally for something like this. No disrespect to Jeff and John, but I knew that they didn’t draft me. So I knew there was a possibility that in their new job they would want to put their stamp on the team or try to get their team. Even though that was the only move, I always told myself there was a chance that something like this could happen this season. So I was not sad or hurt by the decision or upset that I had to get all my stuff and move or wouldn’t be with my teammates no more.”

“It’s going to be weird,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “I miss E.P.” Center Nikola Vucevic said: “It’ll probably be a little weird to go against him for the first time. I’m sure he’ll come in fired up, ready to play. He played here for a couple of years, so I’m sure he’ll come in and try to put up a big game. So we’re going to have to be ready for that. It’ll be good to see him at the same time and catch up with him. But it’s certainly a little weird to play against him after playing so many years with him.”

McGrady, now an ESPN analyst and a special assistant to Magic CEO Alex Martins, was asked what the Magic need to do over the next year or two to improve. “You have to make it appealing for free agents to come here, and that’s the draft,” McGrady answered. “You have to discover great talent through the draft, and hopefully that talent develops like a Ben Simmons or a Joel Embiid. If you could put that together, then free agents will want to come here.”

In the days leading up to the deadline, did you expect to be traded or did the move catch you off guard? Elfrid Payton: Well, my mindset this whole season has been to be ready for whatever happens. I knew a trade was possible, especially having a new GM and president of basketball operations in Orlando. Because they didn’t draft me, I always understood there was a chance that they’d want to bring in their own guy. So the whole year, I was basically prepared for anything.

When you saw that you were traded for a second-round pick, what was your reaction? Did you feel disrespected at all? Elfrid Payton: I mean… A little bit. I think a lot of other people were more upset about it than I was, though. Others took it to heart more than I did, but that’s just because of the type of person I am. I’m pretty nonchalant and I don’t really get worked up, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me. I’ve always felt underrated and felt like I have to prove myself. I’m the kind of player who feels like you have to prove yourself every single night – no matter what you’ve done or who you are – because in this league everyone is thinking, “What have you done for me lately?” So it wasn’t too big of a deal to me. (Long pause) It was kind of crazy, though. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it was a steal for Phoenix and stuff like that; I guess time will tell. I heard they were offered a lot more than a second-round pick [from other teams], but they just didn’t decide to do one of those other trades… I don’t know all of the details, but I know they had offers from a team in the East and a different West Coast team other than Phoenix.

Orlando Magic General Manager John Hammond has lived in Florida for less than a year. But he’s seen enough of the weather here, and spent enough years in professional basketball, to make an accurate comparison between the buildup of a tropical storm and the buildup to the annual NBA trade deadline. “Today, it’s basically it’s nothing more than a beautiful day in Florida,” Hammond said, referring to this year’s trade deadline, which will expire on Feb. 8 at 3 p.m. “But there sometimes is a calm before the storm, and history shows the storms start coming in your direction maybe three days before or four days before, and the storms really start hitting 48 to 24 hours before. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to be in the middle of a storm, but we could.”

With the playoffs all but impossible, the widely held assumption throughout the NBA is that Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and John Hammond will try to trade some of the established players on the roster they inherited — perhaps 25-year-old swingman Evan Fournier and 27-year-old center Nikola Vucevic — to aid in a rebuild. In an interview, Hammond would not categorize the Magic as sellers. But he also acknowledged that if the team does make a move, it would not be for a quick fix and would likely be “to improve ourselves for the future.” So if the Magic trade anyone, the Magic likely would be interested in acquiring young players or draft picks or a combination of both.

The Magic have been in the NBA trade market for most of the season. The prevailing thought from league sources is while the Magic seem to be open for business, they are not open to taking much back in terms of salary which may make it hard for them to offload some of the contract money they seem to be trying to move. The two names that get the most play in NBA circles are guards Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton. While the Magic seem to open to ideas on the entire roster, they have been pretty open that they are not doing a deal just to do a deal. The Magic’s stance is that anything they do has to meet their goals of being able to remake the team fairly quickly, so taking back long-term contracts are not in the plan. As the deadline nears, the Magic could move half the roster or make no moves at all.

Orlando Magic swingman Evan Fournier has played in the NBA long enough to know his name will pop up in rumors until the league’s trade deadline expires on Feb. 8. So Fournier has a policy this time of year: He attempts to ignore trade rumors. “I’m not going to think about what’s going to happen or where I would enjoy playing or something, because it’s all speculation,” Fournier told the Orlando Sentinel. That’s why I really don’t read this stuff: because you never know what’s going to happen. I got traded once and I had no idea. It really came out of nowhere. There was no rumors. There was nothing. And out of the blue I woke up one morning and I got traded. So I know this is just all talk. You really don’t know what’s going on upstairs [in front offices], so it really don’t matter, honestly. You’ve just got to focus on what you have to do, really. The rest is speculation.”

