Over the summer, the Orlando Magic had multiple decisions to make with regards to the future of their roster.
The most important one concerned Aaron Gordon – the supremely talented power forward who dazzled the NBA world with his performance in the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest. The thing is, to that point, and throughout the rest of his career prior to this season, Gordon was known solely for his acrobatic, gravity-defying feats of dunking wizardry.
Before 2017-18, the Arizona product had averaged merely 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 46.0 percent from the floor, 69.9 percent from the foul stripe and 28.9 percent on 2.2 nightly three-point attempts.
Thus, it was only logical that new team president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond were hesitant about just handing him a huge extension this past offseason.
Instead, Gordon will now hit restricted free agency in 2018, along with his teammate Elfrid Payton, and other bigger names such as Clint Capela, Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine.
Two of those players – Parker and LaVine – are currently recovering from torn ACLs suffered last season, while Payton still hasn’t solved his biggest issue as a player: consistency.
That makes the two most enticing restricted free agents next summer Gordon and Capela, as both have clearly taken their games to the next level thus far this campaign.
Capela leads the league in field-goal percentage (69.9 percent) while averaging 13.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per night. Ridiculous numbers to be sure, but it can be argued Gordon has made an even bigger leap in terms of play than the Swiss center.
Through 12 games, the 6-foot-10 athletic specimen is putting up 18.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest. He’s getting to the foul line more than ever before (3.6 free-throw attempts per game), shooting a pristine 53.7 percent from the floor and, most importantly, has blossomed into one of the league’s truly elite floor-spacing bigs.
So far in 2017-18, Gordon has attempted 54 threes and made 28 of them. That 51.9 percent success rate is the NBA’s second-most potent mark among players who have attempted a minimum of 50 shots from deep on the year, and his 1.49 points per possession (PPP) on catch-and-shoot jumpers is third in the league (minimum 35 opportunities) according to Synergy Sports, trailing only sharpshooters CJ McCollum and Robert Covington.
On top of the exquisite shooting touch Gordon has sprung on us, he’s also using his unique physical tools to dominate in other areas, primarily as a cutter and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
In the former play type, Orlando’s power forward grades out in the “excellent” range according to Synergy, scoring 1.64 PPP. And in the latter facet, running the pick-and-roll with Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, Gordon receives the same descriptor thanks to his ridiculous 1.15 PPP on such plays.
As far as 22-year-olds go, the multifaceted forward has been nearly without comparison this season. He can score, distribute and defend, as well as everything else inbetwixt.
In fact, because of his absurd play, it’s entirely possible the Magic could wind up regretting not giving Gordon that extension before his breakout campaign.
The most recent report we have regarding next season’s salary cap came from Shams Charania of The Vertical on Sept. 28.
With the salary cap projected to be around $101 million (though it’s plausible that’s a lofty estimate, considering how inaccurate prior projections have been), that would give Orlando a decent amount of room to work with in terms of Gordon’s next contract.
Only 10 teams have less money committed to 2018-19 than the Magic’s $78.2 million. A couple of them – namely the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers – should be immediately crossed off the list of potential Gordon suitors, as they will be going after bigger fish this summer.
But that still leaves a few rebuilding franchises – such as the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks – with loads of money to spend in 2018. What’s to stop them from deciding they want Gordon to be part of their roster reconstruction and handing him a max offer sheet?
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a rival team could theoretically sign the talented big man to – at most – about a four-year, $106.5 million offer sheet. If that number looks familiar, it’s because that’s the exact deal Otto Porter signed with the Brooklyn Nets last season, before the Washington Wizards decided to match.
Since Orlando own his Bird rights, they can offer Gordon a five-year deal that increases by eight percent for each year the contract spans. Opposing teams’ offer sheets can escalate by just five percent every season of the deal in comparison, while the max number of years can only be four as opposed to five.
It should also be noted that the Magic are allowed to surpass the salary cap to keep their power forward.
Truth be told, the central Floridian franchise would be wise to negotiate their own deal with Gordon if they decide they’d like to keep him at all costs. After all, if he signs a max offer sheet from another team, they could provide him with a player option after the third year.
That would mean Gordon re-entering unrestricted free agency as a 25-year-old set to hit his athletic prime – a terrifying proposition for Orlando brass. Lest we forget, this is the exact situation the Utah Jazz found themselves in with Gordon Hayward.
As we all remember, he chose to abandon ship and sign with the Boston Celtics just as the Jazz were finding consistent footing as a franchise. Now, Utah appears to be headed right back to the lottery.
If Orlando’s Gordon were to do the same, it would be a devastating blow to the Magic, especially if he continues on the ludicrous trajectory he’s currently on.
There are other financial reasons for Orlando to sign the floor-spacing big man to a deal as opposed to matching an offer sheet. If Gordon signs with another team, forcing the Magic to match in order to keep him, that would give him an automatic no-trade clause for the first year of his deal, as well as a trade kicker, which would force Orlando to pay him a percentage of his contract even if they decided to trade him.
Whenever the Magic decide Gordon is their guy, it makes more sense – both fiscally and emotionally – to sign him straight up, and not let his potential flirtation with other teams get too intense.
Because even with Gordon’s imminent three-point shooting dip en route (it’s coming), he’s still the exact type of versatile forward the entire league covets. He can defend multiple positions, causes matchup nightmares against traditional big men and can aptly distribute the basketball.
If we assume the Magic sign Gordon to anything resembling a max contract, they would be capped out at nine players, partly because they’ll be paying Vucevic, Biyombo and Evan Fournier a combined $46.8 million next year. They could try and trade away one of those contracts, but odds are, no other franchise will want to touch any of them. And it would also mean Payton, the fourth-year floor general who Orlando has spent a lot of time developing, would be gone.
Regardless, Hammond and Weltman could give Gordon his life-changing deal and then fill out the rest of the roster with drafted players, minimum salaries and the team’s exceptions – both mid-level and bi-annual.
Their core and its complementary pieces would be good enough to compete for the only thing that matters to all but two or three teams in the present NBA landscape: mere postseason relevance.
If it’s a matter of Orlando wanting to keep their nucleus together – provided Gordon’s play proves to be sustainable, which we will have a better grasp on over the coming weeks and months – Magic fans can rest easy: the CBA will allow them to do just that.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.