When news filtered out last week that both Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo would miss some games with small injuries, it dealt a major blow to the hopes of the Orlando Magic winning games. Not that winning games is their priority right now, but in any event it was a shame to see both players sit out. Afflalo especially, given that he has been Orlando’s best player this season. With the two gone, Orlando went 1-1 during a back-to-back stretch in their schedule, but what was really highlighted here was the importance of Afflalo and, to some extent, Nelson as well. With question marks hanging over both of their heads as Magic players going forward, could this team actually take a significant backwards step if both are gone next season?
We will come back to the teams Orlando played, the Miami Heat and the Philadelphia 76ers. Many fans assumed this year that there was a very good possibility either Nelson, Afflalo or both would be traded by the Magic before the trade deadline. Both were veterans who deserved to join contenders if possible. Thinking they could be a part of the long term plan was as foolish as it was unnecessary. But yet both players said all the right things in terms of wanting to stay and help this team grow. Nelson, a fan favorite for years now and the starting point guard when the Magic made the NBA Finals in 2009, was even given a new contract. This surprised everybody, and with Afflalo becoming crucial to the rebuild, it now seems both players could be around longer than imagined. This is the NBA, though, where there is no such thing as a sure thing. So if one or both players are gone through trades or, even further down the line, free agency, their loss seems like it will effect this team considerably if the recent sample size is anything to go by.
On Saturday, the Magic lost to the masked man LeBron James and the Miami Heat. With respect to the missing Magic veterans, even if they had of played, the Heat have entered their post All-Star break groove and have bumped their play up a few gears. They were not going to lose this game, especially given that it feels like Orlando also hasn’t beaten their State rivals since the dawn of time. The victory against the woeful 76ers, who have now lost 14 consecutive games, was not much better, as they made hard work of the worst team in the league at the moment. Tobias Harris and Kyle O’Quinn had productive nights, with Harris recording a season high in points, that ultimately got them over the hump. The win also put the team at 15-15 at home, certainly room for improvement there. Afflalo’s creativity and Nelson’s clever point guard play were sorely missed however, and if the Magic struggled to put the 76ers away without them on the court, who knows how many backwards steps this team could take if they were to leave this team. It has become somewhat ironic that the one piece most people thought would be traded, Afflalo, has now become the crown jewel in the reconstruction of this team.
Yet there is still reason to believe Afflalo won’t be around much longer. Next year he stands to make roughly $7.5 million and the year after that he has a player option on his contract with similar money on the table. His deal represents one of the best in the league, a player who is underpaid if anything. With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement influencing everything owners and general managers do these days, a player like Afflalo becomes a hot commodity. His friendly deals means that if he joined a contender as a third or fourth option, even a sixth man in a similar vein to Jamal Crawford, he could absolutely be that missing piece that gets a team over the top. For a team like Orlando, with the cap space and youth that they have, they’d be willing to eat a bad contract in return for pieces that could really help push them into the playoff conversation next year. Given how bad the Eastern Conference has become, that should certainly be the aim. So now the question becomes, keep Afflalo and hope for internal improvement. Or trade away our best player who we clearly need in the hope the new players received are an upgrade and fit the team better as well.
This is a strange position for the Orlando Magic to be in. They clearly need Afflalo out on the floor to compete, he is the kind of player they have come to build around. Yet he could just as easily be gone in a flash next season. While at one point this was thought to be acceptable, this small window showed us the the Magic have come to rely heavily on his play on a nightly basis. Jameer Nelson too, once thought past his best and of no real use anymore to a young team like this one, has proved his worth simply by not being available to the team.