But victories have been rare for Orlando this season. Like all of his teammates, Evan Fournier has been disappointed by the Magic’s performance this season, and a recent Basketball Insiders article noted that “there is a sense” — ostensibly among other teams — that Fournier and teammate Nikola Vucevic “would welcome the chance to get to a winning situation.” Asked to respond to that characterization, Fournier insisted he has not asked for a trade. “Obviously, as a player you want to win,” he told the Sentinel. “But I will never ask [for] a trade or anything. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m a fighter and I’m definitely not a quitter. I don’t know what they plan to do, but I’m a Magic. I feel like I belong here, and for as long as I’m going to be here, I’m going to fight for this jersey and this city, man. It’s that simple.”

Throughout the Magic offices, they are trying to keep expectations modest, to tamp down the “future GM” talk even as they diligently work to prepare Bonner for that path. She did just begin the job, after all. Yet Bonner’s goal is explicit—”I want to be a GM,” she tells B/R Mag—and those who know her best, who have worked alongside her, from South Africa to Brazil to China, running clinics and aiding the U.S. Olympic team, are fairly certain where this is headed. As Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s senior vice president of international basketball operations, and a longtime mentor, told Bonner in the spring, “You can be a pioneer.”

Among this group, Becky Bonner is the one best positioned to smash the front office glass ceiling, say countless team and league officials who have worked with her. Her pedigree sets her apart—as a former high school star and Division I player, as a former college assistant coach, as a six-year veteran of the league office who’s worked with LeBron James and played scout team defender against Kevin Durant and, perhaps most significantly, as the middle child of New Hampshire’s first family of hoops. Older brother Matt Bonner played 12 seasons in the NBA after starring at Concord High. Younger brother Luke Bonner played four years in Division I and three years overseas. Becky was dribbling by kindergarten, playing on boys teams by fifth grade and battling her brothers just about every day of her youth. Being Matt’s sister exposed Becky to the inner workings of an NBA franchise. Her six-year tenure in league operations revealed her as a savvy administrator and relationship-builder. Her deep ties to the game lead straight back to Concord. She is, at heart, a gym rat. “I speak player,” she says.

Officially, Becky Bonner is the Magic’s director of player development and quality control—tasked with everything from player appearances and facilities upgrades to scouting and player evaluation. Unofficially, she’s training to become a general manager—perhaps the first female GM in league history. On this night, Bonner is shepherding Magic players through Walmart. Tomorrow, she’ll be filing reports on a batch of draft prospects, then watching the Magic-Clippers game from the executive suite, alongside Magic president Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond. In the weeks and months ahead, she’ll be in the Magic’s war room, offering input on free-agent targets or potential deals in advance of the Feb. 8 trade deadline. She will be the lone female voice in that room—and one of the few in the NBA, period. “I just think she’s got unlimited potential,” says Weltman, who recruited Bonner from the league office in June, with the promise of full involvement in basketball operations and the belief she could one day run a team of her own. “It will evolve the way it evolves,” he says.

The Magic have held a summer league 14 times since 2002. “The pendulum is swinging toward teams playing in Vegas,” Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s a level of competition and a level of exposure when more or less every team in the league is there and you’re playing in front of 20,000 people as opposed to playing in a gym with a few hundred people. So it better prepares you for what NBA life is really about with the crowds, the pressure, the travel — a lot of what you’re going to have to confront. Obviously, it’s not a true test of an NBA season, but it’s a little taste.”
5 months ago via ESPN

The decision to allow Hezonja to become a free agent next summer has a mutual benefit for a new front office who didn’t draft him, and a player and agent who are eager for a change of scenery and a chance to prove that Hezonja can justify the interest that exists for him elsewhere. The option still exists for Hezonja to re-sign with Orlando. Orlando president Jeff Weltman has been careful about committing future money to the underachieving roster that he inherited, resisting rookie contract extensions for Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon. He has wanted to evaluate the roster this season, and make decisions later on the future of the group. A couple of your young guys, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, are eligible for their contract extensions. How do you approach that and how much do you need those two players to make another huge jump this season? Jeff Weltman: “I won’t speak publicly about free-agency issues about our own players. We’re in contact with their agents and if something gets done, that’s great. If not, that’s great too. I’m really eager to get to know them as basketball players. I’ve gotten to know them a little, but they are two sensational kids who are extremely talented and their hearts are in the right place in terms of being just about winning. How does that look out on the court and in our locker room? I’m eager to see how that works, but I’m happy to have them here and I’m eager to see how they develop this season.’’

Orlando owns the sixth, 25th, 33rd and 35th picks in the draft and it is hopeful that it will emerge with one, if not multiple, difference-making pieces. It’s the Magic’s first draft with Weltman and Hammond calling the shots and they feel the franchise is in a good spot despite the time crunch they have been faced with of late. “In a typical year, all we’d do right now is listen, talk to teams, figure out what’s out there and discuss what our options are,’’ said Weltman, who was hired on May 22 and officially brought Hammond on board a day later. “By this time, in a typical year, everything (in the evaluation process) would be behind us, but since it’s a new group, we’re still watching video and comparing notes on players and putting in extra work. … We’ve been in the office late every night.

