The Orlando Magic sit at 31-36 after playing 67 of their 82 regular-season games, and they very much remain in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, who helped construct what could be the franchise’s first playoff team since the 2011-12 season, sat down with the Orlando Sentinel to discuss key issues facing the team.
Orlando Sentinel: How exciting is it to have your team competing for a playoff spot?
Weltman: “I hope that the fans are excited by the chance to make the playoffs. For us, it’s not a matter of excitement. For us it’s a time to get serious and make the most of this opportunity.”
When you say “us,” do you mean the organization as a whole?
“Yeah, everyone. The players, the coaches, all of us. This is what it’s all about. It’s about trying to play in the postseason and playing well in the postseason.”
OS: You’ve had experience overseeing clubs that have made the playoffs. What are some of the things your team needs to do to get back to that level?
Weltman: “There are so many things that just go into winning in this league. I think our coaches and players, and our performance guys and organizationally, we’re all pulling in that direction.
“I do think that when you are in the hunt, when you’re playing meaningful games in March and in April, if you haven’t been through that before it changes your approach. It changes your approach individually and hopefully it changes your approach as a team. And that approach has to be that you have to feel that responsibility that you don’t want to let your teammates down, you don’t want to let the rest of group down. So it brings about kind of what we always talk about: you play for each other. So when teams start to feel that and they see that in real-world experience, that helps a young team turn the corner.”
OS: Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross will be unrestricted free agents after the season. Do you see them being part of the team moving forward?
Weltman: “They’ve both had great years, they’re great people and I think they’ve really adapted well to the way coach Clifford wants to play, and I think he’s been good for both of them. They’re two players and two people that I think any organization would want. I think they like it here. They like the organization, they like the city, they like the fans, they like the coach. It’s all well-intentioned, but there’s a lot of real estate between that and coming to an agreement in July. We hope those guys are back in Magic uniforms, but they have decisions to make. They’re unrestricted free agents and they have decisions to make. Right now, I would say that that’s really not a conversation for us to have. It’s not something that we spend a lot of time with. The focus of our team right now is about making the playoffs, what this next month and a half looks like, and the singular focus of our team to just stay committed, stay focused, stay serious-minded right now and learn how to turn this corner.”
OS: You have four players — Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba and Markelle Fultz — who are 23 or younger. What do you like most about that core of young players?
Weltman: “You need talent in this league to win, and you need character to win. All four of those guys are talented and they’re high character. They’re all very young, and their best days are in front of them. I think we’re lucky to have them kind of all under the same umbrella with the ability to grow up together. Look, in the NBA there are going to be a lot of unforeseen obstacles that we can’t predict. But to know that they’re solid people, that kind of is what you look for to weather the storm. The NBA is always going to be a storm, and so tough guys and high-character guys, those are the guys that figure ways through those storms. I think that in addition to the immense talent that all four of those guys have, I think they’re all made of the right stuff.”
OS: We know Markelle Fultz is in Los Angeles working to rehabilitate his injured right shoulder. How is the process going and what are some of the things he is doing as part of the rehab?
Weltman: “Listen, Markelle, I think, is in a really good place right now. He feels very confident that he’s making good strides, and we have sent one of our performance staff to visit with him to try to understand like what he’s going through and observe, and then I myself went out [in late February] to spend some time with him and again observe and support.
“I won’t get into specifics about what sort of stuff he’s doing, but he’s making good progress and he’s in a good place right now. At the appropriate time, as that part of the process is winding down, we’ll bring him out here and we’ll get our arms around him. I think he’s very eager. The day that he spent when he came in for the press conference was a game day, and so he got to be around the team, he got to be on the bench, he got to be in huddle, and all of those things really excited him. He spoke really highly about just being around his teammates, and he knows some of the guys, and being in coach Clifford’s huddle was really fun for him, and so he’s champing at the bit. But as we always say, we’re not going to rush. We’re not going to put an artificial deadline on it. We’re going to kind of let it like sew itself up. You know, hopefully we’ll have him in here in not too long and get our own arms around him. All we’ll be doing is just continuing the work that he’s been doing in Los Angeles, and we’ll just continue to do that work and ramp him up at the right pace and the timeline, as I always say, will be what it is.”
OS: Will he be joining the team before the season is over?
Weltman: “I know that he’d be excited to do that. We’ll see how that unfolds. Obviously that’s something that we’re not going to force. He’s not going to force it, [and] we’re not going to force it. His timeline will be dictated by how he’s feeling, the progress that he’s making, and at the right time we’ll make that transition, and it’ll be a smooth transition. It’s not going to be one where he gets yanked out. It’s going to be something that he feels like it’s the right progression now and here’s the next step. If that happens to be during the season, then that’s great, and if not then that’s great, too.”
OS: Could he come back and be part of the game experience?
Weltman: “Well, he’s got work to do. He’s busy. I mean his days are full. And so I don’t want him to kind of quote-unquote take a vacation right now, nor does he. He stays very attached to our team. He communicates with some of our players and with us, and he watches every game religiously. He’s very attached to the group, and as soon as he can get out here he will.”
