Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
How did we get here?
It’s a question every Magic fan has to ask as Orlando limps into the playoffs and is slated to win one, maybe two games in the opening round before yet again bowing out to a superior team.
Dissecting an entire season, especially a season filled with such mind-boggling drama, is a daunting task. But one advantage in the case of the Orlando Magic is the clearly defined events that have shaped a season that started with hope and ended in despair, frustration, and turmoil. At the center of these events is Dwight Howard, who played the hero, the grumpy child, the spoiled brat, and the villain all in one short season.
Like every story, barring a few by Christopher Nolan, this one starts at the beginning.
When the lockout ended, Magic fans braced themselves for what was going to potentially be a painful season or at least a confusing one. With the lack of scoring power behind Dwight Howard and the unavoidable truth that Dwight could be playing his last game in a Magic uniform sometime this season, it was anyone’s guess how things would play out.
The opening stretch was pleasantly surprising, if not a little perplexing. After a season-opening barnburner loss against Oklahoma City, Orlando went on to boast a 12-5 record through January 24. The problem, of course, was that there weren’t many quality wins in that stretch. So everyone with a finger on the pulse was wary and predicted the worst was still to come. At the same time, though, the hot start was somewhat unexpected and certainly cause for a welcomed, albeit brief, sigh of relief.
It was not hard to predict what happened next. Through the end of February, Orlando regressed to the mean, going 11-8 after their hot start, bringing their record to a more realistic 23-13. This was not to say that all was lost for the Magic. Quite the opposite actually. But analysts started looking for people to blame and talking about teams Orlando probably couldn’t beat in the playoffs. You’d be a fool to have pointed the finger at Dwight at this point. With the trade deadline still ways away, Dwight was getting his numbers and posting big double-doubles whether Orlando was winning or losing.
At this point, Orlando — for the most part — was still in love with Dwight and praying that he would stay.
At first, the finger was pointed at Jameer Nelson, who struggled in the first half of the season. It was truly a sad departure from the 2009 version of Jameer and the lengthy slump was pressumably going to end at some point. Still the fact remained, despite any wins the Magic were getting, Jameer couldn’t dribble, pass, shoot, or even stay on his feet.
Then it was Glen Davis, the downgrade replacement for Brandon Bass who was tearing it up in Boston. Davis was an easy target for disgruntled Magic fans who pleaded with the front office to field a legitimate contending roster.
The bench was abysmal and despite the winning record, criticism fell heavy on the likes of Chris Duhon and Jason Richardson for being non-factors and, in most cases, negative factors for the team. The only high note was Ryan Anderson and his beast-like, Kevin Love-esque attack of the offensive glass coupled with some serious hot shooting.
By the end of February, the only problem Orlando had was that everyone and their mother knew that the hot shooting from Anderson and J.J. Redick would regress. When it did, there would be no one to pick up the slack.
Let’s stop here, though, and back track for a minute.
I spent a week in Orlando in early January. The Magic were 4-2 when I arrived to cover two games in person. The first was an easy win over Washington and the second was a highly anticipated loss to the Bulls, who were supposed to be the East Coast juggernaut that might dethrone Miami. Needless to say, I was eager to see how Orlando would respond.
What I witnessed in the locker room, the practice facility, and the games was nothing short of a tragic story. At this point, Dwight was not answering any questions from the media about where he might go and neither were any of his teammates. The team was winning, sure, but there was something amiss in the locker room — a timid and quiet fear of the future.
For starters, Glen Davis was struggling, being criticized by Stan Van Gundy in postgame interviews, and ultimately failing to provide an impact like he did in Boston just a year before. Davis, an NBA champion, was disgruntled, annoyed, and put off by the lack of unity and leadership in the locker room. The problem was that as easy as it was to point the finger at the rest of the team, that finger came back three-fold to Davis because of his extraordinarily sub-par play.
I was shocked by this for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the Magic were winning. Why the long faces in the locker room? More than that, though, I was taken aback by just how quiet things were in Magic camp. It was scary times in Orlando and if you think the fans felt a precarious vibe about the future of the franchise, you should have seen and felt the tension in the locker room.
Note: I have not been in a huge amount of NBA locker rooms, but I have been in a few, and there is a darn near quantifiable x-factor that exists in other locker rooms that does not (or at least did not at that time) in the Magic locker room.
After Orlando beat Washington, they struggled immensely against Chicago, a team they felt they could beat and Ryan Anderson was reamed in the postgame interview for not hustling. He exchanged words with Dwight after the game and felt personally responsible for the loss. Nobody wanted to comment on it. It was one of those nights where it seemed like everyone wanted to get under the covers and play “if I can’t see you, then you can’t see me” with the media.
In short, despite having that early 5-3 record (which could have easily been a 7-1 record), Magic players and fans had this feeling like at any moment this whole thing could blow up. They were so far away from unity, love, respect, enjoyment, and most of all, contention.
Fast-forward to the trade deadline, where Dwight decided that it was in his best interest to stay in Orlando.
Remember in Season 1 of The Sopranos when Tony got shot in the ear by the gangsters trying to kill him? Just before that, he said he needed a shot of life, a wake up, something to shock the system. The bullet that nearly took his life snapped him out of his funk and he was back to being Tony Soprano.
This wasn’t exactly the effect that Dwight’s decision had on Orlando. It was quite the opposite. I’m no psychologist, but for Dwight to take that long to decide to stay in Orlando, then make the move of opting out of his option to leave, it came off as more of a patronizing gesture than anything else. Maybe I would not have this feeling if it weren’t for the Stan Van Gundy missile that Dwight dropped weeks later, but if he was trying to shock the locker room into getting behind him, waiting until the last minute and limping into a decision to almost begrudgingly stay in Orlando was not the way to do it.
How does it make you feel as a teammate to have your star sigh, roll his eyes, and say, “I guess I’ll stay here. I couldn’t really find anything better out there?”
And then, out of nowhere, and in a time when folks thought things couldn’t get any worse, Dwight tells ownership that he wants Stan Van Gundy to be fired. In the moment when fans, and perhaps teammates, were thinking, “Okay. We can make this work. We’ve got this guy for another year. Here we go,” all dreams were crushed with the most violent of strokes that a star player could take against an organization that raised him.
Now, plagued with injuries, the Magic have arrived (yet again) in the middle of the pack in the playoffs — a marginal team that has little hope to survive in the early rounds. This time, unlike last season, it’s without the aid of their superstar and perhaps to the benefit of the rest of the team. Now is not the time for giving up, for playing to lose, or for rolling the eyes and folding.
The Orlando Magic could potentially prove a lot to Dwight Howard in this postseason. For one, they could prove that they have some things without him that they lack with him: unity, camaraderie, desire, focus, and teamwork. Secondly, they have the opportunity to show Dwight what a great coach Stan Van Gundy is.
If SVG can salvage a few wins and make this Magic team look decent in the playoffs, then the argument is settled that he is not the reason the Magic haven’t had success. If these players are smart, they will do everything in their power to win for Stan — to show Dwight that he was childish and wrong in requesting the removal of a genius. Maybe from his comfortable seat and through his hipster glasses he will be able to see just how great Stan is.
That is where we leave the Magic — with the grand commission to win, to look good, and to fight for their own reputation without Dwight and the reputation of their legendary coach. Who knows what will happen next year after some roster shuffling and Dwight’s back surgery. For now, the Magic have a mission to accomplish.
Who could have guessed they would be up to such a strange and difficult task back in January when they were 12-5?