A reporter asked Weltman why he hired Hammond. “Because he’s better than me,” Weltman answered. “What can I say? I’ve known John forever. I’ve worked with him. I’ve seen the guy. I can’t say enough good things about John Hammond. But I don’t want to gush about him because you guys will see for yourselves. And ultimately, we’re going to do a lot of talking here today, and then we’re going to walk out, and it’s up to us to prove it.”

Griffin’s contract expires at the end of June, and the Cavaliers could choose to hold onto Griffin past the end of the team’s playoffs run and the NBA draft on June 22 and forbid him to engage Orlando until the cusp of July 1 free agency. For Gilbert, it could be a stall tactic in hopes of making Orlando grow tired of waiting on Griffin and eventually offering its job elsewhere; or Gilbert could be planning to relent and let Griffin discuss the Orlando job with officials at the end of the Cavaliers’ playoff run. So far, Cleveland hasn’t made a substantive offer to Griffin, league sources told The Vertical.

The Orlando Magic have started to interview candidates to head their basketball operations department, Magic CEO Alex Martins said Wednesday. But Martins cautioned that the hiring process could take a long time. “As we’ve said from the outset, we don’t expect a quick decision or a quick resolution due to the fact that there are some executives involved in the playoffs that we’re interested in speaking to and most likely we will not be granted permission [to speak with them] until those teams have been eliminated from the playoffs,” Martins said.

Magic officials have not spoken with Griffin, the Cavaliers’ general manager, because the Cavaliers have not completed their postseason yet. It would border on professional negligence if Magic CEO Alex Martins and the team’s owners, the DeVos family, already have made up their minds to offer Griffin their top basketball operations position without speaking with him first and, at the minimum, understanding how he would try to improve the Magic’s roster.

Magic interested in David Griffin

The Orlando Magic’s search process for a new top basketball executive could extend until the end of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff run, which would allow Orlando to gauge the interest of general manager David Griffin, league sources told The Vertical. The Magic are researching multiple possible candidates to replace former GM Rob Hennigan, but the possibility of Griffin does intrigue Orlando CEO Alex Martins and top Magic officials, league sources said. Griffin’s contract expires at the end of the season and talks on a new contract with Cavaliers ownership have been stalled for months, league sources said. There’s an increasing belief among league executives that Griffin could be lured away from Cleveland, league sources said.

Out of the postseason following a highly disappointing 29-53 first season with the Magic, Vogel said the failures over the past seven months will drive him throughout what figures to be a busy offseason. “I do believe in balance in life and I do want to get away from it and let it go a little bit, but it’s going to sit with me all summer,’’ Vogel said candidly last week upon the Magic’s season wrapping up. “When I get back to work, I’m going to be very driven to do all of this studying and evaluation of our team to get this thing back going the right direction.’’

In the wake of firing general manager Rob Hennigan, Magic CEO Alex Martins admitted that former coach Scott Skiles was right about the failed GM and should have stuck around until the team figured out what to do about it. Skiles quit after only one season because he did not like the roster Hennigan had put together or the lackadaisical culture Hennigan and assistant GM Scott Perry had cultivated among its core of young players. “Scott certainly had his concerns; I don’t think that was any secret,” Martins said when I asked if he should have listened to Skiles instead of Hennigan. “He made that very well known. He and I had several conversations about things during his tenure here.”

From talking to people close to the situation and listening to Martin’s public comments, it appears Skiles felt Hennigan and Perry coddled players and undermined the coaching staff’s ability to instill accountability. Skiles is a no-nonsense basketball lifer who didn’t like the work ethic of his young players or the culture created by the inexperienced Hennigan. “The culture is the atmosphere and the expectations you set up around your basketball team,” Martins explained on our Open Mike radio show Friday. “How are those expectations communicated? How are you holding everybody accountable? What is the true message about the level of commitment we expect? … What do we expect from them [players] day in and day out?

“In terms of being prepared for the draft, I have no concerns about that whatsoever because I have a very high amount of confidence in Matt Lloyd and his team to prepare us for the draft,’’ Martins continued. “He’ll have everything lined up and prepared for when we do hire a GM, including if it is him. … Frank (Vogel) will be a big part of that (NBA Draft) preparation as well and he’ll work closely with Matt over the next several weeks in leading the Basketball Operations staff.’’

“I’m not pushing for that (GM job) because I’m a basketball coach,’’ Vogel continued. “It’s a difficult thing to do both because you have to separate your emotions. A lot of times, the coach wants to trade a different player every other game and obviously you can’t do that. I like the coach/GM dynamic of them viewing things from afar, them studying the league differently than I do and them taking an entire year studying the NBA Draft versus a coach finishing the year and trying to cram it all in. There’s an important separation there.’’

Sources tell the Orlando Sentinel that Magic officials have interest in former NBA All-Star and former Magic player Grant Hill to work as president of basketball operations. But it’s unclear if Hill has interest in the job. Joining the Magic would require Hill to divest his small ownership stake in the Atlanta Hawks. If Hill doesn’t have interest, candidates for the general manager job likely would include Detroit Pistons associate general manager and former Magic player Pat Garrity and Golden State Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk.
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