OS: Is there anything you’ve seen that indicates he’s not on track and that something is not going as you thought it would go?
Weltman: “No. All I can tell you is he’s progressing. He’s feeling as good as he’s felt in a long, long time. For me, when I visited with him it was great to be able to talk with him, [and] understand some of like what he’s been going through and watch him work, and my biggest takeaway was …we had done extensive background on him, so we know this is like a high-character kid, [and] the whole league knows how talented he is. I can further attest now having seen him out there for a couple of days, he is a really hard worker. So I came back very excited because those three things put together can be a powerful force, and when I saw how hard he was getting after it and I realized his ability to focus in on work, that’s something that you can be told about but to witness it is really valuable and it’s really important. So that was one of my big takeaways from the visit.”
OS: During the press conference to announce you had traded for Markelle, you talked about discovering what he needs to be successful. What have you found those things to be?
Weltman: “I wouldn’t say that I’ve made any discoveries about Markelle as a basketball player since we’ve traded for him. Honestly, all Markelle needs to be successful, assuming that all these ingredients that we believe are in place are in place, and you know, we’re betting on it, is time. He just needs time. He’s talented, he’s got the size, he’s got the IQ, he’s got the work ethic, he’s got the team orientation, he’s got the character. He has all the ingredients. I mean, that’s why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. He’s 20 years old. He’s 20 years old. I know our fans must get sick of hearing me say it, but we’re going to do it right and not fast. He’s 20 years old. We hope that he’s a long-term, impact player for us for many, many years. We’ll do it the right way. It’s the only to do it, for him and for us.”
OS: Is he able to shoot at all? Is it a case where he’s limited with shooting then has to move on to some other area of his rehab work?
Weltman: “So he’s doing some physical therapy and some on-court work, but that’s all I’ll really speak about at this point. Like I said, he’s doing a lot of good work. That’s kind of family business, so that’ll stay in the family. But I would say that I came back very encouraged watching him work and seeing how good he feels about things. And hey, no one knows like him, and he’s in a very good place right now, so we’re very excited about it.”
OS: Have you found any other cases of an athlete dealing with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome to aid in the treatment?
Weltman: “There haven’t been that many to where you would even call it a relevant study, so that’s not really like the way that we’re spending our time. We’re spending our time with just putting Markelle in the best position to succeed. He’s an amazing kid. His capacity for work, his desire to help a team win, and he’s on the right track and he’s in a good place. So probably for now that’s probably where I’ll leave it.”
OS: Do you even see a remote chance the injury will prevent Markelle from playing again?
Weltman: “I don’t even entertain that idea. Just period.”
Is there a point where if the rehab isn’t allowing him to get back on the floor that will you take a step back and re-evaluate how to proceed?
“And again, I’m not going to be a wise guy, I don’t entertain those ideas. That doesn’t enter my mind.”
Where did the performance training staff component come from and what kind of impact has it had?
“The performance staff has grown significantly. I think there were four last year and there are nine this year.
“The performance staff is led by David Tenney, and he’s brought in just a great group of people who work hard. They work together. They’re good at their jobs, and the one thing that organizationally we always strive for is to communicate and serve everybody else. So to me, the importance of the performance staff can’t be understated, but only as they relate to the coaching staff and the analytics department and everybody has to share information and that information has to find the right home. It doesn’t do anything to do good work if it doesn’t impact winning. So hopefully that’s the way that we’re developing our whole organization.”
Have you seen any changes by David and his staff that have translated to better play on the court?
“We have a larger scale operation now in the performance staff. We have more hands on players, and with that comes the added responsibility of making sure that a larger group is working cohesively. It always comes back to having the right people. So I think that’s the way that things are working down there, and I think the players feel that they are in good hands. There’s good dialogue between the performance guys and the coaches as to how players are trending or tracking or monitoring load and all that stuff. I think it’s working well, and obviously there’s always ways to improve, and we’re always looking for those.”
OS: Are you using sort of a blueprint with how Jonathan Isaac’s ankle injury was handled last year to help treat rookie Mohamed Bamba this season as he recovers from his stress fracture injury?
Weltman: “The sorts of injuries that those two had are very different. So I don’t know if you’d say a blueprint, but I do think that it’s important that we remain consistent organizationally with always looking for ways to improve our young guys. Look, nobody wishes an injury on Mo, but he’s got one. So organizationally it’s our job to put him in a position to maximize whatever opportunity might be derived from this injury. He’s charting during games for coach Clifford, he’s meeting with Coach, he’s able to have meetings with our chef and nutritionist that there may not be time for otherwise. He’s just now beginning to get shots up on the court, and his work in the weight room with Nathan [Spencer, the performance and rehabilitation coach] and Luke [Storey, the head strength and conditioning coach] is beginning. He’s going to have an opportunity to grow in areas that he might not otherwise have had, and that’s our job is to put him in every possible position to improve and to succeed.
