The Orlando Magic would fascinate me endlessly, even if it weren't for the ongoing Dwight Howard saga or the fact that they might soon fire one of the best coaches in the NBA just to appease a player who took 80 percent of the season to decide that he wanted to play for the Magic for one more season, while still refusing to sign a contract extension along the way.
See, the Magic make no sense. The two best players in the franchise's regular-season run in 2008-09, the one that led to the team making the Finals, were drafted by former GM John Weisbrod. Now, Weisbrod was smart to draft Dwight Howard ahead of NCAA superstar Emeka Okafor, and good to go after fellow NCAA superstar Jameer Nelson later in that draft, but just about every other move he made as Magic GM was terrible. Young traded for old. Good traded for worse. Big traded for small. Everything you're not supposed to do, save for picking Howard and Nelson. Weird résumé, that.
So then current GM Otis Smith takes over, and because the team starts to win behind Howard and Nelson, you tend to ignore his missteps along the way. Like attempting to hire Florida's Billy Donovan, before settling on Stan Van Gundy once Donovan went back on his agreement with the Magic to coach the team. Or the drafting of Fran Vazquez. Or the Rashard Lewis contract. All of this stuff was swept under the rug because the Magic — through Howard, Nelson and SVG — were winning.
Then Smith apparently backs into a deal that we all thought was a winner at the time. He passed on re-signing Hedo Turkoglu, because that would mean handing an average player an eight-figure yearly contract to play well into his 30s. He then used that payroll flexibility and a few spare parts to trade for Vince Carter, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson in the summer following Orlando's trip to the Finals. Carter had a way better season than Hedo did the season before Turkoglu hit free agency, playing mostly the same position, and his contract expired sooner than Hedo's would have. And Smith (we presumed because Orlando was winning) didn't regard Anderson as a throw-in. He saw those per-minute stats, right?
It turns out that we were wrong to align ourselves so closely with Smith. It could just have been that, like in the deal for Lewis or the eventual moves to grab Gilbert Arenas, Glen Davis and Jason Richardson, Carter was just the biggest and brightest name out there that he could swing a deal for at the time. Perhaps he wasn't looking at the fact that Carter's assist ratio (the amount of possessions he used up that ended in dimes for VC) was better than Turkoglu's the year before, in Turk's half-season as a point forward. Perhaps he didn't know about Anderson. Perhaps he just backed into a great deal.
Except it wasn't a great deal. On paper, losing Courtney Lee for an All-Star in Anderson was a winner, but Carter fell off unexpectedly in 2009-10, especially in the playoffs. So did Nelson. Then 2010-11 hit and Smith made a pair of panic moves, sending Carter and Marcin Gortat to Phoenix for Richardson, while dealing Lewis (overpaid, but not using up many possessions) for Gilbert Arenas (overpaid, using up a whole lot of possessions). The Magic still won, but they were out in the first round last year. Meanwhile, Howard was lying to the media about being unaware that he could sign a contract extension.
The Magic were out in the first round this year, too. And though Van Gundy has kept up the "if they ask me to coach, I'll coach" ethos throughout the season, he's probably gone. And because the Orlando roster is so full of untradeables (nice turnaround, Glen Davis, but people are still aware of the other 95 percent of your career) and after already using the team's amnesty clause on Gilbert Arenas last winter, the Magic are more or less stuck.
They don't deserve it at all, because Dwight Howard has been a prat.
They deserve every bit of it because these are the moves they've made — both in enabling Dwight, and the iffy transactions Smith signed off on over the last seven (!) years.
Dwight Howard has remained the definition of duplicitous and unprofessional in how he's handed his impending free agency over the last year and a half.
Dwight Howard also has every right not to be happy with the work that Otis Smith has done.
Here's where the Orlando Magic stand. With Howard technically in place for next season, under contract, the team is rubbing up against the luxury tax threshold with just about the same roster they employed in 2011-12. Jameer Nelson has a player option that he's likely to pick up, because while we're constantly hoping for the best from Jameer (we so, so loved watching him in the 2008-09 season), he's probably not going to top the $8.6 million he's due to make in 2012-13, even in return for a long-term contract.
Chris Duhon? He's on the books. Hedo, Glen Davis, Richardson? All around for a few more years, though Hedo's 2013-14 salary is half-guaranteed for $6 million. The team will have to fight to keep Ryan Anderson, if it so chooses, as the forward is a restricted free agent. Matching any offer will likely push the team into luxury tax territory. It isn't a good situation to be in.
And not to wrap up a column with a pithy sentiment, but the way out of a limited roster with plenty of holes is to employ a top-flight coach who can adapt to whatever is placed in front of him. Stan Van Gundy is exactly that sort of coach. If you can find our 2009 archives, you'll find we routinely credited his all-out style and his team's willingness to listen and execute for its inspiring brand of overachieving. Focus is a tough thing to acquire, but that year's team had it in spades.
It hasn't been there since. On paper, with Van Gundy's voice being treated as reverently as it should be, the Magic should have a chance at the conference finals, or even NBA Finals, all over again in 2012-13. That's what overachieving is all about. Especially when you have Dwight Howard. But especially because they have Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy probably won't be there next season.
Now, here's the tricky bit. This is the part that will make the entire offseason, for Otis Smith.
With a new voice on the sideline, the Magic can bounce back. Hedo and Richardson will have aged a year, but Howard could emerge as an MVP candidate again following his soulless waltz through the 2011-12 season. This is how teams have always worked. Players, for all their martyr instincts, still feel bad about causing a firing, and they want to prove that it really, really was the coach's fault, they swear, and that he deserved to be let go.
Smith, with no other real options on the table, has to find that guy. We wouldn't presume in a million years to know who he is, because this roster is so convoluted — veteran shooter-types, kind of, with potentially the game's most impactful player ready to suit up for 82 contests at 36 minutes a game. By the way, that "most impactful player" is a bit of a head case who often acts like a needy teenager that could be gone by July 1 of 2013, or request a trade by either training camp, the trading deadline or your first three-game losing streak.
Good luck with that, next coach.
Good luck with that, Otis Smith.
My apologies to all, Orlando.