What went wrong for the Orlando Magic, Part I | Magic Basketball



May 11

What went wrong for the Orlando Magic, Part I

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The rise and fall of the Orlando Magic as an elite team and championship contender will be examined by Magic Basketball in a two-part series — here’s Part I.

“What went wrong” is far less important right now than “what is going to happen next” for the Orlando Magic, but you cannot really answer the second question without giving a good look at the first. LeBron James’ trajectory and departure from Cleveland provides a significant blueprint for what to expect from Dwight this summer, and it does not look pretty.

I remember the 2009 season vividly. That fall I was meandering around the web, looking at preseason acquisitions and making predictions when certain names would stand out.

I raised my eyebrows when I saw the Cavs picked up Mo Williams, and then made a call to a friend of mine back home in St. Louis. Even though it had been a few weeks since the last time we caught up, the beginning of the conversation went something like this:


“Uh, did you see that Cleveland got Mo Williams?”

“Oh, they did? Huh…”

“Dude, I think Lebron is going to get a ring this year.”

Obviously Mo Williams was not the reason the Cavs made a run at the Eastern Conference Finals, but here’s the point: When you have a superstar as your centerpiece, the rest becomes a chess game, and the winner of the game is the owner who can put the right pieces in place around your guy.

At that moment in the fall of 2008, I thought Dan Gilbert had done it, or at least had come close.

Since that move, Gilbert didn’t do a whole lot to improve LeBron’s situation. The Antawn Jamison pickup had moments of looking like a good move, but for the remainder of LeBron’s tenure as a Cav, Gilbert watched clumsily as LeBron kept being LeBron, kept empowering guys like Delonte West to max potential, and then fizzle out in the playoffs.

It is a sad story for Cleveland, but the demise of the Cavs and the departure of LeBron might have paved the way for guys like Dwight to have a much easier time come “decision time.”

While far from airtight, there are some real similarities between the trajectories of Dwight and LBJ that I started to point out a few weeks ago. For starters, both LBJ and Dwight were obviously the focal-point of their respective franchises. Similarly, they both saw positive and (mostly) negative roster building in their first five to seven years in the league. For LeBron, it was Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison. For Dwight, it was Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.

Before I go any further, I think it is important to point out what it means to be a role player surrounding a superstar. All of the aforementioned understood this role well in 2009. They were bought into the Dwight system, and operated through it, maximizing their impact along the way. Williams and Jamison did the same thing in Cleveland…kind of.

Roster building can go one of two ways, in my opinion. You can either get guys that will be dependable for several years, make all the right moves, and let that develop (Boston in 2008), or you can micromanage talent every year, play chess, and hope for shorter bursts of success. This is what I like to call the “Otis Smith System.”

What Smith did was a lot like what happened in Cleveland. He put a solid, not great, point guard in the drivers seat (Nelson/Williams), a strong secondary perimeter assault (Lewis/Jamison), and a couple of streaky shooters (Redick, Turkoglu, Pietrus/West, Pavlovic, Szczerbiak). The recipe worked, at times, but when you step back and give it a good look it becomes easy to see why LeBron jumped ship in Cleveland.

This is where everything gets a little difficult. Frankly, the Rashard Lewis acquisition was a good one, and Orlando enjoyed that quick burst of success with the personnel they had in 2008 and 2009. Luckily, for the purpose of this evaluation, what happened in the following years in Orlando confirms any suspicion of Otis Smith’s genius.

The Vince Carter/Gilbert Arenas saga has been one of the worst in my memory as a basketball fan. I keep my reasons simple, because they are not hard to understand. Carter is notorious for his brand of basketball — a  lethargic, underachieving style that is never worth the price of admission. His stay in Orlando was thankfully short(ish), and the full effect of what could have been “the unbearable Vince Carter era” was never fully achieved. Gilbert Arenas is a different story altogether. I wrote about how disenchanted Arenas seemed a few months ago, but no one could have guessed that he would have been a total lemon, right? Wrong, and the same sentiment that Otis Smith apparently had when he traded for Arenas with an unthinkable contract has been shared by fans through the second half of this season. He’ll get better. He’ll arrive. He stinks, but we know he’s capable. Let’s chalk it up to an injury. Oh no, another dud of a game. Look, Arenas is tempting because he was once a star, and when playing at full capacity he is dangerous. We’ve seen it. But to sink eight digits per year on a guy who is giving you five-digit output is outright absurd. I will not belabor the point, but the Gilbert Arenas acquisition put a monumental dent in Orlando’s car, and Otis Smith just doesn’t have the coverage.

