Two years ago, to the shock of many, the Orlando Magic had an extraordinary run in the NBA playoffs, culminating in a trip to the NBA Finals as Eastern Conference Champions. Although ultimately falling short and losing at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, there was room for much optimism about what the team might accomplish in the years to follow with man-child superstar Dwight Howard and his supporting staff. As we all now know, the following two years failed to live up to the hype, and results were not really aided by some questionable front office moves.
Faced with some crucial decisions to make in the 2009 off-season, Orlando Magic General Manager Otis Thorpe decided to strike out in a new direction. Of the many moves he made, the biggest involved importing eight time All Star Vince Carter and jettisoning Hedo Turkoglu (considered by many to be the second most important player after Howard). Despite showing some signs of being a possible title contender, the Magic took a step back and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics.
For the 2010-2011 season, the Magic entered the season as a team with something to prove. Were they the title contenders who fell just shy in losing to the Lakers in the 2008-2009 season? Or the second tier playoff team that didn’t seem to have enough to be considered in the same breath as big boys L.A. and Boston? G.M. Thorpe decidedly answered that question in December. Unhappy with the team’s performance and believing they were not built to contend for a title, he made two huge trades that moved Carter and key starter Rashard Lewis and bringing back Turkoglu along with Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas.
What has followed has been a decidedly mixed bag. While Howard has been able to progress, continuing to be a defensive monster while ably adding to his offensive moves on the other end of the court, the rest of the team has been inconsistent at best. Jameer Nelson has regressed from his All Star form in 2009, only occasionally showing flashes of the player he had been.
Turkoglu, although still having some of the chemistry he demonstrated with Howard and others from his first stint with Orlando, is an aging player whose skills are showing serious erosion. The addition of Arenas has been a total bust, as he’s provided none of the offensive firepower he once possessed while playing for Washington in his prime before injuries took their toll. On the plus side, Ryan Howard and Brandon Bass have both shown tremendous growth as the season has progressed and have helped supplement Howard’s efforts on both ends of the court.
As the Magic prepare to meet first round opponent Atlanta in the first round on Saturday, they face a pivotal playoff run for the season and the future of the team. Howard, the heart and soul of the team and easily a top ten player in the league, can opt for free agency after next season. There have already been rumblings, rumors and innuendos that Howard may bolt for a bigger market — Los Angeles in particular.
If this sounds like déjà vu to Magic fans, it might be because of recollections of losing franchise player Shaquille O’Neal to L.A. as a free agent, where he went on to team with Kobe Bryant on three consecutive championship runs.
History and an honest evaluation shows that there is only one way the Magic can hope to keep Howard in Orlando: another trip to the NBA Finals. For Dwight to forgo impending free agency and sign a long term deal to stay in O-Town, he has to believe he can win titles here. The first step in that process is for the team to come out of the Eastern Conference and contend for a title. The only problem with this scenario is that the Magic are facing the stiffest competition they have seen in years in the East.
Miami features three legitimate stars in LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The Boston Celtics retain the core four of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen — albeit an aging core. The resurgent Chicago Bulls showcase likely MVP Derrick Rose surrounded by a strong supporting cast. The odds seem long.
For the Magic to progress the NBA Finals, Howard will have to play like a man possessed and produce the best playoff stretch of his career. They will have to get consistent efforts from Nelson and Turkoglu. They will need Bass and Anderson to continue to improve. And they will need Arenas to do more than cash a paycheck.
Beginning Saturday, the Magic face a playoff test that will not only determine the yardstick of progress from one year to the next, but could very well determine their future for the next decade.
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