It all begins in 2006 with the hiring of Otis Smith to be the team's new GM. His first moves were to clear cap space to make a big move in the future. As a result, he traded Steve Francis to New York for Trevor Ariza and Penny Hardaway's expiring contract. Between that and the expiration of Grant Hill's max contract, the team had plenty of cap-room in the summer of 2007. At the time, I desperately wanted Otis to use the team's cap space to re-sign Darko and acquire Gerald Wallace. In my defense on Darko, he was 21 and had just finished what would turn out to be the best two years of his career. Instead, the Magic signed Rashard Lewis to max contract.
I've been a Magic fan since I was a small child in the days of Penny and Shaq. Because I have been following them for awhile, I think it would be beneficial to take a look at how the team got to this year because it feeds directly into this year's results. Hide the children and prepare to be incredibly depressed.
The contract was widely mocked at the time and would quickly turn into an albatross for the team. It meant the team was stuck with the core it had before the trade (Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Dwight Howard). By 2008, the team was left holding the shooting guard position with a triumvirate of Keith Bogans, Courtney Lee, and JJ Redick. Orlando would lose in the NBA finals to the Lakers (maybe if Courtney Lee makes this play everything turns out differently), and addressing the team's shooting guard position became the top goal for the summer.
As previously mentioned, Otis had run the team up against the cap and was not adept at drafting players. That left trades as the only avenue to improve the team. However, the general rule of trading in the NBA is that if you are getting better players in a deal, you are also getting bigger and longer contracts.
The following three years of trades show Otis Smith taking back bigger and bigger contracts. It is a nearly perfect case of prospect theory. Smith clearly was in the domain of losses where he saw the downside (Dwight leaving) of not improving the team. As a result, he took increasingly risky trades to try to improve the team. He took back an extra $40 million trading Courtney Lee, Tony Battie, and Rafer Alston for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson. Otis also matched the $34 million offer sheet Dallas gave Marcin Gortat, and used the mid-level exception on Brandon Bass. The team would fall in the conference finals to Boston, and revamp the roster the following year again.
This time they traded Vince Carter and Gortat to Phoenix for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark. It's always a good trade when you give up the best player in the deal and take back the worst contract. They also swapped the second worst contract in the league, Rashard Lewis, for the worst contract, Gilbert Arenas. Gilbert's contract was a year longer and had about $20 million more left on it. After taking on all this extra salary, the Magic ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs to Atlanta.
Otis wasn't done making the team "better" and burning through ownership's money. Before this season, he traded the two years and eight million in total owed to Brandon Bass to Boston for Glenn Davis and Von Wafer. This trade added about $17 million over the life of the contracts. The lockout gave Otis the chance to eliminate Arenas's terrible contract from the books, but I'm sure that doesn't console owner Rich DeVos about the extra $20 million he will pay Gilbert than he would have if they had just kept Rashard Lewis.
What has four years of continuously taking on more salary in order to create a better team provided the Magic? The second highest payroll in the league. And a team that was considerably worse than the prior iterations.
Orlando was still an elite three point shooting team. They lead the league in three-point attempts, makes, and were third in percentage. The rest of their offense was middling or worse. They finished 28th in free throws made, 20th in assists, 18th in turnovers, and 29th in opponents' blocks. If it weren't for their tremendous proficiency from deep, Orlando would have been much worse than 21st in points per game.
Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard really mask the defensive deficiencies on the team. They don't create turnovers (ranked 29th), but that doesn't stop Orlando from playing good defense (with Dwight). Orlando finished 7th in the points allowed per game. Of course, the team's turtle pace (29th) has a lot to do with both of the offensive and defensive rankings. Their pace adjusted offensive and defensive rankings are 15th and 12th respectively, which just hits home how thoroughly mediocre this team is.
After stealing the opening game of their opening round series against Indiana, Orlando lost out and had its second consecutive first round exit.
Dwight Howard: For the first time in his career, Dwight Howard suffered an injury that required him to miss an extended period of time. It was a strange year statistically for Dwight. He had several categories that he performed much better than usual, and others where he struggled. In the seven seasons after his rookie season, which I am throwing out because he was too young to be good, here is how this season ranked in many of the most relevant statistics.
- TS% (6th)
- ORB% (7th)
- DRB% (1st)
- TRB% (2nd)
- AST% (1st)
- STL% (1st)
- BLK% (4th)
- TOV% (2nd)
- USG (2nd)
The good news: Dwight became a much bigger focal point of the offense and still managed to cut down on his turnovers and improve his passing.
The bad news: He wasn't just taking dunks anymore, which hurt his field goal percent. His free throw shooting was even worse than usual, and he stopped getting as many putbacks.
Dwight was also still an incredible benefit to the team defensively. Orlando's defense was seven points better with him on the floor. This is the tenth best differential in the league, behind our very own Ricky Rubio.
Ryan Anderson: As numerous people have already pointed out, Ryan Anderson won the Most Improved Player Award, despite not actually improving at all on a per-minute basis. He merely played a lot more because Brandon Bass got traded to Boston. Anderson is an excellent offensive player with a great three point shot and good offensive rebounding numbers.
My biggest problem with Anderson is his complete disappearing act in the playoffs. His career regular season PER is 18.6 and WS/48 is .179. In three trips to the playoffs, those numbers are 7.9 and .056. In two of the three years, his offensive/defensive ratings are fantastically under water. In 2010, his splits were 86/97 and this year it was 95/110. In the regular season this year, his offensive rating was 124 and defensive rating was 105.
Until this year, I had given him the benefit of the doubt because I thought it was just Josh Smith owned him, but the second best player on your team can't get crushed by David West if you want to win in the playoffs.
