Hard Work Required Reviving Orlando

March 22, 2004

Orlando G.M. John Gabriel was demoted last Friday because
78-year-old owner Rich DeVos wants to spend the next four years
making an all-out run at an NBA title. Adding to DeVos's sense of
urgency is the status of Tracy McGrady, whose threat to opt out
of his contract after next season is an eerie echo of the 1996
free-agent departure of Shaquille O'Neal and the three titles
he's won with the Lakers.

To have any hope of keeping McGrady, new G.M. John Weisbrod, a
hockey guy who plans to hire a basketball expert to serve as his
assistant, must upgrade McGrady's supporting cast enough to get
Orlando to the top of the new Southeast Division next season.
Considering the weakness of the opposition--the Heat, Hawks,
Wizards and expansion Bobcats--that's a reasonable goal.

But more changes are needed. If coach Johnny Davis returns, he
needs to hire a defensive guru who can fix a unit that was
leaking a league-high 101.1 points per game at week's end. The
Magic must also hope it maintains its current position in the
lottery (they're second worst in the league, ahead of Chicago),
which would give them a shot at big men Dwight Howard or Emeka
Okafor, either of whom would bolster the Magic's pathetic inside
game. Orlando will use its $5 million salary-cap exception on a
free-agent point guard such as Brent Barry or Bobby Sura--a
pressing need since the controversial departure of Darrell
Armstrong last summer, which contributed to the club's horrendous
start (1-19).

Also crucial to a revival is the health of sharpshooting big man
Pat Garrity and of chronically disabled Grant Hill. Don't laugh:
Hill's decision to back off from a late-season comeback was one
of his wisest moves over these last four injury-ruined years.
Hill's broken left ankle is mending and will benefit greatly from
six more months of rehab.

In more ways than one the key to Orlando's turnaround lies with
McGrady. While many around the league believe he is already
headed out the door, he's from the Orlando area and would prefer
to remain there if the Magic can reverse its slide. For it to do
that, it needs to keep the 24-year-old--and get him playing at
the top of his game. What happened to the Jordanesque talent who
could beat anyone off the dribble? In McGrady's 62-point
performance last week, 14 of his 20 baskets came from the
perimeter. Through Sunday he was attempting 2.2 fewer free throws
per game than in 2002-03.

In his defense McGrady could point out that he's had to carry the
scoring load by himself, and he has also suffered from persistent
back pain. But at 24 McGrady's too young to settle for jump
shots.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The Magic needs to keep McGrady from leaving Orlando, as Shaqdid.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)