Weltman: No magic potion in Orlando; Cavs loom

Jeff Weltman isn't running from the many struggles his Orlando Magic have faced in his first season as president of basketball operations.

At 12-27, the Orlando Magic are at their lowest level through 39 games of a season since the 2013-14 campaign.

In a season of struggle, the Magic have all but bottomed out, losing 23 of their last 27 games after coming out of the gate with a promising 8-4 start.

And tonight, they host the Cleveland Cavaliers, coming off two days off since a lethargic 102-88 loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics.

And, by the way, Isaiah Thomas will be making his first appearance as the starting point for LeBron James & Co. tonight. Vegas odds list the Magic as 9.5-point underdogs against the Cavaliers tonight.

The story of the Magic’s struggles this season can be traced first and foremost to injuries.

So said first-year president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, who was hired in May.

“I would never want to lead off our session with an excuse, but I think any impartial observer would say, if you had to write the story of our season thus far, the headline is “Injuries,” the straight-shooting Weltman told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel in an interesting, revealing interview. “We’ve had the second-most starting lineups of anybody in the league, and with a coach who I believe values consistency and putting guys in a place where they know when they come in games (the uncertainty is difficult). Obviously, that part of the team has been a challenge.”

Weltman admits there was plenty to learn about the Magic when he arrived onto the scene, including whether to keep the team’s core intact or to undergo major changes to the roster, embarking on a major rebuild in the process.

“The goal coming into this season was to understand what we have: how our players play together, who we felt were more dominant personalities, dominant players, where people were on their different curves because every guy is at a different point in his career and understand the journey of each one of our players and understand how that all fits together,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s a strategy to say ‘keep our team together.’ It’s just we enter when we do and we try to understand what we have.”

Weltman did not shy away from answering the proverbial question, “is it better for a team to bottom out, increasing its draft-lottery chances, in the process, as opposed to fighting simply to remain competitive or mediocre?”

The implication being that then you’re going to try to say, “’OK, let’s not try to compete the rest of the way?’ I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I believe that you never stop competing. I know organizationally, we don’t want to put our players in a position where they’re not competing and we’re not building competitive qualities around them.

I think that when you say mediocrity is where you don’t want to be, and it is that hamster wheel, the NBA hamster wheel, you also have to ask, “I’s mediocrity the endgame?’ For sure, the one thing that you don’t want is to end up being mediocre after all is said and done. But sometimes you need to go from bad to mediocre to get to good. Part of that is to figure out what is the path of our team? What is the path of our players individually? Where are they on their curves?”

So, what about the Magic?

“It’s a very young team. You don’t go from bad to good overnight,” he said. “You go from bad to not-so-bad to OK to a little better than OK to good to very good to great. Hopefully, if it’s done in a succession of progressions. There’s different versions of mediocrity, and if that’s the case, then where do we fit into that?”

Toward what goal does he see the franchise taking a path toward?

“Our endgame clearly isn’t to be mediocre, it’s to be excellent,” he said. “That being said, we really haven’t been mediocre this year. We’ve been very good and very bad for an array of reasons. It’s more of a challenge. I harken back to this, because this is what this season is about: It’s about evaluating and it’s about establishing a baseline of who we are so we can determine the next course of action.”

While the word “tanking” is rarely, if ever, admitted by anyone associated with any team in any sport, Weltman doesn’t believe it can be classified as a dirty word.

I’d never say ‘dirty word.’ I just feel when you enter into any long-range plan, you have to have an exit strategy in how you come out of that,” he said. “Oftentimes I think when you adopt a strategy like that, you’re kind of entering into a very perilous state where you’re not exactly sure always how you’re going to come out, when you’re going to come out, ifyou’re going to come out.

“Look, there’s never a strategy that you can’t say, ‘This didn’t work somewhere.’ And you just have to calculate those odds and figure out how much medicine you want to take. But one truth is that whatever medicine a team needs to take has to be taken.”

Weltman gave coach Frank Vogel a major vote of confidence.

“I think Frank’s done a good job considering that he’s been dealt a difficult hand right now,” he said. ” It’s hard when we’re second in the league in the number of starting lineups that we’ve rolled out. That’s largely due to the health problems that we’ve faced this year. It makes it challenging for a coach to deal with consistencies and rotations and short-hand languages and terminologies when it’s different people on the floor a lot.

“Especially, a lot of our injuries have been to really key players. There was one night where we were playing without four of our five starters. That’s tough.”

Weltman said Vogel’s job is safe headed into next season.

“Yes. When I say that Frank’s done a good job, then as far as I’m concerned, I put that over on the side and say, ‘Frank’s done a good job. Let’s look where we can improve,’ Weltman said. And that doesn’t mean that Frank can’t get better. I’m sure Frank will tell you the same thing himself just as I myself every day, after I drive home, ask myself, “’What could I have done better today?’

We can all do better. But Frank’s done a good job. If you’re asking me, “’Is he safe?’ Yes, sure. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not all going to be challenged to do better. That’s every part of the organization.”

Which leads, of course, to the NBA trade deadline, set for Feb. 8.

“I think we approach it just like I said — we’re trying to evaluate everything, trying to understand where we are as a team, trying to set a course with that,” Weltman said. “Right now, the trade deadline is just coming on the radar for teams. Teams are starting to touch base now and circle back to one another. We’re all starting to figure out which teams are trying to do what — what directions they want to send themselves in — and how we all value one another’s players and where the discussion partners are.

“That’s the stage that we’re in right now. That’ll change as we go forward. Generally, if history is any indicator, it won’t be until closer to the deadline that we really have any real answers for each other.”