Jameer Nelson: It's now three years since Jameer's lone All-Star appearance and he is unquestionably in decline. His numbers have gone down across the board, and he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn in the beginning of the year. Through December he was averaging about 8 points per game while shooting less than 39 percent from the field and coughing up about 2.5 turnovers per game. That's exactly what you are looking for from your starting point guard.
Jameer is likely to opt out of his current deal this offseason, but I have no idea why. I get that this is last contract, but with Otis gone hopefully no one is going to give him more than his $7.8 million option. Jameer should be getting about that over three years at this point in his career. If he does opt-out, Orlando needs to let him walk unless he wants to take a big pay cut.
Hedo Turkoglu: This was the worst year of Hedo's 12 year career. The most depressing part of this is that Hedo started the year on fire. How can you shoot 48 percent on threes through Mid-January and end up at 35 percent for the eyar. Luckily, Orlando still owes him $23 million over the next two years. Maybe Orlando has a gentleman's agreement with Hedo where he'll retire for no good reason and let the team clear up their salary situation a whole lot sooner. Too bad he'll just be sitting on the team's bench the next two years earning $23 million. Yay!
JJ Redick: There's a lot of people here who want JJ on this team, but he's highly mediocre. He'll give you great three point and free throw shooting, but that's about it. He has worked on his passing, but he is still very awkward even making entry passes. His D has also gotten a lot better, but he has never had a defensive rating better than 106. At this point, JJ is a known commodity. He's certainly better than the Wolves' wings, but it's not as though he's only a slight upgrade.
Glen Davis: Despite what you may have heard/seen if you watched the Indiana series, Big Baby was not a good addition to this team. In fact, he was pretty horrible all season. But that's what the team should have expected because he's been pretty overrated for his role on those Boston teams. I hated the trade at the time and still do. I wished I could do this all season.
Jason Richardson: For reasons that are beyond me when Jason Richardson was a free agent last year, Otis Smith signed Richardson through his 34 birthday. So Orlando has three more years at $18.6 million left on the contract. Richardson, like Turkoglu, had one of his worst seasons besides his rookie year. He averaged a career-low per 36 minutes. His PER was his second-lowest of his career and WS/48 was his worst since his second season in the league. Richardson has also stopped getting to the line and has basically been reduced to a three-point shooter. The forecast for Richardson is a lot like Turkoglu. He'll still play next year, but I would be shocked if he was still getting minutes through the life of his contract.
Quentin Richardson/Chris Duhon/Larry Hughes: Three old and awful players. Stop me if you heard this before but Q and Hughes had the worst years of their careers. While Duhon was just his usual level of awful, he faced a chorus of calls for SVG to bench him. But Duhon remained the primary back-up point guard all year. Another $13 million are owed to Q and Duhon over the next two seasons.
Earl Clark: Want to be depressed? Realize that Earl Clark is the second-best young player on Orlando. This year his eFG% was .367, offensive rating was 87, defensive rating was 101, PER was 8.1, and WS/48 was .027. After going through all of these old players clearly in decline, Orlando desperately needs young blood to step-in and take over for the older players, but their young players aside from Ryan Anderson are just not good.He's really well-regarded by Orlando fans for his defense, but he is so awful on offensive it's hard to imagine Clark being more than role player on the team.
Daniel Orton/Justin Harper/Deandre Liggins (aka the recent draft picks): Just to drive the point home I made earlier, Otis Smith is really bad at making draft picks. Orton didn't play his rookie year and was horrible against the Pacers. Harper and Liggins also barely got off the bench this year.
Ish Smith: There is a sizable contingent of Magic fans that love Ish Smith. But in a way that is similar to how Wolves fans used to love Wayne Ellington or currently feel about Malcolm Lee. The brief tantalizing moments of good play are memorable because the player hasn't had enough time to show that their glaring weaknesses aren't going away. Ish is on his fourth team in two years in the league. That doesn't happen to too many guys who go on to become the starting point guard some Magic fans envision Ish becoming.
On the other hand, while Ish won't be the next star point guard, he is actually better than Chris Duhon and SVG really should have moved Smith to the back-up position this season. Hopefully, whoever Orlando hires to coach the team next year will recognize this and chain Duhon to the bench.
Blow it up.
I see no point in Orlando trying to hold on with a team filled with rapidly declining players around Dwight Howard. He doesn't want to be there, and trading him will at least give the team some pieces to move forward in a few years. The team will lose tons of games over the next two years. But once Turkoglu, Richardson (X2), and Duhon expire, the damage of Otis Smith will be gone, and hopefully the two years of awfulness will also net a couple of excellent young players.
This means whoever Orlando hires as their new GM needs to able to spend no money and not make any Otis Smith trades over the next two years. Continuing to collect the worst contracts around Dwight will not turn into a recipe for success. They need to actually focus on the draft. The rumor is Orlando drafted Orton without seeing him workout, interviewing him, medically examining him, or doing anything besides watch game tape. Hence they were shocked when they found out how awful his knees were.
Orlando should also hire a Kurt Rambis. Whoever they hire as the head coach will fail miserably. The team will not win games after they trade Dwight. Hire an awful coach, don't bring in free-agents or large contracts, make sure they lose lots of games, and draft well. After the two to three year cleanse is complete, the team will be out of salary cap hell. They can lure high-priced free-agents to Orlando as they have proven able to do throughout the existence of the team to match with the young players brought in. Then they can also fire their Kurt Rambis and bring in a new head coach.
Of course, many teams have been sold on the three year rebuilding plan that turned into much longer periods of time. Even with the danger of a much lengthier rebuild, I think embarking on a full-scale rebuild is a much use of the franchise's time and money than continuing to attempt to string along the team's current roster.