Magic make needed upgrades, but additional moves may come
After committing to two blockbuster trades involving eight players that change the dynamic of the Orlando Magic, a pair of questions come to mind: Are the Magic back to championship contention now that they've surrounded Dwight Howard with an abundance of perimeter scoring from Gilbert Arenas to Jason Richardson to Hedo Turkoglu?
Perhaps that question can't be resolved until we know the answer to question No. 2: Are the Magic done dealing? Another move may be on the way, which GM Otis Smith said could happen within the next month, because right now their roster is bottom-heavy with small players, leaving Howard with no backup at center and very little length or strength in the frontcourt overall.
At point guard, Orlando now has Arenas to go with starter and co-captain Jameer Nelson, along with backups Chris Duhon and Jason Williams. Their choices at shooting guard include Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick and Arenas, who figures to veer between both guard spots.
Discounting rookie center Daniel Orton, who hasn't played a minute this season, the Magic have but four players of 6-foot-10 or taller: Howard, little-used holdovers Ryan Anderson and Malik Allen, and Turkoglu, a 6-10 "three" man who was unable to provide reliable minutes at power forward for Phoenix this season.
What happens during the 13 minutes per game that Howard (21.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks this season) spends resting on the bench? Orlando's lack of size makes Miami's inconsistent frontcourt look deep by comparison. The flurry of Saturday trades leaves the Magic without the length and muscle to compete against the big bodies of the Celtics and Lakers.
But I'm not criticizing Orlando's moves, because GM Otis Smith had to do something to redirect the negative arc of his team's season. The 16-9 Magic had lost five of their last six, they were 3-6 against opponents at .500 or better and -- given the puzzling average production (12.2 points per game) of 6-10 power forward Rashard Lewis -- they were unable to create mismatches to make up for their absence of star power. At 33, Vince Carter (15.1 points) was no longer a go-to scorer and Orlando, just two years after its surprising run to the 2009 NBA Finals, was no longer a championship contender in spite of its league-leading payroll in excess of $90 million.
The Magic will be counting on dexterous coach Stan Van Gundy to transform the new roster into an up-tempo force that will score explosively in transition and spread the floor around Howard in the post. Arenas should have no problem creating his own shot off the dribble, especially since defenses will have to honor his teammates in the halfcourt.
The risk of investing in Arenas' four-year, $80 million contract is mitigated by his long-term rapport with his new GM, who has maintained their relationship since Smith was an executive with the Warriors when Arenas beginning his career at Golden State. After missing 199 games over the previous three seasons because of knee injuries and a suspension for bringing guns into the Wizards' locker room last year, Arenas should be motivated to provide good news to his new employer.
In many cases a player of Arenas' extraordinary talent is available simply because he has reduced his value by making mistakes in judgment. Smith will be hoping that Arenas does for Orlando what Jason Kidd did for New Jersey and what Chris Webber did for Sacramento years ago.
Unless another trade is on the way to convert Orlando's wealth of perimeter scorers into a big man or two, Van Gundy is going to be faced with a couple of interesting predicaments. For starters, he'll have to make some hard decisions on whom to bring off the bench. Is Nelson the starter at point guard with Arenas starting at the "two" spot? Will Richardson start at small forward? Where does Turkoglu fit in? Turkoglu was at his best previously with Orlando when the ball was in his hands, but the same can be said of Arenas and Nelson?
Most worrisome of all for Van Gundy will be to derive a new defensive game plan, because all of the newcomers are viewed as weak at that end of the court. If the Magic go with their most talented players at each position, they'll be small at every spot around Howard with 6-foot Nelson and 6-4 Arenas in the backcourt, 6-6 Richardson (a natural shooting guard) shifting to small forward and 6-8 Brandon Bass taking over at power forward.
The Magic can't afford to expose Howard to foul trouble as he protects the rim while covering up for the defensive weakness of his teammates.
For Phoenix, its role in Orlando's big day liberates the Suns from having to make a difficult decision on whether to re-sign Richardson on the eve of a new collective bargaining agreement. The Suns have also escaped their four-year, $45 million commitment to Turkoglu by packaging Earl Clark in the exchange for Carter, 6-11 center Marcin Gortat (who provides much-needed size), guard Mickael Pietrus, a first-round pick and $3 million.
Most teams would have refused to take on the three-year, $63.4 million owed to Lewis (though his $22.7 million salary in 2012-13 could be pared down to a $10 million guarantee if he fails to reach incentives through 2011-12). But the Wizards saved money on the deal while ending their troublesome relationship with Arenas and liberating rookie point guard John Wall to become the franchise leader. Instead of merely dumping Arenas' salary, the Wizards will benefit from the experience and mismatch abilities created by Lewis, a two-time All-Star and renowned last-second shot maker.
Should Orlando attempt to upgrade its frontline, its most valuable trading piece now figures to be Jason Richardson, who is not only averaging 19.3 points per game (and shooting 41.9 percent from the three-point line) but is also in the final year of a contract paying him $14.4 million this year. They could package him in a deal for size, which would probably force Orlando to take on extra money for the long term.
We don't often see a contender attempt to overhaul its roster in midseason. For several years now the Magic have shown a willingness to spend big money in pursuit of a championship for owner Rich DeVos, who is benefiting from the new revenue streams created by this season's opening of the 18,500-seat Amway Center in downtown Orlando. It was easy to forget about the Magic while the Lakers and Celtics were deepening their benches after Dwyane Wade had recruited LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami. But now Orlando has declared its intention to create a three-team race in the East. Let's see if more reinforcements for the frontline are on the way.