The Orlando Magic have won three consecutive Southeast Division titles and haven’t done much tinkering to perhaps the NBA’s deepest roster, yet they’re seen by many as a long shot to make it four in a row.
That’s just fine with the Magic.
The formation of a new Big Three in South Beach hasn’t dampened expectations in Orlando, where the championship-hungry Magic open their season - and the new Amway Center - on Thursday night against No. 1 pick John Wall(notes) and the revamped Washington Wizards.
Orlando (59-23) posted the same record the past two seasons, but couldn’t follow its trip to the 2009 NBA finals - where it lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games - with a similar run. The Magic swept Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two rounds, then fell in six games to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Sometimes losing is the best thing to happen to you,” said center Dwight Howard(notes), the league’s two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. “It wasn’t good for us to get put out of the playoffs the way that we did, but we learned a lot. We’re going to use that to make us a better team.”
General manager Otis Smith was busy after the Magic lost to the Lakers, jettisoning Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and bringing in Vince Carter(notes), but he didn’t have nearly as eventful an offseason in 2010. Small forward Matt Barnes(notes) and reserve point guard Anthony Johnson(notes) were replaced by Quentin Richardson(notes) and Chris Duhon(notes), but the roster remained mostly intact.
“I think the biggest misconception in the NBA is that so many teams think you need to make a bunch of changes every year,” Carter said. “The biggest improvement I think any team can make is keeping guys together and improving team chemistry.”
Few expect that to be enough to win a fourth straight Southeast crown. Miami appears to be the favorite in the division after teaming LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) with Dwyane Wade(notes).
The Magic are well aware there’s a perception of doubt.
“It should be fuel for us,” point guard Jameer Nelson(notes) said. “It should be a motivation type of thing and not discouraging because we’re not getting publicity and the notoriety those guys are getting. Because that’s not what makes the story.”
The early story in Orlando is the opening of the Amway Center, which is about three times the size of Amway Arena - one of the NBA’s most out-of-date venues that opened when the Magic began play in 1989.
While the arena may be Orlando’s biggest offseason addition, there’s no question what the biggest move was for the Wizards (26-56). Washington won the draft lottery and the right to pick Wall, the speedy point guard who was the SEC player of the year in his only season at Kentucky.
Wall averaged 15.7 points, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals in seven preseason games.
How Wall and Arenas co-exist may ultimately determine if the Wizards can end their two-year postseason drought. That may take some time considering Arenas hasn’t played in a regular-season game since Jan. 5 - one day before he was suspended for a felony gun conviction.
Arenas won’t play in at least the first two games because of a strained ankle tendon that limited him in the preseason.
“Unfortunately, we won’t have Gilbert,” said guard Kirk Hinrich(notes), who was acquired from Chicago and will likely replace Arenas in the starting lineup. “But we can’t control it. We have to go out there and try to execute our game plan and we’ll see what happens.”
That legitimate injury came on the heels of one Arenas faked. Coach Flip Saunders initially announced the guard would miss a preseason game against Atlanta because of a sore left knee, but Arenas revealed after the game he made it up so that Nick Young(notes) could start.
The Wizards fined the three-time All-Star $50,000.
Al Thornton(notes) will likely start at small forward as Josh Howard(notes) continues to recover from a knee injury, but the other key to immediate success - aside from Wall’s development - may be the growth of the starting frontcourt.
Power forward Andray Blatche(notes) averaged 22.1 points in 32 post-All-Star break starts for depleted Washington, but he’ll no longer be averaging nearly 20 shots. Behind Blatche will be Yi Jianlian(notes), a former top 10 pick who didn’t pan out with Milwaukee or New Jersey.
The teams split four meetings in 2009-10.