Jameer Nelson, from now until April (Getty Images)For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with a sad affair called "the Orlando Magic."
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The Orlando Magic's expected dive to the bottom of the standings won't serve as some sort of reminder of how great and effective Dwight Howard is, because even as we lobbed endless (and deserved) verbal grenades at the immature former Magic center, it was still understood that even when only slightly engaged Howard's presence can lead the worst of supporting casts to a respectable playoff berth.
It won't serve as a reminder of how terrible former GM Otis Smith's personnel moves were, either, because dating back to the summer in which he handed Rashard Lewis one of the biggest contracts in sports and attempted to hire Billy Donovan as coach, it was clear that Smith was in way over his head. Rip on the former Hockey Guy GM John Weisbrod as you see fit, because he did make some terrible moves with the Magic, but he is the one that drafted Howard and Jameer Nelson.
Nelson, who has dipped down to the ranks of the average following a sparkling 2008-09 regular season, will be expected to lead this team and keep it competitive in 2012-13, as new GM Rob Hennigan attempts to dig out from one of the worst messes in sports. Not only was Hennigan hired far too late in the Howard process, it appears as if his bosses wielded great influence on the Howard deal; a career-defining transaction that could either rescue the Magic or sink the team for years. The early returns aren't promising — not so much because the team didn't take much on court talent back, Orlando was never going to receive anywhere close to fair value for Dwight, but because huge chunks of payroll obstacles remain unless Hennigan is successful in dealing some of these mid-priced players without the added asset of a star or draft pick to attach to them.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
What remains is a rebuilding team full of players either in or past their primes, with the two and possibly three best players from last year's team sent elsewhere. From one through 10, in the Magic rotation, it's hard to find a player whose game we either dislike, or one we couldn't see working effectively as a helper on another team. That's a warming element for Magic fans, who could watch as desperate GMs talk themselves into thinking that they're an extra tweener forward, small forward with guard skills, or wing scorer away from great things. Because most of these players are around average, and making just above average money, they're quite tradeable.
Teams full of average players don't turn out an average record, though. Mismatches have to be created, deficits have to be established so that the defense has to counter and the floor opens up for others. And even if Hedo Turkoglu can dish, Josh McRoberts can dunk, Al Harrington can score, J.J. Redick can shoot, Gustavo Ayon can tall, and Aaron Afflalo is to be respected, there is nothing here that teams have to worry about countering.
Then you have a rookie coach, which adds the only element about these Magic that we have no idea how to counter.
New head man Jacque Vaughn could be a colossal bust, as even well-respected former players and assistants sometimes are. Or, as Magic fans can remember from the 1999-00 season, the rookie coach can come in and do great things. The problem with drawing a straight line between this team and the one Doc Rivers took over 13 years ago is the fact that the roster in Rivers' first year could do more damage on the top end — Ben Wallace changed games, and Darrell Armstrong remains underrated and was in his prime. GM John Gabriel destroyed that village just to save it, as the Magic are attempting now; but it was a lot easier back in 1999 when a mediocre conference (and an underachieving Milwaukee Bucks team) were helping to ease Orlando into playoff contention.
Things won't be as easy this time around, and even if Vaughn turns into Rivers' equal as a coach he won't have much to work with. We're also sure that Hennigan would like to change what Vaughn is working with, significantly, between now and February. The team can talk up Afflalo all it likes, but there are no carryover talents here, waiting to be a part of the next winner in Orlando.
Magic fans, of course, do not deserve this. They don't deserve anywhere near this. This is the price they'll have to pay, though, for blown assignments from a series of Magic executives they put their trust in.
Hopefully the New Guys are a bit more deserving of that fan-bred faith.
Projected record: 13-69
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: An utter lack of expectations meeting a team that will play hard regardless of how outgunned it is. As soon as the Magic agreed to trade franchise cornerstone Dwight Howard to Los Angeles for a package of young players and draft picks, shipped shooting guard Jason Richardson to Philadelphia in the bargain and completed a sign-and-trade to send ascendant stretch four Ryan Anderson to New Orleans, it became very clear that Orlando had chosen to take a sober view of their position in the NBA landscape, realizing that if they weren't going to have an annual MVP candidate and both-ends game-changer anymore, they needed to hit the reset button and start over. You can argue that they didn't get an optimal return on the assets they sent away (especially considering that the first-rounders they received, likely to be late picks anyway, also came with protections), but at least the front office led by new general manager Rob Hennigan was able to read the writing on the wall, something the Otis Smith regime too often found too difficult.
As a result, the Magic enter this season expected to be among the worst teams in the league, an unintimidating unit more likely to contend for the top overall pick in the draft than its seventh straight Eastern Conference playoff berth, with no true established scoring threat or defensive centerpiece in place. Virtually every opposing player who sees ORL as the next game on his team's schedule will mentally pencil in a W. And that's where the Magic can make them pay.
Though he's coming off a down year, Howard-era holdover Jameer Nelson (who received a new three-year, $25 milion deal this summer) can get buckets when he looks for his own offense, which he'll likely do early and often this year. Newly imported two-guard Arron Afflalo's shooting percentages dipped a bit last year from his stellar 2010-11 season, but they were still very good (47.1 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from 3-point range, 79.8 percent from the line) and he should get plenty of touches in the Magic's new, more perimeter-focused attack. Al Harrington, who came over from the Denver Nuggets with Afflalo in the Howard deal, has established himself as one of the game's best offensive performers off the bench over the past two seasons, a combo forward capable of giving opposing threes and fours fits. And while he's no household name after just one NBA season, Magic fans are going to love center Gustavo Ayon, a no-quit bruiser imported in the Anderson deal who came to New Orleans after five-plus years spent in Mexico and Spain and promptly established himself as a favorite member of Hornets coach Monty Williams' rotation.
