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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Magic Roll the Dice, Go for Broke

In two separate transactions with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, the Orlando Magic shipped out Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat in exchange for Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark. The Magic advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009 but after essentially swapping Turkoglu for Carter they lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and they currently have just the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference; it is not surprising that the Magic decided to dramatically alter the roster surrounding MVP level performer Dwight Howard but it is far from clear that the Magic have improved their chances to win a championship .

Neither the Suns nor the Wizards will be factors in the championship chase this season, so let's focus on what these moves mean for the Magic. Carter and Lewis started for the Magic at shooting guard and power forward respectively, while Gortat is arguably the best backup center in the NBA and Pietrus is an excellent wing defender who also shoots very well from three point range, connecting at a career-high (and team-high) .391 rate from long distance this season. Neither Carter nor Lewis have been as effective or efficient this season as the Magic had hoped they would be but Arenas and Turkoglu are hardly setting the world on fire: Arenas is gunning away (17.3 ppg on .394 field goal shooting) for a losing team, while Turkoglu (9.5 ppg, his lowest output since 2003-04) has looked apathetic (and pathetic) since scoring a big free agent contract. Richardson is easily the most productive player from this group (team-high 19.3 ppg for the Suns this season, shooting .470 from the field and .419 from three point range) but the big picture problem is that Orlando will either have to play small ball (Howard is the only legitimate power player currently on the Magic roster)--not likely a winning plan versus Boston's army of bigs or against Miami's All-Star trio--or else package Richardson in a deal to add some bigs to play alongside and/or back up Howard.

The popular myth about Orlando's 2009 Finals run is that Turkoglu was the key player (other than Howard) because he made plays for others and took over in the fourth quarter but Turkoglu's importance has been exaggerated; if you either looked at the numbers and/or actually watched the games then you know that it was Rashard Lewis, not Turkoglu, who proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. Even if you believe that Turkoglu was vitally important back then, there is every reason to think that Turkoglu has peaked--his age, the arc of his career and the way that his performance dropped after he got paid all indicate that his best days are behind him.

Arenas is vastly overrated as a clutch performer; even when Arenas was in his prime a few years ago I did not consider him to be an elite player and I confidently predicted that he would never lead a team past the second round of the playoffs. Arenas had some good games in Washington's first round loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2006 playoffs--which was four years and several injuries ago--but he also had some very inefficient games during that series: in three of those six games he shot .417 or worse from the field (not to mention his Karl Malone-esque choke job at the free throw line to close out game six of that series) and his career playoff field goal percentage is just .411. The theory/idea that he is going to create shots for himself and/or his teammates against elite teams during the crucible of playoff competition is unproven to say the least--he certainly will create shots for himself but it is doubtful that most of those shots will be good shots. Arenas' shot selection and matador defense will provide much fodder for Coach Stan Van Gundy's "Wired" segments during national TV telecasts!

Arenas is not a pure point guard nor is he a better player than Richardson at this stage of their careers so it will be very interesting to see how Coach Van Gundy constructs his starting lineup and overall rotation. In theory, Howard, Turkoglu, Quentin Richardson, Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson should start with Arenas providing scoring punch off of the bench but that starting lineup is not only small up front but it is defensively challenged at multiple positions. It is also far from certain that Arenas will accept and/or be productive in a reserve role (he has started 453 of his 486 career regular season games).

It looks like the best case scenario is that the Magic turn into Phoenix Suns East--bombing away from three point range in the regular season only to get pushed aside by the Celtics or out "run and gunned" by the Heat in the playoffs--while the worst case scenario is that Turkoglu's complacency, Arenas' questionable attitude and the team's general lack of defensive focus results in the Magic fading completely from championship contention. A third scenario would be for the Magic to package Jason Richardson in a deal to obtain some bigs, enabling Coach Van Gundy to use a more orthodox starting lineup with a traditional power forward; if the Magic pull that off and if Arenas turns out to be a reasonably productive starting shooting guard then the Magic could potentially have enough size and scoring punch to deal with the Heat in the playoffs but they still would not match up well with the Celtics.

I don't blame Orlando's Otis Smith for proverbially "pushing his chips to the center of the table" and trying to win it all while Dwight Howard is in his prime (and before Howard potentially becomes a free agent) but I am very skeptical that these moves improved the Magic's championship chances.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 PM

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