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Magic act: Trade now, draft later

It had been a long time coming. Even general manager Pat Williams, who is seemingly beyond blushing, must have been embarrassed by the delay. But at last the Orlando Magic had traded one of its "established" veteran players for a first-round draft choice. The explanation for this startling development was so simple you would think someone would have thought of it before. What it boiled down to was that the Magic, after hours of deliberation, decided another first-round pick in the 1991 draft was more beneficial than keeping one-dimensional rebounder Sidney Green.

Green is a tough, physical player who will help the San Antonio Spurs contend for the NBA title. The trade gives Green, 29, a chance to prove he can be an effective addition to a winning team.

The Magic is not a winning team, and when Green's new four-year contract runs out in 1993-94, it would probably still not be a winning team.

That is why the trade was made. Why settle for the present state of mediocrity when you can build for the future?

"We feel that we can afford to make the trade and still maintain the same kind of year we were going to have, plus have the luxury of another No. 1 pick," Williams said shortly after the trade Tuesday night.

It's also important to know this: Next year's draft will be the first since 1988 with at least two legitimate center prospects, maybe more.

Those players, in turn, will be joined by several potential underclass prospects who will expand the talent base in the first round.

The top seniors include Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo, New Mexico center Luc Longley, Missouri center Doug Smith, Nebraska center Rick King, Michigan State guard Steve Smith, and Nevada-Las Vegas forward Larry Johnson.

Some players who have indicated they might leave school early include Georgia Tech guard Kenny Anderson, Syracuse forward Billy Owens, and LSU center Shaquille O'Neal.

"Potentially, the centers (in the 1991 draft) are better than Felton Spencer," said NBA director of scouting Marty Blake. Spencer was the first center selected in this year's draft, No. 6 overall. "I think the lottery has the potential to be exceptional."

Orlando will select among the first 11 players with its own pick. But Tuesday's trade enables the Magic to perhaps come away with another player who, under normal circumstances, would have been taken earlier in the round.

"It's too early to project exact values to those positions in the first round. It's just that we know there is value," said John Gabriel, Orlando's director of scouting.

Gabriel is a talent buff. He knows that San Antonio had the 24th pick last year, and that means only three teams drafted later than the Spurs. Using simple arithmetic, Gabriel figures that five, possibly six teams could post better records than San Antonio this year. That means Orlando would select no higher than 21st or 22nd.

"But research indicates that a large percentage of players drafted between 24 and 30 become starters or backups," said Gabriel. "Younger teams in a position like ours have to explore the possibility of finding players."

Veteran players like Green, who aren't good enough to start for the better teams in the league, can only stabilize an expansion team, not make it better.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, who joined the league the same year as the Magic, traded forward Rick Mahorn to Philadelphia for a first-round pick in this year's draft. The Timberwolves selected Gerald Glass, who is projected as a starter. Mahorn is 32 and has had chronic back troubles.

In June, Orlando traded 32-year-old Reggie Theus to New Jersey for a pair of second-round draft picks. Green and Theus were the Magic's first two selections in the expansion draft.

"You risk the possibility of stagnation and the future growth of the team by not exposing yourself to young talent," said Gabriel.

"You don't take veteran guys to retire their numbers in the rafters. We don't have the ability to keep players like Sid, Jerry Reynolds and Sam Vincent until they are 36 and retire their numbers."

Not yet, anyway.