Most of Orlando's veterans are tough, competitive, high-energy players who get after it on both ends of the court. (We're looking at you, Hedo.) Most of their young players are going to be fighting for either a measure of NBA respect, a carved-out space in Hennigan's overall vision for a winner, or both. Everybody, it seems, will be fighting for a starting job, as first-year coach Jacque Vaughn looks to establish himself as a legitimate bench boss capable of getting maximum effort and results out of minimal talent and experience. They're going to run, they're going to work, they're going to play hard and, as I said of the Charlotte Bobcats, at least a few times during the season, that will translate into wins that surprise everyone outside of the Amway Center's locker room.
What Should Make You Scared: The unavoidable fact that Year 1 of a long-term rebuilding process is rough. Orlando's players and coach can shy away from the "r" word all they want, but the team's new marketing slogan says it all -- it's "We Will," not "We Are," for a reason. Magic fans had best put their hope in the not-so-immediate future, because the present-tense task of restocking a team (and, really, redefining an organization) following sweeping changes in the front office, on the sideline and in the locker room is going to be hard to watch.
The best-case scenario for this Magic team in 2012-13 looks something like this:
-- Nelson and Afflalo prove to be steady and effective enough to help Orlando stay competitive most nights, giving fans a pair of veteran leaders they want to support, which matters because those two will likely be around for the next three years;
-- Glen Davis asserts himself in the starting lineup, playing more like the bowling-ball small-ball five that gave the Indiana Pacers' front line problems in the playoffs (19 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks in 38 minutes per game) than the player whose shooting percentages declined from every area of the floor and who mostly looked like the bum end of the Brandon Bass trade during the regular season;
-- Vaughn gives his rookie (Moe Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn) and second-year (Ayon, Nikola Vucevic and Justin Harper) frontcourt bodies every possible opportunity to earn as much floor time as they can, and they oblige, with Harkless coming back from sports hernia surgery to show why Hennigan targeted him in the four-way deal, Nicholson and O'Quinn building on their All-Summer League nods, Ayon and Vucevic combining to be a better-than-most-expect tandem at the five (especially offensively, where Ayon showed a deft touch in the pick-and-roll and around the basket in New Orleans and Vucevic hinted at a jumper and some gifts on the offensive glass in Philly), and Harper getting comfortable enough at both forward spots to make the team think hard about extending him a $1.1 million qualifying offer after the season;
-- Veterans Hedo Turkoglu (two years, $23.8 million remaining, $17.8 million of which is guaranteed), Harrington (three years, $21.4 million, $14.1 million guaranteed), J.J. Redick (one year, $6.2 million, all guaranteed) and Quentin Richardson (two years, $5.4 million, all guaranteed) all perform well enough before the All-Star break to convince potential contenders in need of second-unit scoring and playmaking to roll the dice on them in exchange for expiring contracts or draft picks, even low ones;
-- Hennigan gets through his first season as a general manager without adding any ill-advised contracts that extend past the 2014-15 season to the ledger.
If all that works out, Vaughn proves equal to his pedigree and everyone stays healthy, the Magic should find themselves in much better position as they enter the second year of their grand makeover next summer, which is great. And they should be at least a little better than the Bobcats this winter and spring. They'll still miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years, but they'll stand a good chance of avoiding the franchise's first bottom-of-the-Southeast finish (Orlando was last a cellar-dweller in '03-'04, before the league realigned into six divisions). That's something, right?
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The ghost of Dwight Howard will hang over the Magic for this whole season, but that trade, regardless of the value of their haul in comparison to other reported alternatives, set a clear course for the next few seasons. The Magic intend on being very bad for several years, bad enough to get several top-five draft picks and build up a contender. It's the model set by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Magic hope it'll work again.
The chances of that method finding success might not be quite as high as the Magic hope. While the Thunder seem like a more useful alternative for a middle-to-small market franchise, the fact is that they might be as difficult to replicate as the Heat are for any major-market team with cap space. The Thunder, like pretty much any success story, benefited from a great deal of luck. Not only did they have to obtain the second pick in the 2007 draft by way of the lottery, they also had to luck into a draft with two presumed generation-altering prospects and end up with the one who actually panned out. A year later, Russell Westbrook had to develop from an arguable reach into an offensive dynamo. The next year, James Harden had to be a sensational talent fine with playing as a third option, work through some first-year struggles, and develop into one of the best shooting guards in the league anyway. That's to say nothing of Sam Presti's various bits of genius and foresight, first and foremost deciding to trade Ray Allen for the fifth pick in the draft in 2007 when the pure value trade-off looked like a loss.
There is little guarantee that the Magic will be able to get one player of the Thunder's caliber in the next three years, let alone a full trio. Their plan could fall flat, and GM Rob Hennigan and new coach Jacque Vaughn could find themselves out of work soon enough. But the draft is also how the Magic got three of the four superstars in the franchise's history, and it's the best path available to them as they try to rebuild. When remaking a team after a debacle, hope and belief can be valuable assets.