Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
From 2007 to 2012, the Orlando Magic were a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Over those five seasons, they won 65.7 percent of their regular season games, represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals once, raised three Southeast Division banners, and posted a playoff record of 31-28 (.525 winning percentage) — all of which was the culmination of Stan Van Gundy’s revolutionizing 3-heavy attack.
Before Van Gundy’s arrival, the Magic were stuck in mediocrity, but the pieces were in place to build something special and that is exactly what he did. Their offense and defense was centered around Dwight Howard, and the front office played to his strengths and weaknesses by surrounding him with players who could space the floor. Van Gundy then utilized those pieces in the best way possible, making Rashard Lewis a stretch four — one of the first the NBA had ever seen — and giving Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu free reigns as playmakers, which helped them develop into the most potent pick-and-roll team in the Association.
Sadly, all good things eventually come to an end and the honeymoon period came to a close quickly for the Magic. First, a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals the season following their triumphant run to the Finals, and then back-to-back first round exits in the seasons after. As a result, the franchise parted ways with Stan Van Gundy and his 3-point happy system in the summer of 2012 when their disgruntled star wanted a change, and soon after the dominos started to fall.
Rashard Lewis had already parted ways with the team at that point — they replaced him with another stretch four in Ryan Anderson — but in the months leading up to Van Gundy’s dismissal, rumors swirled around about teammates butting heads in the locker room. It didn’t take long for the rest of the roster to shake out.
Whether or not the core remained together from that point onwards was irrelevant: the departure of their head coach marked the start of something new, something irreplaceable, and sure enough, a few months following that event, Dwight Howard was dealt. While it took some time for the Magic to end the nightmare, they did it on their own terms, and with it came a new direction for the team: Dwight was traded to the L.A. Lakers in a four-team deal for young, inexperienced pieces — Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, three first round picks, and a second round pick (which later became Romero Osby).
The only players that were a part of the team’s title run following that blockbuster trade was Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, and J.J. Redick. Yet Redick was traded to the Bucks at the trade deadline during the 2012-13 season and Turkoglu was waived the following season, leaving Nelson all by his lonesome on a team that resembled nothing of that from its heyday.
Nelson stuck around, starting in 68 games in 2013-14 and playing mentor for the team’s younger players — particularly Victor Oladipo. But on June 30, the Magic announced that they had waived him, marking the penultimate chapter to the most dominant stretch in the franchise’s history.
Nobody from that team that lost in five games to the L.A. Lakers in the 2009 Finals remains anymore. The longest tenured member of the Magic, currently, is the 24-year old Andrew Nicholson, the keys to the offense lay safely in the palms of Oladipo’s hands, two lottery picks have transitioned into a pair of rookies (Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton) who have a lot of developing to do but are expected to someday soon be the face of the franchise, and there are a handful of players who have a lot to prove before they look to make a splash in free agency (Vucevic and Tobias Harris).
The only veterans on the team are Channing Frye, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green, and Ben Gordon, and unlike the past, they aren’t the captains of the ship. They’re there to fill out the roster, bring leadership to the locker room, and steer the young players in the right direction. Outside of Frye’s four-year deal, none of those veterans are expected to stick around for a long time. But more importantly, none of them have ever worn the Magic’s pinstripes.
The Magic have been gearing up for this moment since Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy left for greener pastures, but parting ways with Nelson marks the true end to that — the door on that era of basketball has officially been closed.
Even through all its ups and downs, it was a memorable one, one that Magic fans won’t soon forget. And while Nelson’s best years are far behind him, he was a key piece in the Magic’s success throughout those years.
After 10 seasons with the team, he has left some big shoes for the younger players to fill. Nelson leaves as the Magic’s all-time leader in assists and ranks second in games played and field goals attempted, third in minutes played and 3-pointers made, fourth in total points scored, and fifth in steals. His departure opens up a gateway for other players, one that comes with more opportunities and more playing time, and it marks the start of something new for the Magic.
The future is truly now for the Magic, and with Jameer Nelson no longer on the team, there is no turning back.