Oh, what a difference an offseason makes. Last offseason, that is. After losing the 2009 championship to the Los Angeles Lakers in a tightly fought 5 game series, the Magic revamped their roster, rooting out a few key cogs to shake things up, essentially going for a major overhaul when only minor tweaks were necessary.
What people tend to forget about the 2009 Finals is that the series, although won by the Lakers in 5 games, really wasn’t all that much of a blowout. In fact, if Fisher had missed a big shot or two or Trevor Ariza hadn’t come up huge in Game 4 (always the pivotal game in a playoff series) then the series would have been tied up at 2 apiece, and with a great road team like the Magic, anything would have been possible. Also imagine if that alley-oop to Courtney Lee had been put down. Things would be different.
But out of all the people, you would expect the Magic management to understand just how close the team was to true glory. For some odd reason, even with a young team featuring improving talent, Magic GM Otis Smith chose to push in all his chips, and closed his championship window dramatically by doing so.
His first move, essentially dumping Courtney Lee to obtain Vince Carter, would have been fine on paper and personnel wise, except for the fact that Carter is a perennial loser who already had a few miles on his legs and really wasn’t as explosive as he was in the past, when his skills could cover up his timidity and lack of toughness. In any situation that requires him to be any semblance of “the man,” Carter flakes out and cannot be depended upon, evidenced by his lack of playoff success throughout his career. He just doesn’t have that “it” factor you need from your go-to guy. Nonetheless, the move would have been fine had it have been just a pure swap for Courtney Lee, but Otis Smith let Hedo Turkoglu leave too – his biggest mistake.
Turkoglu was essential to the Magic on so many levels. Firstly, he was the best playmaker on the team in the pick and roll situation with Dwight Howard, and had great chemistry with the big man in forcing defenses to pick their poison: easy buckets for Howard or open jumpers from Hedo. He was very efficient in this role and was a veteran who could lead the team with his all-around play and was adept at passing the ball. Also, he was a matchup nightmare for other teams because they were forced to play against both him and Rashard Lewis with 3’s and 4’s, putting at least one slow big man on the 2 excellent shooters. But most importantly, he fit exactly with what the Magic needed – a part time go-to guy.
On a team with Dwight Howard, a Superman of sorts in being a decent player dressed in a Superstar outfit, the Magic needed a complement who could defer to Howard in every aspect of the game for the first 3 and a half quarters, and then be the clutch guy down the stretch. With Howard’s foul trouble, lack of offensive touch, terrible free throw shooting, and nice-guy attitude, he was better served to be relieved by a closer at the end of the game. Hedo was that guy.
When Smith let Hedo leave, the swap became basically Hedo for Vince, and weakened the Magic, lowering them from legitimate contender to pretenders (ie teams that don’t have a real shot at a ring).
And it showed this past season. The Magic were great in the regular season, in spite of Vince, buoyed by the arrival of tough guy Matt Barnes and the emergence of JJ Redick, but really didn’t do much in the playoffs, bowing out against a more determined and mentally tough Celts team. It used to be that when Howard was smothered, Hedo could take the load for a few possessions, so that they could return to their inside-out game. This past season, with more reliance on the unreliable VC, the Magic lost their 2nd option, getting destroyed when the Celtics were able to handle Dwight Howard with one defender.
And since that point, little has changed for the positive. This offseason, the Magic have lost Redick and Barnes, both guys who played their hearts out and infused the team with energy, and although they still have lots of talent and decent depth, with incredible outside shooting, the Magic will again falter in the postseason.
Without that one other reliable part time go-to guy, now that Jameer Nelson has been a shell of himself, the Magic will only be able to dominate in the regular season, and will look to do that again this year. They probably will come up behind the Miami Heat in terms of wins and losses, and take the 2nd seed in the East quite easily. They don’t have much competition, considering the Hawks will always be middling and the Celts just don’t care too much about the regular season.
But the real failure will be in the playoffs, where, although they probably won’t be seeing the Celtics, they will still have trouble. Even with Miami’s paper thin front line of big men, the Magic will lose because of their inability to produce enough offense to keep up, given Dwight Howard’s terrible offensive play and overdependence on the 3 point shot.
After dismantling any lesser team in the first round as a 2 seed with 55-60 wins, playing against the Bucks or some other weakling, the Magic will be able to finish off the Hawks as they’ve done this past year, before running into the wall that is the Miami Heat. Although they will put up a fight because of their depth and size, their dependence on VC will come back to bite them, in the form of a series loss in 6 games. With Carter’s age and Howard’s peaking skills, their window will already be closing after this season, making the Magic one of the big “what if?” teams of the league, just as they were 15 years ago with Shaq.
But if they somehow pull off a deal for Chris Paul, then we’ve got a different story.