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



May 13

What went wrong for the Orlando Magic, Part II

Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via 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 II.

As the Magic continue to face their uncertain near-future, I’m thinking about something I imagine a lot of us are: John Milton. Specifically, I’m thinking about Paradise Lost, his account of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. It seems to me that Magic nation probably feels how Adam and Eve did shortly after God exposed the whole apple/fig leaf-clothing fiasco: “We had it all, and we blew it somehow, and now we need to figure out who to blame. Also, I hate snakes.” Yeah, verily, fellow Magic watchers, we have dined on the ambrosia of celestial basketball, have stared lovingly into the pond at our reflections as Eve did, contemplating how nice it was to be a perennial contender. And now we must make our way into the less hospitable basketball wilderness, to try and figure out how to reclaim that divinity.

There is a strain of criticism in Paradise Lost readers that says that Adam and Eve did us all a solid by getting kicked out of Eden–their screw-up, basically, gave us life as we know it. It’s a pleasant take on the notion of original sin, usually called the fortunate fall. By sinning their way out of Eden,  Adam and Eve became people, and exposed the rest of the race to all the goods and bads that come with the territory. For the Magic, our fortunate fall was Rashard Lewis.

You remember that sign-and-trade. The Magic were getting a 27-year-old inside/outside player, the Sonics’ career leader in three-pointers, a player who had scored more than 20 points per game for three straight seasons and was coming of a career high in that department. Of the trade, Stan Van Gundy said, “It really makes our roster very, very good.  And even more than that, what this says to me and what our organization has done with Rashard shows me and should show everyone out there how committed this organization is to winning and winning a championship.”

Oh ye cruel gods, how bitter those words ring in mine ears now! Forsooth, we have exposed the serpent and his temptations, and we know now not to dwell in the falsehoods of massive contracts, for the basketball gods shall find us in our ignorance and punish us. And that’s exactly what’s happened. For however tasty that bite of Rashard apple might have been, Otis and Co. were violating the cardinal rule of basketball paradise: never pay too much for too long to a veteran piece you hope puts you over the top.

It was said at the time. Mixed in with the elation over what a good fit Rashard would be next to Dwight–really, a very good fit–was the reality that paying a jump-shooting player with nine years in the league more than $110 million dollars over six seasons is simply not a good bet on the future. All that floor spacing, all those threes, that spectacular quickness for a guy so tall–none of that would matter if Rashard had tailed off by the age of 31 and the team found itself in cap purgatory while its aging veteran stud raked in Kobe money (warning: the Surgeon General has found that multiple pedantic and poorly mixed religious metaphors in one sportswriting piece can be bad for your health).  After the glorious run to the 2009 Finals, it didn’t seem like any of this was going to matter. The Magic had gone all in, and it worked. Their odd combination of perimeter spacing and defensive rigidity was a lock the rest of the league hadn’t picked, and the team seemed good to go for a few years at least.

Of course, my brothers and sisters, we know from the scriptures that the wages of sin is death, and that we could never really have escaped that mammoth contract. After the 2009 season, Rashard was never really himself. Though his numbers sometimes were alright, there was almost no area in which he did not regress after the Finals run (see for yourself). And of course, his contract wasn’t allowing the Magic to afford their own success: when the time came to make a decision about Hedo, there were a number of factors, but one of them was that the Magic couldn’t afford him after he’d stood out in the playoffs. So, instead, they let him walk, and swapped out some young players who were a perfect fit–Courtney Lee, in this case–for Carter to do a bad imitation of Hedo’s role. Chemistry was thrown off, young players were lost, the key to Orlando’s simultaneously huge and quick line-up was gone. Even if it seemed like things might stay good, we knew in our hearts what had happened.

From there, you know the rest. Rashard never got back on the horse. Vince didn’t work out, so we gave the league’s best backup center away to replace him. In every case, the Magic were making less than ideal moves because, in spite of the owner’s deep pockets, they had an albatross of a contract around their necks in every move. It’s clear to us now that Otis was never so much a brilliant talent evaluator or money manager so much as a lucky gambler, and the Lewis contract had painted him into an even smaller corner than his own limitations had. Finally, when it came down to it this year, all Otis could do was swap the league’s second-worst contract for its worst, in a desperate attempt to find a sparkplug creator. It should be said that Rashard Lewis is now only 31. Traded or no, he was on the books for two more years. The damage, really, would have been done either way. Whether Arenas or Lewis, what we would have now is an astronomically paid, redundant backup with reduced athleticism and a desire to chuck shots.

Knowing what we know now, it seems the Rashard signing was the Magic’s original sin. For the next several seasons, in trying to find championship salvation, the Magic will still be atoning for that signing, weighed down by the burden of a contract that locked the team in for the first half of Dwight Howard’s prime. And yet, it was that same contract that let the 2009 Magic get right there–to knock off LeBron’s ascension story and to get within a Courtney Lee alley-oop layup of a truly competitive Finals. Not a lot of teams get to say that. So I guess it’s on us. Do you want to take Rashard as the sin, or the fortunate fall? Because, really, isn’t this what following a sports team is, just as being a human means having to deal with hardship? Paradise never lasts, and the next time the Magic are in the Finals, the uncertainty and frustration of this summer will all be a part of our joy.