Matt Moore has seen enough of the Orlando Magic to conclude that their chances of winning a championship are now nil. Writing for CBSSports.com last Friday, Moore explained why the Magic simply have no hope of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in the coming years, before taking to Twitter in order to make it clear that he doesn't relish Orlando's demise.
And Moore isn't a "hater," whatever that means. He's one of the first guys I got to know when I started blogging the Magic in 2007, and I consider him a friend.
With that said, I take issue with some of the points in his argument, and would like to counter them in this space.
Moore says, in essence, that improvement from other teams in the league, the abandoning of the Orlando's winning formula, and having to play in a small market have shut the championship window "if they don't make a major trade this season." I contend he's mistaken on the first two fronts.
Yes, the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers loom large as title threats, having not lost any core players this summer. The Boston Celtics, whose defeat of the Magic in this year's Eastern Conference Finals, Moore says, "validated" the people who believe the only reason Orlando defeated them in the 2009 playoffs was Kevin Garnett's injured knee, also bolstered their bench, and only lost one rotation player, albeit an important one in defensive ace Tony Allen. And the Miami Heat? With three All-Stars and a better-than-anticipated collection of supporting players, they're the favorites to come out of the East. Their presence means "things get considerably harder for the Magic."
But no, their improvements don't automatically vault them ahead of the Magic. Orlando boasted a top-five standing on both offense and defense last season, and posted the best point differential in the entire league. It was elite then, and still is now. If one wants to argue that Boston, L.A., and Miami are better on paper, I wouldn't exactly challenge that. But they didn't create a new tier in the NBA hierarchy, one that Orlando can't hope to reach. It's not as though Orlando got worse this offseason.
Moore also says there are internal issues with the Magic. Last summer's move to replace Hedo Turkoglu with Vince Carter, of whom Moore has never been fond, is one of them. That move, Moore writes, signals that the Magic "seem to have detonated the special formula that got them [to the NBA Finals] in the first place." He contends that Carter "seemed a tremendous step back" from Turkoglu" and that the Magic "seemed inconsistent and incomplete" last season, which led to "tensions bubbling under."
There's a lot of "seem" in that last paragraph, which makes sense, because there's no definitive evidence to support any of it. Turkoglu became a fan favorite in Orlando, stands 6-foot-10, has a goofy beard, and made some key baskets. None of those things constitutes "a special formula." The Magic still played the same brand of four-out/one-in basketball around center Dwight Howard, plugging Carter in to Turkoglu's place as the secondary pick-and-roll facilitator and go-to scorer. Again, this point is important: the Magic didn't change the way they played. On either end of the floor. Now, had they gone "conventional," so to speak, and put a "true" power forward next to Howard? That would be a stylistic departure. If they installed the Triangle offense? Also a huge change. If they played Howard at point-center? That would be... you get the point. But that's quite clearly not what happened.
And despite Carter jacking shots basically indiscriminately through the first two months of the year, and then missing more than 70 percent of his looks in January, he was (at worst) equal to Turkoglu's performance in that rather special 2008/09 year. Which means Carter must have really improved in the second half of the year as he learned to grasp the Magic's offense. Which is exactly what happened, playoff disappointment notwithstanding.
The Magic also had to battle through Jameer Nelson injuring his knee in mid-November, which forced him out of action and then rendered him a step slow and rather out of rhythm upon his return. But he, like Carter, found his groove in the second half of the season, and they became a potent backcourt tandem. I know I mention this point a lot, and you'll in fact see it again tomorrow, but it's worth repeating here: Orlando had a top-five offense despite Carter (first in per-minute shot attempts) and Nelson (third) bringing up the rear on the team in True Shooting percentage. I think it's reasonable to expect both players to shoot far more accurately this season.
And "tensions" with last year's team? I believe there was precisely one period when the Magic's situation looked dire. From January 2nd to January 18th, Orlando lost seven of its nine games, a stretch which included the first four-game losing streak of Stan Van Gundy's coaching tenure. The team dropped from 24-8 to 26-15. But after that point? Smooth sailing. The team went 33-8 over the last half of the regular season, and 41-8 if you'd like to count the first- and second-round playoff sweeps.
That was not a tense period for the Magic.
I guess one could argue a bad stretch in mid-January portended doom, but that, to me, smacks of starting with a conclusion in mind and working backwards to find evidence. Because, as anyone who followed last team's Magic closely can tell you, it was not exactly doom-and-gloom.
Moore's final point carries some weight, and its one that really deserves our consideration in the years ahead. The DeVos family has quite graciously shelled out to pay for a winning team, with over $93 million in player salary committed to this season, not counting luxury-tax payments, or, for example, the cost of staffing the team's scouting and analytics department. The indications are that they're willing to keep spending, but from a practical standpoint, Orlando's market won't support it indefinitely. At some point, the team will need to cut costs. It's simply a reality in professional sports.
Given the assembly of talent in Miami and the Magic's uninspiring turn in the Eastern Conference Finals, we were bound to have this conversation sooner or later. I suppose I'm happy it's out of the way.
In the Twitter message I linked above, Moore asks, "what scenario leads to a title?"
My response: The one where they play to the best of their abilities. Which, as we saw in 2008/09, is not unprecedented for a Van Gundy-coached team.
If you'd like to label me a homer, or whatever, just sticking up for his sad, disrespected team, that's your choice. But I'd certainly hope my track record here has established my voice as reasonably impartial, or at least not reactionary.