Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
It’s about that time, y’all.
The Magic have been in the middle of a media storm for a month now, and will have the focus all to themselves now that the Chris Paul saga has finally reached its end. What there is to say about this team — that is, what we know before the games start — we’ve mostly said. And that’s how it should be.
We saw two fairly different teams in the preseason, one of which seemed prepared to fold under the uncertainty and tiresomeness of the season, and one of which seemed prepared to fight to remind people of their ability. So I thought, on this, the eve of the eve of the Christmas my family finally jettisons me for watching basketball all day, I would offer up my biggest hope for the season.
I have not always been an NBA fan. Where I’m from in North Carolina, the ACC comes first and then next season’s recruits come second. The Hornets broke our hearts by leaving, and the Bobcats have always had trouble gaining traction. Two teams brought me around to the league — the 2004 Pistons and the 2009 Magic.
The Pistons I fell for as they laid waste to the favored Lakers, staying up late my freshman year in high school and marveling at their sheer personality flaunting their now-fabled lack of star power and rehabilitated Rasheed, who will always be one of my very favorite players.
The Magic were a slightly different phenomenon. I’d been an NBA fan for a few years, and watched games pretty regularly. On the night I fell for the Magic, I was watching a game after the Christmas break with my friend Seth. Seth and I, when it comes to basketball, don’t agree about anything. He favors a pick-up aesthetic, and his favorite players are guys like Monta Ellis, while I had by this time dabbled enough in advanced metrics to favor efficiency and balance. I can’t even remember what exactly happened in the game, but we’d been quietly watching a Magic game — against the Hawks, I think — when Seth and I looked at each other and said something like “Nobody plays that pretty.”
This would’ve been mid-January 2009, right as the Magic were gelling into a distinctive juggernaut and providing how-to clinics with every gorgeous play: Jameer pinballing down the lane, and finding Rashard in the corner, Dwight finding a wide open Pietrus, the smothering defensive rotations like hyena strategy with the cleverness they sent penetrators at the Dwight buzzsaw.
This was something I could get behind, this was something discernibly different. There was precisely one great player on the team, and his warts were all-too-visible, and yet at that time in that season they were beginning to really take the league by storm. That team’s differentness, and their fluid success with a roster that flaunted convention, were one of the biggest reasons I knew I could love the NBA. It was just too pretty as compared to the college ball I was used to watching for me not to watch.
Immediately after that season, though, convention triumphed over the Magic’s identity, and the team went searching for the kind of guy who can “get his own shot,” a category of player who is still one of the most hideously overrated tropes of in-studio analysis. Otis Smith embarked upon his well-documented odyssey of destroying the unique style and considerable potential of the 2009 team to field a squad that looked more like everybody else. Now, because the Magic still have the league’s best two-way player and one of its very best coaches, they’re still interesting to watch, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that joy of excitement has been missing a little bit ever since the Vince Carter acquisition.
So, after seeing the mixed results of the preseason team, all I can hope is that we’re spared another season of sameness. What, you want to see whether such-and-such athletic power forward can take advantage of Hedo’s lack of quickness? He can. You curious about whether Jason Richardson is going to struggle to stay in front of super-quick perimeter players? He will.
Eddy has been saying for a while, and I agree, that we know more or less what this roster is, that the reason to watch is to see how Van Gundy uses his chess pieces to somehow keep this roster a contender. But I’ve gotten a little tired of that game, and I want some fireworks. I’d gladly see Dwight shipped out if it meant getting back a passel of picks. I’d gladly see him stay if it meant the team would tear down the roster to start fresh for his true prime. What I won’t watch is any more decency, any more fixed commodities being maximized to make a team that is totally okay.
The Magic are always going to be the team that helped me realize the capacity for innovation professional basketball stood for. They were a brief triumph of individuality over conventional wisdom, and that’s what I want back.
At season’s end, I would be delighted to root for a team with a high lottery pick, or I would root for a completely different roster than the one we’ll see Sunday, because I know that the unknown would be more quintessentially Magic than what we’ve got.