The Orlando Magic decided to cut ties with veteran point guard Jameer Nelson on Monday, the eve of the NBA's free-agent feeding frenzy. And while the decision didn't come as too much of a surprise, it does give us cause for a moment's pause to mark the end of an era in Central Florida.
It's entirely reasonable for Magic general manager Rob Hennigan to move on from Nelson at this stage of the game. The 32-year-old point guard was entering the final season of the three-year, $25.2 million contract extension he signed in the summer of 2012 —
a contract tendered not by Hennigan, but by his predecessor, the long-since-ousted Otis Smith (the Nelson extension came just after Hennigan took over; apologies for the error) — and only $2 million of his possible $8 million 2014-15 salary was guaranteed. Waiving Nelson saves Orlando about $6 million in out-of-pocket outlay and creates an extra chunk of cap space for a Magic team that's been very careful about preserving as much balance-sheet flexibility as possible, just in case an opportunity presents itself to take on a high-price player (plus a juicy freight-paying asset like a future draft pick) from another team looking to duck the luxury tax.
Even if there weren't immediate financial benefits to jettisoning Jameer, it'd be tough to justify paying $8 million for Nelson after a season that saw him post career-lows in field goal percentage (39.4 percent), per-minute scoring (13.5 points per 36 minutes) and player efficiency rating (13.9, below the league-average of 15), while also ranking as a below-average 3-point shooter (34.8 percent) and getting outproduced by opposing point men last season. Add in the presence on the roster of a pair of first-round picks comprising the Magic's backcourt of the future — 2013 top choice Victor Oladipo, who spent a little more than half his floor time at the one spot as a rookie, and 2014 draftee Elfrid Payton, a tough, smart, defensive-minded point man out of Louisiana-Lafayette — and the time seemed right for Nelson to hit the ol' dusty trail.
His exit, though, finally closes the door on a largely successful decade for the Magic, led by their two first-rounders in the 2004 NBA draft — a musclebound skyscraping high-schooler from Atlanta named Dwight Howard and Nelson, a hard-nosed, diminutive college star who teamed with Delonte West to lead St. Joseph's to an undefeated 2003-04 regular season and a trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“The people, the way they embraced me there in Orlando over the last 10 years, were phenomenal,” Nelson told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel on Monday. “Not too many players can say they played in the same place in any sport for 10 years.”
Indeed, that "10-year club" grows smaller and smaller by the year in a time of increased player movement, especially in the NBA. After Nelson's waiving, only nine active NBA players have spent at least 10 years with the same team — Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers; Dirk Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with the San Antonio Spurs; Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem with the Miami Heat; Nick Collison with the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder; and Anderson Varejao with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Nelson's name is all over Orlando's all-time record book, including at the very top of the franchise leaderboard in assists (3,501, 725 more than second-place Scott Skiles). He was the final link to the Orlando teams that made the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, and was by far the Magic's longest-tenured player — a title that now, remarkably enough, passes to 24-year-old forward Andrew Nicholson, who came to the team in the 2012 draft.
After Howard orchestrated his exit from Orlando in the summer of 2012 — an ugly, brutally botched process that took more than a year and left behind bad feelings that will linger far longer — Nelson soldiered on, shouldering the load of a bottoming-out rebuilding effort as the team's elder statesman. He handled his former running buddy's departure with equal parts humor and steel, and his circumstance as a mentor for Oladipo (who it was clear would eventually supplant him) with grace.
As a result, he leaves the Magic with a near-limitless line of credit in Orlando, a glaring 180-degree difference from the way his longtime teammate left town. More from Robbins of the Sentinel:
“Jameer is the ultimate professional,” Magic GM Rob Hennigan said in a statement released by the team. “We truly thank him for his contributions to the organization, both on the court and in the community, during the last decade. He will always be a member of the Magic family.”
Nelson loves Orlando, too.
People close to Nelson say he has always remembered how kind Central Floridians and Magic employees were following the drowning death of his father, Pete Nelson Sr., in 2007.
Still, all the losing over the past few years have been tough on Nelson.
“He had a great 10 years, and it’s time to move on,” Nelson’s longtime agent, Steve Mountain, told the Sentinel. “The direction that the team is heading does not allow a proper opportunity for Jameer or the young players that the team has committed to. We’re appreciative of everything Orlando has done for us.”
And the Magic, clearly, are appreciative of everything Nelson has done for the franchise:
— Evan Dunlap (@BQRMagic) July 1, 2014
The Magic also changed the front page of their website to a splash page, complete with a career-spanning highlight video, thanking Nelson for his 10 years of service.
On the other side of those billboards and highlights, the Magic will have to forge a path forward led by the likes of Oladipo, Payton and young frontcourt pieces like Tobias Harris – who told John Denton of the Magic's website that he wants "to be a leader for this team" – double-double machine center Nikola Vucevic and 2014 top pick Aaron Gordon. (Without the likes of Nelson and traded shooting guard Arron Afflalo, it will be interesting to see just how head coach Jacque Vaughn can conjure up buckets for this year's model of the Magic.)
And while Nelson surely feels at least a pang or two at picking up after a decade in Orlando, he figures to have some suitors — albeit at a substantially reduced price tag — on the open market among teams eager for a steady veteran hand at the controls off the bench.
“I feel like I can still play at a high level,” Nelson told Robbins. “Given the right opportunity, I think I can help a team get to a championship and win one. That’s my goal. That should be everybody’s goal: to win a championship. If not, you’re playing for the wrong reason."
For a decade, Nelson's been a quiet, understated model of playing for the right reasons. Orlando's going to miss that, even if it makes perfect sense for the Magic to move on.
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