Windows of opportunity are small in the NBA, and the Orlando Magic’s just closed.
In three years we have seen the Magic go from the NBA Finals, to the Eastern Conference Finals, to getting bounced in the first round. With Boston continually proving that age is just a number, and Miami and Chicago seemingly locking up the first and second seeds for the next decade, gone are the days of cruising into the conference semifinals. Orlando will now have to struggle against fifth-seeded opponents for a long time.
There are plenty of reasons for this, and we can start with the most glaring problem: the payroll. The roster we just watched play nauseating basketball isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it might actually get worse. The only money the Magic can shed comes from Jason Richardson’s deal that just expired. However, not re-signing him surely doesn’t make the team better off (albeit he is nearing the end of the road). GM Otis Smith has been a busy man the past few years, making a number of trades, trades that cemented the roster. Gilbert Arenas is still on the on the books for three more years and $60 million, Hedo Turkoglu – three years and $30+ million, and Jameer Nelson another two years and $15 million. As you can see, all this talk about bringing in Deron Williams or Chris Paul is a delirious fantasy.
The Magic have a roster full of quality NBA players, but the problem is that these players are little more than 6th men. JJ Redick, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson aren’t worthy of starter minutes, and as I keep saying, Nelson isn’t the same player he once was. Seldom are the flashes of a point guard capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs. This leads me to believe there’s a possibility that Arenas, with a good offseason, (as crazy as it sounds) could eventually supplant Nelson as the team’s starter. In a league emerging towards combining superstars, the Magic’s current formula may soon be a thing of the past.
So, who’s to blame for the recent collapse? Is it Turkoglu, who had one of the worst playoff performances of the last decade (20-68 FG and 7-30 3PT)? Or is it coaching and front office, i.e. Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith? Referring to the moves he made near the start of the season, Smith said he wouldn’t change anything if he had the chance to do it all over again, and I can see that. Rashard Lewis battled a knee injury and played sparingly and ineffectively for the Wizards this season. Vince Carter and Richardson are a wash. The end result of this season would have likely been the same regardless of the moves made. With that said, and to answer the question posed at the start of the paragraph, I think you have to look at Van Gundy. He obviously can’t control Hedo’s jump shot or make Nelson attack like he should, but the team clearly isn’t responding to him anymore. Uncharacteristic of a Van Gundy-led team, the Magic struggled offensively against the Hawks, averaging only 88 points per game in the series and having none of the regulars shoot over 40% other than Dwight. A change of scenery is needed in Orlando, and although Stan had a nice run, I’m afraid his time is up.
For now, all Magic fans can do is hope that their worst fear doesn’t come to fruition – A Decision IIfeature on ESPN, highlighted by Superman spurning the city of Orlando and taking his talents elsewhere. This feeling seems all too familiar. Former #1 overall draft pick, undisputed top center in the game, 1996.