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Rob Hennigan’s decision not to match the Hornets’ four-year, $34 million offer sheet for Ryan Anderson in July during the offseason was a polarizing one.
On the one hand, Anderson was the reigning Most Improved Player and had proven himself a more-than-reliable floor-spacing big, and a contract in the neighborhood of $8.5 million per year seemed perfectly reasonable for him.
On the flipside, even though the blockbuster trade wouldn’t happen for another month, everyone knew Dwight Howard was as good as gone, and it was hard to fault Hennigan’s decision not to re-sign expensive role players when the Magic weren’t going to contend for another few years.
Plus, the Magic were able to snare the much less expensive Gustavo Ayon in the Anderson sign-and-trade. The Mexican big man impressed in his first year with the Hornets, as both Magic Basketball’s Noam Schiller and Eddy Rivera wrote at the time. If the Magic had to lose a player as good as Anderson, they at least didn’t let him go for nothing and got a cheap prospect out of the deal.
Fast forward to two months into the season and it’s starting to look like the deal was a misstep, but hardly a franchise-killing one.
The Magic have a roster full of rookies and unproven players and several of them — including Andrew Nicholson, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, and DeQuan Jones — have performed well above expectations. Ayon cannot be counted among that group. He’s playing fewer minutes per game on a similarly thin, lottery-bound roster to the one he was on in New Orleans last season. While his rebounding has slightly improved per 36 minutes, he’s regressed a smidge both offensively and defensively.
Anderson, meanwhile, has absolutely proven himself to be the real deal since joining the Hornets. His 20.0 Player Efficiency Rating is a hair above his career PER (18.6). He’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc, the highest clip of his career, and he’s doing it with a career-high 7.8 attempts per game. His rebounding has taken a slight dip from where it was last year, but he’s still been pulling down a perfectly respectable 7.6 boards per 36 minutes.
Anderson’s continued sharpshooting is sorely missed on a Magic team with no deep threats outside of Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, and Arron Afflalo, a trio that has been underperforming their proven abilities as three-point shooters, and E’Twaun Moore. And with a few of the Magic’s veterans (Glen Davis and Al Harrington) battling various injuries, Anderson’s experience and durability would have been a major asset to this young team, stability-wise, even outside of what he brings on the court.
Those on-court contributions aren’t especially relevant for this season when everyone knows the Magic are rebuilding and don’t need to win games. But in light of the surprising play of several of the Magic’s young players, the $34 million contract that Hennigan deemed too steep to match this summer would actually have been a tremendous asset.
The Magic’s cap sheet is clogged by a few bad contracts for veterans who don’t contribute much, but the 2013 free agent class is fairly underwhelming. The summer of 2014 is the next potentially loaded year for free agency and the Magic will be very well set-up — with or without Anderson’s contract.
According to ShamSports, the Magic are set to be on the books for $38 million in the summer of 2014, but that number could be even smaller. The final season of Nelson’s three-year contract is only guaranteed for $2 million of the $8 million it will cost to keep him for 2014-15. Assuming the Magic opt for the cap space over keeping Nelson, who will undoubtedly be even further declining by then, that chops another $6 million off their cap figure, cutting it down to $32 million.
Al Harrington, a mortal lock to be cut this summer, is only guaranteed for 50 percent of his salary the next two years. The $7.6 million he’s on the books for after next season will only be $3.8 million. This brings the total down even further, to $28.2 million.
If we add in a few million for the salaries of future draft picks, the Magic will still be looking at a payroll in the low 30s. If Anderson were still in the picture, his salary of $8.3 million that year would bring the total up to around $40 million, give or take.
This would still leave Orlando with more than enough room to sign a max-level player or more than one player just below that level. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh can (and probably will) all opt out of their deals in Miami that summer. Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, and Danny Granger will be on the market, as will Kyle Lowry.
Orlando isn’t considered a marquee NBA market and thus the Magic would have to be considered a dark horse in any effort to land one of these huge names. But it’s not unheard-of. This is the franchise and city that managed to lure Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in the summer of 2000, and came within a hair of nabbing Tim Duncan. Rashard Lewis was lured from Seattle in 2008. It’s not Los Angeles or New York, but it’s also not Milwaukee or Charlotte.
If Hennigan has a promising enough core and enough money to throw around, the Magic have to be considered a free agent player in 2014. And having someone as productive on Anderson on that great of a contract would have only helped in that effort.
The Magic’s rebuilding efforts will not be done in by the decision to let Anderson go, which was perfectly defensible at the time. They have enough young talent and are set up well enough in the next couple of draft lotteries that they’ll likely be able to put together a solid core.
But in light of Ayon’s disappointing play and Anderson’s continued excellence, having let him go may ultimately slow down the process.