Now, winning the trifecta for December moves, the Orlando Magic for most trades, most players involved, and biggest gambles. The moves by GM Otis Smith sent needles into a frenzy on NBA-Richter devices in every rival general manager’s office around the league. Want other ways to gauge the scope of these deals? Smith moved 4 of his top 9 players including 3 of his 5 starters and his only reserve center. The combined salaries ($43.8M) of the four incoming players is less than a million dollars below the total salary expenditure ($44.6M) of the Sacramento Kings. The outgoing salaries ($49.4M) of the four players traded away equals 85% of the NBA salary cap for an entire team. In 24 hours Smith shed the two most expensive acquisitions in recent Magic history (Lewis and Carter); and took back two of the contracts most widely considered un-tradeable throughout the league (Arenas and Turkoglu). Yeah, it was huge, perhaps the biggest December move by a contender in memory. But will it work?
The kicker on this is that Smith pulled off this massive exchange coming into a week that might qualify as the most challenging any team will face all year--Monday-Atlanta, Tuesday-Dallas, Thursday-San Antonio, and Saturday-Boston. Three of those teams were sporting double digit win streaks and Orlando players are having to run down-court holding a program to identify their teammates—ouch. It took Maimi training camp plus another month to begin to exhibit some cohesion. Yet in less than a week, Orlando has seemingly worked wonders. Curious about the remake of the Celtics’s Christmas Day opponent, I watched at least a portion of each of their games this week. On Monday, looking disorganized and befuddled, they fell to Atlanta rather easily (and it’s not like Atlanta was tearing up the league!). However the next night they gave Dallas all it could handle, playing nearly even late into the game and finally falling largely due to an onslaught from the streaky Jason Terry who had burned them for exactly one point in the first half. Perhaps even more surprising was a credible job of defending Nowitski by Hedo Turkoglu who is not known for a stalwart defense. Then last night I tuned in midway in the third quarter, found the Magic pushing a double-digit lead on the Spurs who came in sporting the best record in the Association. Orlando steadily increased the lead and won going away as with a 20-point deficit Popovich rested his aging stars through most of the 4th quarter.
Now I wouldn’t be too hasty about penciling in the Magic in the Conference Finals but early returns are promising. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they lost every game this week by thirty points. They might yet crater. Certainly there were/are some good reasons to doubt this grand experiment. Arenas last real contributions were many, many months ago and his potential for disruption outweighs his possible contribution in many minds. Indeed, of all the new acquisitions, this week has been pretty dismal for Agent Zero (or is it Agent One now?) Similarly Hedo’s last glory days were two seasons, and teams, ago and many suspected he was washed up. Jason Richardson’s tag is good numbers for losing teams and no sign of lifting his teammates to better things. Clark’s stock ticker read good size, little game, and no progress as he had been a disappointment in Phoenix.
Yet the flip side of that argument is that sometimes teams benefit from addition by subtraction. Lewis has become more and more of a non-factor, and a very expensive non-factor at that. Vince Carter has never delivered on the promise Orlando bet on, to the surprise of very few. Both of these players required lots of shots and if hitting them still delivered little else, and this year they were seldom hitting them. Gortat was a rock and highly sought across the league, but with a young Howard, Marcin’s court time was typically limited to a dozen or fewer minutes. With neither Dwight nor Gortat having an outside game there was usually room for only one of them in the paint at a time. Pietrus was capable of good defense and dropping three’s from the corner. The problem was that his defensive energy seemed dependent upon his touches on the ball. With Howard the primary option there just weren’t enough ball(s) to go around and keep everyone involved (and interested).
At the very least the Magic may benefit from better ball movement, at least as soon as they become sufficiently familiar with their teammates. Also there is often a grace period where troubled players pull in unison with the team, at least for a while. The Magic rely on the 3-point shot. Pre-trade numbers for shooting percentages outside the arc (Lewis 37% and Carter 35% vs. Arenas 39% and Richardson 47%) suggest Orlando may have better luck spreading the floor, an important aspect if your main weapon is Howard in the paint. Also the better shooting from the newcomers will likely give the other bombers more freedom to operate and in the games I watched Redick and Nelson were happily, and effectively, firing away from long distance.
As for the thin front court, Bass languished most of last season on the bench but looked active and efficient this week. He will be undersized but the Celtic Nation is familiar with that shortcoming and Baby is a good example of overcoming that limitation. Ryan Anderson is another long-range shooter and may offer the stretch four that they lose in Lewis. Clark and Orton are the reserve centers. Clark was little used in Phoenix and Orton hasn’t played a game and just underwent knee surgery. Howard bullies his way through the league but the Celtic centers, if available, will not be so susceptible to that physical dominance. In fact against Shaq and Perk I think Dwight will be trotting out his increased repertoire of jumpers and hooks—we will see to what effect. With Rondo out for this game I think Jameer will be effective but once Rajon and Delonte return I think the Magic guards will have no advantage.
To sum, I think the Saturday game will be competitive. Orlando is still putting it together, the Celtics are still playing with a depleted rotation. I expect the Green to prevail but if the Magic are “on” then the help defense will need to stay on, or at least recover to, the perimeter shooters and Shaq and J.O. will need to single cover Howard (as Perk does). See ya on the TV couch.