“I do think, to your question, that seeing the work Jonathan Isaac put in this summer and the way he responded to his injury has to be a good example to any young player.”
OS: Isn’t the way that you’re changing Mohamed’s learning curve noteworthy?
“I don’t know. I don’t know that we’re different than other team. It’s our job to put all of our guys in the best possible position to succeed. Any time there’s an obstacle then it’s up to us to figure out how to get around that obstacle and how we improve. I think that the coaching staff, the performance staff, even on down to our food preps and nutritionist, have taken that burden on, how I can help Mo as he’s going through this, and how can we get him even better with the time that he wouldn’t have otherwise have had. It’s just the only way we can work if we’re going to be successful.”
OS: How are you approaching the draft and what are some areas of your team you’re looking to fortify through it?
Weltman: “I don’t think we approach it right now regarding like what specific elements we need to improve on. Let’s be honest, we have some questions this summer. We have free agents, and we’ll have to figure out what that looks like. We are very busy on the draft, and this is like peak time right now. We’re getting into conference tournaments this weekend, and then following up with the NCAAs. So it is a very busy time for our scouting staff.
“But that being said, all we can do is prepare for the draft itself. We can prepare to know the players, try to understand like how they fit into draft order, other team needs, [and] just try to get a global idea of how that’s going to look, and then as you go through that process of the Chicago pre-draft camp, and bringing guys in for visits and going to agent workouts then we’ll to start to put a finer point on those things. But actually how it [draft] actually relates to your team, we’re not there yet. We’re not having those conversations yet.”
What are an organization’s expectations of its G-League affiliate and are those expectations being met for your team specifically in Lakeland and generally across the NBA?
“If you think about how rapidly the G League has grown from a few years ago when there were like five or six teams and we would generally share some affiliates, very few teams had their own G-League team, to now where pretty much every team has its own G-League team, almost. That alone tells you how important the G League has become to NBA teams because these aren’t inexpensive ventures. It costs a lot to run a team and have a roster and a coaching staff and support staff and an arena deal. These aren’t not inexpensive ventures. So that tells you how important the G League has become to running an NBA team.
“Our own fans know, as well as anyone, some of the improvements that our young guys have made. I’ll look at guys like Wes (Iwundu) and Khem (Birch), who were down there last year. You know, Melvin’s (Melvin Frazier Jr.) made good strides this year. Even when Jonathan was rehabbing last year he played a couple of games in the G League.
“We have the utmost confidence in coach Stan Heath, [general manager] Anthony Parker, [assistant general manager] Adetunji Adedipe. All these guys have just really represented our organization the way we want to be represented and they’ve established a way to win there. The way that we approach the G League is we have so many young players on our Orlando roster to develop, that we don’t want to just look at the Lakeland opportunity as more young guys to develop. We want to win there. We want that when our Orlando players get exposed to G-League visits that they’re part of a team that’s cohesive, that’s playing to win, playing for each other with good, serious-minded players and talented guys. I think that Anthony’s done great job assembling that roster, and Stan has been everything and more that we could have hoped for in a coach. They’ve really established a good foothold in the league. I think they’re widely respected throughout the league as a well-run organization and that’s difficult. We’ve only been around a couple of years now in Lakeland. So that’s how we look at it.
“And organizationally throughout the league it’s become a very important part of developing players. There’s no substitute in developing a player for playing time, and they just can’t get it all the time in the (NBA) league. So it’s the only alternative. To actually create the environment for them to go down there and get those reps, get those minutes, make those mistakes and continue to play, it’s invaluable.”
How much of an advantage is it to have your affiliate in Lakeland?
“I can tell you that for us, it’s worked really well. It’s a very important component, the fact that we can have guys play in a game then come back the next morning and practice with Orlando, [and] vice-versa.
“And the other part of it that’s really important is that Coach Clifford has done a great job of incorporating the Lakeland staff into the Orlando staff, so that there’s great communication levels between all of our Lakeland guys and our Orlando guys. If a player’s playing well, our Orlando coaches are watching those games, they’re talking to the Lakeland guys. There’s a constant shuttle back and forth with games and practices, so it’s been really important for us to have the team in Lakeland as opposed to out of state.”
OS: What would it mean for this franchise to make the playoffs this year?
Weltman: “I think that this time right now is really meaningful. Every day that we all wake up right now, I think it’s really important because it’s a different feeling when you’re playing for something in March and April, and it’s going through a long stretch of that responsibility to each other that grows a team, as I said earlier. What would it mean to make the playoffs? I don’t know if you could say it would give our young guys, or even some of our veteran guys, some validation or belief. But I don’t think it’s about that. I think we’ve already got that. The goal isn’t to make the playoffs and then exhale. The goal is to make the playoffs and do some work in the playoffs. And so it’s really more about just waking up every day, staying serious, staying focused, playing for one another and improving. That’s really what it’s about. It’s almost like the line between the last regular-season game and the first playoff game should be like a blurred line. It should just be a continuation of playing that way. But we’re still a ways away from that.”