As disappointingly as the NBA Finals ended for the Orlando Magic last season, the Magic also had reason to smile about the promise of the future. They were young, talented and hungry. Some change was expected, but Orlando seemingly had all the core pieces needed to contend for championships for years to come.
Orlando general manager Otis Smith, however, didn't take an "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" approach. So, by the end of the summer, Hedo Turkoglu(notes) had left, Courtney Lee(notes), Rafer Alston(notes) and Tony Battie(notes) had been traded and the Magic were left staring at five new faces: Vince Carter(notes), Ryan Anderson(notes), Jason Williams(notes), Matt Barnes(notes) and Brandon Bass(notes).
Today's Magic are significantly different than the group that squared off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. And nearly halfway into this season, the Magic are also still trying to figure out if all the change was for the best.
"Our objective is to win an NBA championship," Smith said. "Anything short of that is failure. When you're having some failures, you're looking for ways to succeed. I think we moved the right pieces in the right places. Some pieces we would have rather not have lost. We got some pieces back that we didn't expect to have, either."
The "breaking point" that started Orlando's remodeling, Smith said, began as soon as it became evident the Magic weren't going to match the $50 million contract Turkoglu was seeking. Orlando let Turkoglu leave for Toronto then moved on by acquiring Carter and Anderson from the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Lee, Alston and Battie. Orlando also signed Bass and Williams, a veteran guard who didn't play last season, as free agents.
Dwight Howard(notes), the face of the franchise, took the changes hard. Not only was Turkoglu gone, but Howard also lost his "big brother" in Battie and his best friend on the team in Lee. Still, Smith thought it was in the franchise's best interests to make the change. Now instead of having a "good five, six or seven players," Smith believes the Magic are 13 players deep.
"I talked to [Howard] once the deal was close," Smith said. "I just wanted him to find out before it hit the newspaper that I made the deal, not necessarily an approval about doing the deal.
"I think you take the players' input on certain things, and on certain things, you don't. Once you start setting precedent that they're going to run your team, then you don't need to be in the role you're in."
So have all of Smith's moves worked? For now, injuries are cause for an incomplete grade. Orlando has a respectable 26-12 record, which ranks them third in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the Atlanta Hawks. But it's also telling that when the Magic endured their recent four-game losing streak, they looked unfocused and lacked chemistry.
"It's a totally different team," Howard said. "You have a whole different starting lineup. There are three guys that were here last year in the starting lineup.
"We have the same goals to win a championship. But now we're like the guys that everybody wants to take down."
Asked if the Magic would have been better off trying to retain more of last season's roster, Howard said, "I don't have nothing to do with that. That is not my area of expertise. All I do is play basketball."
The Magic's best starting lineup on paper includes Howard, Jameer Nelson(notes), Rashard Lewis(notes) and Carter. But injuries and Lewis' season-opening suspension have limited the group to only 10 games together. Carter, most recently, has been sidelined by a sprained left shoulder.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy believes the lineup with Howard, Nelson, Lewis and Carter has potential, but he also said the team has played better with other groups. "We have not had what we've projected to be our starting lineup together enough to make any real evaluation," Van Gundy said.
The biggest struggles among the Magic's core players have come in adjusting to playing with Carter. Though Carter is averaging a team-high 17.4 points, he's also shooting a team-worst 39.2 percent. The Magic also have won five of the six games in which he hasn't played.
Carter, Van Gundy said, has "made a lot of bad decisions in terms of shot selection."
"He's predetermined of what he's doing offensively," Van Gundy said. "Vince is thinking too much. He's very conscientious. He wants to fit in, make the right play. I think he's thinking ahead of time, like, 'I'm not being aggressive enough, I have to drive at this time. If I'm going under the screen, I got to shoot it or I got to get Dwight a shot,' instead of just making plays and trusting his instincts."
Lewis and Howard miss playing with Turkoglu, who often looked to get them the ball and was patient enough to let his own offense come in the flow of the game. But they also aren't ready to give up on Carter.
"I knew how Turk played the game," Lewis said. "I played with him for three years. I knew his spots, where he liked the ball, what he liked to do, where he liked to drive, what block he liked when he posted up. We're trying to work on everything with Vince."
Said Howard: "It just can't happen over night."
Smith said he has no regrets about the moves he made. Nor does he have much interest in making any significant changes to the current roster. He still likes this team.
The Magic had a talented team last season, too, and looked like a formidable opponent for the Lakers in the Finals. But they also lost their focus and dealt with chemistry issues after Nelson returned in the Finals from his shoulder injury.
"Things kind of got us out of whack whether it was Jameer coming back, or the effect that Jameer coming back had on the Rafers and the Anthony Johnsons and the affect that it had on the other guys," Smith said. "Those kinds of things bothered us. Now from a basketball standpoint, we're just as talented enough to win the [Finals]. But once you start losing focus at that late of stage in the game, you beat yourself."
Whether Howard, Carter and the rest of these Magic can learn to play together and develop some chemistry remains to be seen. The stakes have raised for them. No longer will they be satisfied at reaching the Finals.
"We're most definitely contenders," Lewis said. "But we still have to get past Cleveland to go to the Finals, to get past the Boston Celtics, who are going to be at full strength. We will give those guys a battle, but we have to get better if we want to beat them."
- Otis Smith