(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Dwight Howard's pending free agency and his still-standing trade request figure to dominate the headlines through much of the Orlando Magic's season; the outcomes of the games, I suspect, will be almost incidental. He, his teammates, and his coach will face the same questions about those topics, phrased several different ways, in each city they visit.
And indeed those stories have shaped the tenor in discussions of the Magic's offseason and preseason; Howard can't even have a bad game--five points in Orlando's 33-point shellacking at the hands of the Miami Heat--without some folks wondering if he's simply mailing it in, angling for a trade sooner rather than later.
Which is all to say perhaps the discussion of Orlando's offseason has centered too much on Howard. Other questions remain, but my chief concerns are these: in what ways is this Magic team different from the one that was a silly Larry Drew coaching decision--benching All-Star center Al Horford for almost the entire first half of Game 2--from being swept out of the first round of the playoffs? Has Otis Smith adequately addressed the weaknesses of the 2010/11 Magic roster?
The answers are "not many" and "no, emphatically," respectively.
Writing for ESPN Insider, Chad Ford gives the Magic's offseason an "F." Smith's team is the only one to receive that grade. Ford notes Smith's "recent head-scratching moves" that didn't work out well at all, including the trades for Gilbert Arenas--since waived using the amnesty clause, meaning the DeVos family will pay him $62 million over the next three years to not play for its team--and Hedo Turkoglu. His sobering assessment provides the pivot for today's discussion.
But Smith made those regrettable deals almost precisely a year ago. His activity this summer? Drafting Justin Harper and DeAndre Liggins; trading Brandon Bass for Glen Davis and Von Wafer; re-signing Jason Richardson to a four-year contract; and re-signing Earl Clark to a two-year contract.
The most notable move here is swapping Bass for Davis. On the surface, they're similar players, insofar as both are jump-shooting, undersized power forwards. The difference is Bass shoots jumpers well, and Davis doesn't. Consider the four-year commitment Smith made to Davis and the trade seems more puzzling, though Davis' frame enables him to back Howard up at center more capably than Bass did.
Elsewhere, Wafer is a fifth guard at best, and inking the nearly 31-year-old Richardson to a four-year deal (albeit a reasonably priced one) will complicate Orlando's efforts to clear salary for its rebuild process if Howard bolts. "This, as Magic fans know, is a Smith special," Ford writes of Richardson's new contract. "He signs players to big deals without context."
If one views the Bass-for-Davis trade as a lateral move for Orlando--and that's a charitable assessment--and believes Richardson can rebound from an unimpressive 55-game stint with the Magic, then perhaps the team is better off than it was when its season ended in April. But in general, it's status quo. Davis takes Bass' place in the rotation, while Chris Duhon will fill in for the departed Arenas. The other slots don't figure to change significantly.
Orlando's strengths and weaknesses remain the same. This is not a team that can compete for a championship as presently constructed. That's not a rash reaction to one 33-point preseason defeat or a playoff series in which the team dramatically underperformed almost across the board; that's what I believe to be an honest assessment of Orlando's capabilities.
The Magic's most glaring weakness in 2010/11 was their utter lack of a reliable shot-creator. When defenses manage to a) bottle Howard up, b) shut down the Magic's pick-and-roll/ball-reversal game, or c) both a) and b), Orlando had nobody who could break a defense down and create a good look.
Consider: Turkoglu still has the handle to get his own shot, but chose poorly through much of the season, and was even reluctant to fire away at times. Richardson's diminished athleticism makes him more effective as a shooter off the catch than off the dribble. J.J. Redick has expanded his offensive game since entering the league as a floor-spacing specialist, but still can't be counted on to anchor an offense from the perimeter.
Smith has essentially handcuffed himself to this roster, both by dumping his best trade assets--Bass' reasonable contract, backup center Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter's semi-expiring contract--and by signing marginal players to long-term deals. Orlando doesn't need a superstar swingman in order to return to the ranks of the East's elite, but it lacks the trade chips to swing a deal for even a second- or third-tier option.
In short, improvement at that most dire area of need seems unlikely, both from within and from without.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Richardson, Redick, and Turkoglu can create for themselves when the offense bogs down. Maybe Howard has taken his game to the next level and can reliably score 26 points per game, thus diminishing the need for a number-two wing scoring option. Maybe someone apart from Howard will draw a foul every once in a while. Maybe an enticing trade offer will come along as the trading deadline draws nearer. But you'll forgive my skepticism on those points.