Cleveland never saw such terrible acquisitions while LeBron was in house, which is probably the most scary thing for a Magic fan to grasp this summer.

For LeBron, it was that his team was just not good enough. For Dwight, it is far worse. He’s had to put up with real stinkers in the last few years, culminating in an early playoff exit in a year where the Magic could have rolled to the Eastern Conference Finals. The pathetic end to this season marks what should be an outburst of frustration from Dwight, who has been an ironclad enforcer since day one in the league.

Much like LeBron, Dwight wants to win championships. LBJ saw the end of the road in Cleveland when the Antawn Jamison acquisition amounted to nothing. If Dwight does not see the similarities in his situation, he might be blind.

The good news for Dwight is that thanks to LeBron, he won’t be the first bad guy on the block. LeBron paved the way for players abandoning their roots to search for something more lucrative, and it seems to me that so long as Dwight does not go on national TV for his decision, most of the world will agree and even sympathize with his decision to leave.

For Otis Smith, well, he will have some work to do whether or not Dwight stays. The biggest thing, at least in my mind, is going to be proving to Orlando fans that he is not a sucker moving forward. Obviously roster building cannot happen when half of your funds are going to washed up “role players” who seem to have lost their first step.

The bigger challenge will be convincing Dwight to stay. It would be miraculous if he were able to do so, and even more miraculous if he can figure out a way to dump Arenas’ contract on someone else. Otis Smith has not made a ton of good moves in the past few years, but if he has two great moves left in him, he could, in one mighty blow; salvage his reputation in Orlando and become a hero.

Magic fan
Magic fan

Gotta love this one too:
Arenas talking in 2008 as he signed his $111M 6 yr contract about not taking max money
"I'm basically giving back $16 million," Arenas told the Washington Times. "This is in line with what I've been saying the whole time. You see players take max deals and they financially bind their teams. I don't wanna be one of those players and three years down the road your team is strapped and can't do anything about it."

Let's see him really step up and do something since he doesn't want to be one of those players financially binding their teams. How about announcing today that he will retire at the end of next season if he's not earned his money and performed as one of the top 10 players in the entire league (which would be commensurate with his salary). This would free up money for the Magic to rebuild around and resign D12.

Mike (MoveThoseChains)
Mike (MoveThoseChains)

The ideas are unrealistic and/or bad because Bizz David is notorious OPP troll David Polega.

Magic fan
Magic fan

I think our only hope getting rid of Arenas and his ridiculous salary is with the new CBA. Currently no team is going to be interested in him based on his performance and money owed. One of the worst, if not the worst, contracts remaining. The last CBA had an amnesty clause. This clause allowed teams to waive a player but they still had to pay him. However, this amnesty did not affect salary cap - it only allowed teams to avoid paying the luxury tax. If the league is really trying to roll back salaries and put a hard cap into place (as all the news reports say), having an amnesty clause that allows teams to waive a player and also have that money not be counted against the new cap would make sense. The Devos family has deep pockets and have shown an interest in spending money to try to win. Throwing away money by shedding the Magic of Arenas is our only hope of having cap money to try to keep Dwight and build around him- IMO. Arenas still does not get that he's a role player on this team. He doesn't understand team offense and doesn't appear to want to learn.

Bizz David
Bizz David

Aaron Brooks is better than Jameer on Defense. Stats be damned, I watch player after player run right past Jameer Nelson like he wasn't even there. Yes they had to deal with Howard at the rim which is going to choke out their numbers, but I'd be willing to bet the argument that Jameer without Dwight on the court is an awful defender by the stats. Aaron Brooks is longer, faster and lighter. He will at least give Dwight time to rotate before his man blows by him, with Jameer most of the time it seems he's standing in place.

And don't act like after the series we watched Jameer brings valuable scoring at the starting point spot. He's inconsistency is a big part of the reason we;re in this situation. So yes, Give me Aaron Brooks And Gerald Wallace who can at least play defense when their offense isn't working- or who actually push the ball cuz you know Jameer nearly Never does it. Aaron brooks, Gerald Wallace, Pietrus running the break is insane transition offense- being chased down by Ryan on 3-line or Howard trailing down the middle. All while being hands down an overall extremely better defensive unit than we could possibly field right now.

