NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 14. Orlando Magic

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NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 14. Orlando Magic
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We're counting down all thirty NBA teams, starting with the Eastern Conference.

 14. Orlando Magic

2011-12 Record: 37-29.
Key Additions: Al Harrington, Arron Afflalo, Gustavo Ayon, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Moe Harkless (R), Andrew Nicholson (R)
Key Losses: Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon

I see two scenarios in play with new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan. He either believes that he actually got fair value for Dwight Howard, and therefore would be off to one of the worst starts to a GM career in sports history, or he broke new ground in the NBA when he became the first executive to knowingly try and get the worst players in a deal in order to take lottery pick tanking to the next level. He'll be seen as a a small market visionary if it happens to work out, or he'll be fired within two seasons if it doesn't.  I have a hard time seeing any middle ground here.

To be fair to Hennigan, he inherited a position that had one huge problem (trading Dwight), and little in the way of leverage or options when it came to solving it, both of which had been eroded away prior to his arrival. The Magic's ownership group and their refusal to cut ties with Howard for so long (even though it was painfully obvious that he was going to turn his back on them the first chance he got) helped drag out the fiasco and damage Howard's value in the process.  Dwight's manipulation of the media all last season - leaking his preferred list of teams one day and then floating the idea that he'd be open to staying in Orlando if he was able to handpick his teammates, coach and GM a day after that - meant that the market for such a dominant player was uncharacteristically small. Hennigan's predecessor Otis Smith left him a one-dimensional and generally overpaid roster that was on the verge of trading its one elite player away. Realistically, there wasn't any way for Hennigan to win here; there were just various levels of losing.

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I don't blame the Magic for saying no to the Brooklyn Nets' reported offer for Howard of Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and three future first round picks between now and 2017. The draft selections look great at first glance, but they would likely be in the 22-30 range when they came to fruition, as the Nets with Howard made deep playoff runs. Lopez is a fringe All-Star at best, who played in only five games more than I did in the NBA last season after breaking his foot twice over a span of a couple of months. A seven-footer with bad wheels is a recipe for disaster, especially when Lopez ended up getting a max contract extension this past summer. Humphries has managed to carve out a nice career for himself on the hardwood—his off-court activities remain highly suspect—but he's had exactly two above average seasons out of his eight in the league, and they both came on lousy teams. Brooks had a solid rookie season and has the potential to do more, but he too may have benefited from the inflated-stats-on-a-bad-team phenomenon. Either way, he's not a difference maker in a deal like this.

Plus you don't have to look back very far to find out what a team with a core of Lopez-Humphries-Brooks and a bunch of other middling talent is going to do. They were called the New Jersey Nets the past couple of seasons, and they sucked. The Magic did the right thing by not accepting the Nets' offer, even when Dwight was taking a public "Brooklyn or bust" stance to try and scare all other teams away because they were basically signing up for a half decade of mediocrity, finishing between sixth and 10th in the Eastern Conference if they did.  Oh yeah, and they'd be paying Humphries and Lopez close to a combined $30 million to do it. It's probably the same reason why they didn't take back Andrew Bynum in a straight up deal with the Lakers, and said no to the Rockets' package of Kevin Martin, Patrick Patterson and a couple of young prospects. They didn't want to do a half-assed rebuild where they take a single step back from fringe title contender to fringe playoff team. They wanted to be the worst.

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So I'm actually going to give credit to the Magic for the one thing you can say about the combo platter of second level talent, aging veterans and middle of the road draft picks that they got from the Lakers, Sixers and Nuggets. It's going to make them very bad, and it's going to do so very quickly.  There will be no grey area when it comes to tanking over the next couple of seasons in Orlando. They're all in. They even traded away Ryan Anderson to New Orleans for 50 cents on the dollar so he wouldn't accidentally win them a couple of games next season, and hired a rookie head coach who should be overwhelmed on most nights with this makeshift roster.

The Magic are clearly trying to bottom out and land a couple of top five draft picks over the next two to three years. If they can get a pair of blue-chippers that way, they'll start seeing some financial freedom around the same time that the Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Harrington and Afflalo contracts run out. If they get lucky and have one of the additional first rounders they acquired in the Dwight deal turn into a Top 10 pick, the Magic may actually have a young base that they can start building around again, with some flexibility under the cap.

In the meantime, however, expect the Magic to struggle mightily. Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo will be asked to contribute offensively in ways they've never been asked to before, and probably for good reason. Al Harrington will give us occasional flashes of brilliance off the bench, but he'd be much better served on a contending team where he can afford to take a few nights off at this point in his career. Rookies Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson both have the potential to be contributors on this specific team, assuming they don't get completely swallowed up in the tidal wave of losing before it can happen. Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu make up the remaining core of the previous era, and I'd expect a slide in all of their production in the absence of Howard getting them continuous open looks throughout the season. Call me crazy, but I just don't see Gustavo Ayon demanding the double-team the same way Dwight did.

Overall, this is a spotty roster that is short on talent and not particularly cohesive on paper. I'd be surprised if they eclipse the 22 win mark. Somewhere Rob Hennigan is smiling. Mission accomplished.

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