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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.