Jameer could do his 20 point a quarter nonsense in the role of a J.J. Barea or Jason Terry, but brooks needs to be out there if we have any hope of wearing out the new wave of extremely quick never exhausting point guards like Rose or Westbrook who are simply too fast for Jameer. Dwight stays at the rim, but the defense overall improves by the infusion of athletic wings like pietrus, wallace and even at the point with brooks.


If Otis Smith trades Dwight Howard, he will have systematically destroyed the magic's roster in three years time, it goes Courtney Lee (young, fast, guts in playoffs gone), Peitrus (best perimeter defender for Magic gone.), letting go of Barnes (thuggish, good perimeter defender gone), letting go of Hedo after finals (disrupted chemistry), Marcin Gortat (best back up center in the league gone), and the acquisition of old softies and ridiculous contracts: V Carter, JRich, G Arenas. Look at Memphis, then look at Orlando, then look at Memphis again. You have to be a complete idiot not to see that perimeter defense and post scoring is essential to winning games/championships. Boston displayed this as well. If Orlando, and more accurately Otis Smith really wants to win, better get out there and snag Andres Iguodala while Phili is going through youth movement, get a taller more defensive minded pg, Jameer will be a spark off the bench, and just move whoever you have to to do so, because a bunch of soft guys in doinking threes in crunch time is not going to keep any smart, great basketball player in your organization.

Carlo Simone
Carlo Simone

Interesting article, Nate. I never really connected all of those dots to the Cleveland story. The key difference is that Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard and LeBron James is LeBron James. These are different people in similar situations.

I think one of the big things none of us really knows is the relationship Dwight has with management and ownership. That's a big difference. I think we saw that obviously LeBron's relationship with Gilbert wasn't great. I'm not sure what Dwight's relationship with the Magic front office is like.

As for the moves made by the Magic in the past few years, I think they were paper decisions mostly. When the Carter trade happened, it made our team better on paper. Picking up Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu makes our team better on paper. But as we've seen, these players don't seem to be integrating into their roles well with the Magic. Turk is especially mind boggling because he should be right back at home but I can't get over just how terrible he was in the playoffs this year. And when the trade happened I would've told you J-Rich was the best player in the whole trade but he hasn't fit into his role at all. Don't even get me started on Arenas who I thought was a bust the first time I heard a rumor of that trade and I've seen no evidence to prove otherwise.

As for Dwight, I guess we can just hope he's like an Eastern Conference version of Dirk Nowitzki. They are a team that's had horrible luck in the playoffs despite being an overall successful franchise and Dirk has remained with the team because he knows it's a good situation for him. Orlando is a good situation for Dwight as the building block of the franchise. But I understand if he feels things aren't getting better soon. Cause they don't look like they will.

Bees knees
Bees knees

Why Dont they let Stan Van Gundy make player trading decisions. It makes no sense to have a GM Otis Smith go out and get these rejects, and say here you go Stan.

Bizz David
Bizz David

I wanted Howard to get a better defensive squad and PG in front of him. This team has done the exact opposite. They have continually gotten worse defenders, and have stood pat with the 15th best pg in the league as the second option.

Wanting Howard to stay has started to wear out. I'm a magic fan, but it's hard to watch Howard play so hard, put out historic nights- and then bear the brunt of the blame when the teams flames out. Basically, I feel sorry for the shoes he's in. Not in life, not in money, but trying to recall and NBA player in a more frustrating situation takes very serious thinking. And this isn't some butthead nba player, its Dwight Howard. He's a kind hearted big kid, dominating without a mean streak.

And so, there is a part of me that wants to see him play on a correctly built team. And Orlando cannot give him that for a few yeas. So even beyond being a fan for the magic, I'm a fan of Howard. And maybe only due to my admittedly strange concern for him, any decision he makes will not draw my ire. Who in Dwight's shoes would stay? Maybe he does, but if he doesn't he had every reason not to.

Additionally I think the only way the Magic get better moving forward in any sort of timely fashion is to package their bad contracts with Howard and get good building pieces in return. Is Bynum/Gasol for Howard/Arenas a good trade? I think so. Bynum Gasol is probably not worth Howard, but they are worth Howard and getting rid of Arenas. And the Magic would once again have a base to chase a ring with.

