HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In most every other corner of the sports world, fall Sundays are reserved for football watching. But not here at the hideout.
We do things differently around here. And that means watching preseason NBA games. That’s right. Our eyes are on the prize from the moment training camp begins, even on the preseason games.
And after watching the Orlando Magic demolish the New Orleans Hornets to christen their new arena, the plush Amway Center, we have to ask, what happened to the buzz surrounding this Magic team?
A year ago this time they were the crew most of the pundits assumed would step into the void at the top of the Eastern Conference, surpassing both Cleveland and Boston for supremacy on the other side of the aisle of Kobe Bryant‘s Los Angeles Lakers.
Dwight Howard had assumed his position as the league’s most dominant defensive force and his supporting cast was as good as it had ever been, led by a healthy Jameer Nelson, a recharged Vince Carter and an anxious Rashard Lewis, who never seemed concerned with proving his worth.
For a long time last season those pundits looked wise. The Magic shook off some early season uncertainty and by the playoffs they were back to looking like the team that had fallen to Bryant and the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals.
They mowed down to the Bobcats and Hawks in the first two round of the playoffs, toying at times with a Hawks team that won 53 games and owned one of the top four playoff seeds in the East.
Then, inexplicably, some eight games into their postseason run the power went out in Orlando.
A nightmare matchup against a hungry Boston team, the same one (sans an injured Kevin Garnett) they’d eliminated in the East semifinals in Game 7 a year earlier, exposed the Magic’s flaws. We all promptly shoved them aside and watched the Lakers and Celtics battled throughout an epic, seven-game series for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Instead of the Magic reloading this summer and checking into a penthouse suite in the East, they watched as the Miami Heat put together a dream team of their own and the Celtics reloaded for another run at the Finals.
But that doesn’t mean we should just discount the Magic, does it?
Locally, they are resigned to the fact that their South Florida neighbors and Southeast Division rivals in Miami will no doubt be the marquee attraction this season. George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel tries to put it all in perspective:
Nobody cares about the Magic this season. They are the warm-up act, the acoustic guitar guy opening for the Eagles.
The Heat are the greatest team in the history of planet Earth. The Boston Celtics are a formidable adversary. They will meet in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. So it has been ordained by the talking heads on ESPN and other media outlets genuflecting at the presence of King James and his noble court.
You’d think the Magic would have no worries coming in way under the Heat Index, but that’s not necessarily so.
The demands to win within the organization will be greater than ever. And it’s not because they are playing in a fabulous new building that makes Amway Arena look like a subsidized housing dump.
The contract extension that the Magic recently offered Dwight Howard looms in the air, clouding the future. Howard remains non-committal.
“I can’t answer that,” Howard told the Sentinel when asked whether he would sign the extension. “I mean, I love Orlando. I don’t want to leave.”
Um. Sounds a bit like the line we heard a few years back, when Shaquille O’Neal said, “Orlando is my No. 1 option.”
It all falls apart if Howard goes. [Stan] Van Gundy and Magic GM Otis Smith will struggle to survive the freefall, since they will be the convenient fall guys left behind.
Still, I wouldn’t jump off the roof of the new Amway Center just yet, Magic fans. Sit back and grab a cold one in the Budweiser Baseline Bar. This is all going to be part of the game within the game that will be played out over the course of the next year.
Clearly, the Magic have more going on than just trying to restore the luster the franchise enjoyed as recently as two years ago. Whether or not this crew is up to the task remains to be seen.
Using each of the past two seasons as a guide, The Magic would appear to be in the perfect position to upset the favorites and find their way back to the Finals to see if they can finish what they started in 2009.
What say you?