Ball Don't Lie - NBA

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to"Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Orlando Magic.

You just do it all over again. That's what you do.

You're the Orlando Magic. You just won 59 games, you probably should have beaten the Boston Celtics, you were designed to win a championship, and your best feature involves a 24-year-old, 6-11 center who can slap the top of the backboard while leading the NBA in blocks and rebounds at the same time.

Could you start things over, if you wanted to, Mr. Orlando Magic? No, you couldn't. Because you've already spent the money. You bought the tickets, and you're on the cruise. It doesn't matter if you don't like the buffet, if you can't stand the MC, or if you forget to pack your good slacks. You're on the boat. You're going to be there, with this crew, until at least 2012.

The Orlando Magic are stuck, but the Orlando Magic are stacked. I had them coming out of the East, all season. I had them offering all the answers, too quick for the Celtics, too sturdy for the Cavaliers, too good for Atlanta. I thought they were going to defend their crown, and I told anyone that would listen that the finals were to start in Florida two days from now.

I was wrong, obviously. The Magic leaned too hard on people, not players, who shouldn't be leaned upon. People who cannot be trusted. Respect the hell out of Jameer Nelson(notes) as a person, I implore you, but at times he's too unaware of his own talent. His own gifts. The same can be said for Vince Carter(notes), who could be an absolute demon in the triple-threat position in a playoff game. The exact same for Rashard Lewis(notes). All three failed Orlando, in May.

Carter and Lewis, badly, need to pull up some tapes of Reggie Miller's play in the 2000 postseason. How he used those old bones to drive the Eastern Conference mad. You receive the ball in the pinch post, 19 feet from the hoop. Either side of the court. You fake a drive, you fake a pass, you fake a shot. You fake every option — all three of them, that's why they call it a "triple-threat" — and you see what the defender lunges at. You respond accordingly. You'd prefer to shoot, it's the easiest move, but you could also drive. Even for just one or two hard dribbles before the pull-up. You use all those skills, that size, that touch. You make yourself dangerous. You help your team win.

Lewis and Carter didn't bother with any of that against the Celtics, and I've a hard time believing they'll do it again when times starts to get crunchy next May. Carter's done it before. People are so used to being let down by him that they often forget that VC used to run quite well with those New Jersey Nets teams. He used to keep those teams, those limited teams, in games. Playoff games, even. Which is why last month was such a disappointment.

Rashard? Hardly the same makeup. He's never fully taken advantage of his own gifts, and Orlando general manager Otis Smith has traded and signed for the rights to those gifts until 2012. He can become the most sought-after trading pawn in the NBA during 2011-12; a massive unguaranteed (for 2012-13) cap-clearing contract to deal for after the league's latest Collective Bargaining Agreement lays waste to the current payroll structure, but until then the Magic are just going to have to keep finding him in the corner.

Carter's an expiring deal as well, as he has a year left. But even with Orlando's sound wing depth — J.J. Redick(notes) and Mickael Pietrus(notes) filling the holes in one's head with the bumps in another's — Otis Smith really has to make sure he has a sweetheart deal before he pulls the trigger on dealing VC. He's like your second car. Not the good car, but your second car. It might only be worth 500 bucks in a trade-in, but it's value to you — the convenience, the role it plays — is worth far, far more to you. Yes, I just compared Vince Carter to my 1996 Dodge Stratus.

Those are your problem points: Lewis and Carter. Jameer Nelson, as well, to a lesser extent. And those are the problem points on a team that nearly won 60 games, a team that's probably going to return just about everyone next season, and a team that should probably have the best chance (with Boston possibly fading, and LeBron James(notes) going or staying or who the heck knows?) at taking the Eastern crown in 2010-11.

Yes, it's another on-paper call, but Stan Van Gundy makes paper come to life. I have unending respect for him as a coach, and despite his rotation's character flaws, this is still a team that others should worry about. Matt Barnes(notes) will opt out of his contract, but he'll probably be back. J.J. Redick will probably be back. Jason Williams(notes) was clearly a concern for SVG, his brother Jeff let that out of the bag on air, and he won't be back. But the Magic, the team that wins, will be back.

Because you don't mess with this. You tinker and see what you can get — Brandon Bass(notes), the flighty Marcin Gortat(notes), Carter's expiring contract should all be on the block — but you sustain with what worked enough to score 69 wins in 96 tries. You rely on what has worked, time and time again in this league. A fabulous coach, a defensive anchor in the middle, and screen-and-roll options. It's a winning formula, and you don't abandon it just because Jameer Nelson's decision-making took a week off in May.

You bring everyone back, and you try again. The Magic are a championship-level team. If only they knew.

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