Why wasn't this team built defense first? You have Dwight Howard in the middle, the offense has its high usage and high percentage guy. When Dwight scored 46 on 70% shooting, people were saying "PLEEZ MORE TEAMMATES SCORE NOT DWIGHT K THANKS." But I never understood it. How can scoring 46 points on 70% ever be the wrong plan? Who cares what player does it, or how they did it. If your team gets 46 on 70%, you do it- Over and over again. They tried to not feed Howard and what did they get in return? The worst shooting playoff team in my memory. Never go away from a scorer that when scoring in volume is still shooting over 60%. I really, really don't understand how anyone ever clamored for the ball out of Howards hands.

I've felt, for a while that this team w/o Howard is worse than cleveland without James. I emailed Evan at the start of the playoffs that Dwight would score 50 twice these playoffs. I assumed this because I assumed the Magic would go deep, and the only way to do it was riding Howard. He had been the only consistent player for them, and the only one scoring at a higher percentage. So why wouldn't they feed him the ball every time down? Additionally teams we're going to try the single coverage technique on Dwight. The Hawks did it in game 1, and failed. People took that as a defeat to Orlando's offense but it was not. It was a defeat to Orlando's defense.

Which is why this team should have been built defense first. Our trade this season should have gotten us Aaron Brooks(who was picked up for Dragic) and Gerald Wallace(who was picked up for Pryzbilla.) We had more valuable trade pieces, even at those positions than what these teams gave for them. Gortat for Wallace, Whatever they wanted for Aaron brooks in terms of our guards.

The squad then woulda been

Teams would struggle nightly to get 70, and aaron brooks/Howard screen and roll would work better than everyone else we've tried to make it work with. Additionally you have Wallace whose an offensive monster in his own right, and Dwight Iso's on the block. And wow that team could run, and I mean RUN with anyone. You'd have a team that could tear apart the transitions, and have a superb defender at every position but the 4(where you have above average defenders.) And depending on what we let go of, Jameer/Carter/Lewis/Qrich off the bench. And no Hedo contract or Arenas Contract.

That team Howard would not have a reason to leave. As constructed, by my count there is about 8 reason he should leave.


Hear me out on this...

We SHOULD NOT trade Dwight this offseason. No way, no how. Bynum has attitude and injury problems, while Odom and Gasol are leraving their prime years quickly. Dwight really shouldn't be that enamored with the Lakers anyway. Bryant has 2-4 years left to be a superstar. Dwight has 7-9. New York would make more sense, but they don't have valuable-enough pieces to entertain us. So, what do we do? Hold onto Dwight, and see what happens next year. If things go well through december try to pull a Chris Paul trade. Think we don't have the pieces to do it? Well, Turk and Arenas do have terrible contracts, but there is one nice thing about their deals: They expire at the same time! So the team with those contracts will have some nice cap space in the summer of 2013. NO could be enticed with an offer of those two and, say, Ryan Anderson and a draft pick or two for Chris Paul and Okafor (whom they are trying to unload themselves). If they don’t bite on that, we can trade Dwight in January or February of next year for picks and a few young players, while keeping Turk and Arenas. A few tough years will ensue, but come summer 2013 we should have good cap space and some solid young players. It will be a similar situation to the summer when we grabbed T-Mac, Grant Hill, and almost signed Tim Duncan. God willing that any potential free agent doesn’t require ankle surgery, but that scenario would be much better than having a combination of non-Kobe Lakers for the next few years.
o unload themselves).
If they don’t bite on that, we can trade Dwight in January or February of next year for picks and a few young players, while keeping Turk and Arenas. A few tough years will ensue, but come summer 2013 we should have good cap space and some solid young players. It will be a similar situation to the summer when we grabbed T-Mac, Grant Hill, and almost signed Tim Duncan. God willing that any potential free agent doesn’t require ankle surgery, but that scenario would be much better than having a combination of non-Kobe Lakers for the next few years.
If they don’t bite on that, we can trade Dwight in January or February of next year for picks and a few young players, while keeping Turk and Arenas. A few tough years will ensue, but come summer 2013 we should have good cap space and some solid young players. It will be a similar situation to the summer when we grabbed T-Mac, Grant Hill, and almost signed Tim Duncan. God willing that any potential free agent doesn’t require ankle surgery, but that scenario would be much better than having a combination of non-Kobe Lakers for the next few years.

Bizz David
Bizz David

At any rate wouldn't you consider Brooks a better back up than Arenas if he backed up Jameer? And wouldn't that line up still be far better?

Harold Scruggs
Harold Scruggs

Wow. I never even thought of this. You made a great point. I don't want Howard to leave but it is probably better if he does.