With the NBA playoffs approaching, the playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference are nearly set.
Chicago will most likely hang onto the No. 1 seed. Miami or Boston will have the two and three slots, and Orlando has locked up the fourth.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the above four teams making it to the NBA Finals out of the East. On the broad shoulders of Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic will be looking to make their third straight appearance in the Conference Finals, and second NBA Finals appearance in three years.
The run in Orlando with D12 has been a success so far, while still falling short of the ultimate goal, but how much longer is Howard looking to stick around town?
Should I stay or should I go?
With LeBron James making The Decision this past summer to take his talents to South Beach, the expectation is that Dwight Howard will follow James’ footprint and leave Orlando in the summer of 2012.
First off, it's not a foregone conclusion that Howard will bolt in 2012, the year he can opt out of his contract. Some are already claiming he’s as good as gone to Los Angeles, just like Shaquille O’Neal back in 1996.
However, Howard isn’t looking to sell out with movies and rap albums like Shaq was.
It's not a foregone conclusion that he will re-sign with the Magic, either. Despite recently saying on the Jimmy Fallon show that he wanted to stay and calling Orlando a “beautiful city,” there's a chance Howard leaves if he feels the team doesn't give him a good enough chance to compete for a championship.
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that Howard genuinely wants to remain in Orlando and will re-sign if he feels they are contending or will soon contend for a title.
The question then becomes whether the Orlando Magic can realistically compete for a championship with their current roster.
No one knows for sure, but from what we have seen so far this season the answer seems to be no. While the Magic remain a team that can beat anyone in the NBA on any night, they cannot seem to beat elite teams with any consistency.
Too many mental errors. Not enough effort on the defensive end. Sloppy and careless mistakes.
In Orlando’s defense, they revamped their roster just a month and a half into the season. Chemistry and cohesion take time, and if they find it in the playoffs they will be a tough team to beat with Superman manning the post down low.
It’s just hard to suddenly flip on a switch when the switch hasn’t been turned on much against top competition.
(Costly) Familiar Faces
The Orlando lineup consists of the best big man in the league surrounded by role players, with one or two B-list guys possibly capable of taking a game over if necessary in Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson.
Orlando also has the third-highest payroll in the league, at $89 million. Of this third-highest payroll, 11 of the 13 players currently on the roster are under contract for the 2012-13 season. Only Jason Richardson and Malik Allen are not under contract to return with Orlando in 2012.
This means Orlando’s cap space is tied up in the returning players.
The Magic are committed to over $75 million for the 2012-13 season. At the top of the list of guys not named Howard are Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu. Arenas will be making nearly $21 million, while Turkoglu will make $11.4 million.
That's over $32 million for two players who are giving Orlando a combined 19 points in 55 minutes per game so far in 2011.
It's simply not enough for a championship-contending team.
Factor in Arenas’ 33 percent shooting, ongoing knee issues and poor decision making along with a step-slower 32-year-old Turkoglu, and you have quite possibly the most overpaid duo in the league come 2012.
And without making salary-cutting decisions, the Orlando Magic will not have the needed cap space to sign a free agent (or two) who can match and most likely exceed the production received from Arenas and Turkoglu.
Take away the $32 million invested in cap-clogging dollars, and you have enough to add a max-level contract to pair with Dwight Howard. Deron Williams will be an unrestricted free agent, and Chris Paul could opt out of his deal in the summer of 2012 and become a free agent as well.
Anyone else see a CP3/D-Will to Howard pick-and-roll as nearly unstoppable?
If Orlando has the cap space to woo an elite free agent such as Williams or Paul to come ball with Dwight Howard, I don’t think it would be a hard sell for them. There's no state income tax in Florida.
And besides the money, every point guard wants to play with a big man like Howard. There’s a game called “Go Get It” off the pick-and-roll, and Dwight is one of the best in the game at it.
Chris Paul turned Tyson Chandler into a monster back in 2008 with that game.
A sign-and-trade would also be a possibility, as evidenced by Orlando doing it with Turkoglu two seasons ago when they didn’t want to pay him a ridiculous salary. The same salary they are paying him right now.
The problem, of course, is getting rid of that money. Arenas has three years remaining with $60 million due; Turkoglu has three years and $43 million left.
Who is going to want to take on that money and time frame?
There won't be too many teams knocking on the door, unless Orlando would essentially give away Arenas or Turkoglu for a far lesser player with an expiring contract.
It’s either that, or roll with the same squad they have right now for the next 2-3 seasons. And banking on Arenas and Turkoglu to be your X-factors along with Jameer Nelson in order to seriously contend for a championship and keep Howard.
Perhaps Orlando has to temporarily flop before they can fly?
Miami took a similar approach in 2009-10 and coasted during the regular season with decent talent and one star player in Dwayne Wade. The Heat went 47-35, only to lose in the opening round to Boston 4-1 before signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the offseason.
Does anyone think Wade would have stayed in Miami had the Heat not been able to sign either LeBron or Bosh? It seems highly doubtful Wade comes back with a lineup returning 11 of the 13 players from the 2009-10 Heat that gave him little help.
If Orlando does not go on a serious run in the NBA playoffs, they need to cut costs in the offseason.
If they want to retain Dwight Howard and realistically contend for a championship, they need to concede a year of telling themselves they are contending for a championship.
Cut the salaries in the 2011-12 season at all costs, and pick up as many expiring contracts as possible. Coast through the regular season and hopefully get a mid-to-late seed in the playoffs.
With that, you have the needed cap space to woo an elite free agent to come play with Dwight Howard in Florida and give the Magic a better and more realistic chance of winning a championship.
Will general manager Otis Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy stay put with their current roster? Or will they try to cut salary in order to obtain an elite player to pair with Dwight?
One thing is for certain: None of this will matter if Orlando can get hot in the playoffs.
As poorly as the Magic have played at times this season, they are capable of beating any team in the league in a seven-game series when playing their A-game.
The great part is that we have the next two months to sit back, watch and find out during the NBA playoffs.
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