Dwight Howard is long gone from Orlando, but the hangover from the team’s run to the Finals in 2009 remains. GM Rob Hennigan took an aggressive step toward complete overhaul of the roster a few months after he took the job last summer with the Howard trade, but he’s otherwise embarked on a slow rebuild. One of his most curious moves was re-signing Jameer Nelson in the summer of 2012 to a three-year, $25.2MM contract.
The deal came before the Howard trade, so it’s possible that Hennigan brought Nelson back with aspirations of remaining a title contender. It seems more plausible that the Magic simply wanted him around to mentor their young players, since they’re fond of the point guard’s off-court leadership. Regardless, the Magic are stuck with another veteran they’d like to swap for a younger player and Nelson, who turned down a lucrative player option to sign his three-year deal in the hopes he wouldn’t become a trade candidate, finds himself in that very position.
Nelson wants to remain with the Magic for the rest of his career, but he also wants to have a significant role. He has reportedly been upset with his lack of fourth-quarter playing time this season, though his amount of minutes per game is consistent with the level he’s seen ever since taking over as the Magic’s starting point guard back in 2005/06. Orlando has no in-house candidates to replace him in that role, barring its experiment with Victor Oladipo as a point guard, so it’s not as if his presence in the lineup impedes the development of a younger player.
The Magic instead hope to acquire a prospect in return for Nelson, as they’re reportedly seeking a first-round pick in trade talks involving him. That won’t be an easy ransom to extract, considering how highly NBA executives have come to value first-rounders, especially for the prized class of 2014. Nelson’s contract wouldn’t do much to clog another team’s cap beyond this season, since his $8MM salary for next year is only guaranteed for $2MM, but expiring deals aren’t the trade chips they used to be. The shorter contracts brought about by the latest collective bargaining agreement allow more teams to clear cap room every summer without having to give up assets to acquire deals like Nelson’s.
His performance this season could depress his value even further. His PER is at a career-low 12.0, thanks in large measure to his 37.3% shooting, also the worst mark of his career. His three-point shot is off, and he’s also making less than 50% of his shots at the rim for the first time, per NBA.com. It’s just a month into the season, so there’s a chance those numbers could improve over time. Still, it’s been seven years since his assists-to-turnover ratio, currently at 6.1-to-2.9, has been as low as it is, so his struggles aren’t confined to his shot.
The Magic give up nearly seven more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench, according to NBA.com. That’s an astoudingly high number, but it’s not nearly as impressive as the nine point jump in points per 100 possessions Orlando experiences when Nelson is playing. The net effect is that the team has been better off when Nelson is in the lineup, but it should be, considering that E’Twaun Moore, Ronnie Price and Oladipo, a rookie playing out of position, are his backups.
Nelson is nursing a sprained foot, but that minor injury shouldn’t have any significant impact on his trade value. The Magic don’t appear to be in a hurry to get a deal done, and they shouldn’t be, considering his poor start. Hennigan has higher priorities for now as he oversees a roster with other misplaced veterans like Nelson. Arron Afflalo and Glen Davis are trade candidates as well, and the Magic have a little more than a month left to find a taker for Hedo Turkoglu before they’d have to eat the $6MM guarantee on his contract.
Perhaps an another Eastern Conference team sensing an opportunity to steal a high playoff seed among a weak field of contenders will grab Nelson at the trade deadline. Maybe an injury to a point guard on a team with legitimate title hopes prompts a call to Hennigan. Other teams will likely drive the market for Nelson, so the Magic would be wise to see what the market bears and choose the best offer come February.
I don’t think any team will be desperate enough to give up a first-rounder, unless it’s one that’s destined to fall at the very end of the round, but perhaps Hennigan will find an intriguing young player who hasn’t had the chance for much playing time, as he did with Tobias Harris last year. Nelson’s partially guaranteed contract for next year means the Magic probably won’t have to keep him around much longer if they don’t want to, even if they can’t find a trade partner. His leadership ability means he holds value to the Magic’s rebuilding project, so there’s really no need to trade Nelson short of an offer that’s clearly in Orlando’s favor.