HANG TIME CHICAGO — The key to success in the NBA these days, we were reminded during The Finals, is to have a Big Three of stars who can shoulder the biggest load, no matter the supporting cast assembled around them. In that sense, the Orlando Magic should do just fine in 2012-13.
Night after night, possession after possession, the Magic will attack all comers by running a classic pick-and-roll with Salary-Cap Space as the primary ballhandler and Future Draft Picks coming out to set a high screen. Depending on how a defense reacts, Salary-Cap Space has the option to hand off, pull up to shoot or attack the rim, with a kickout release to the corner where Fancy New Building will be waiting to launch a 3-ball.
S-CS to FDP to FNB. Your new Orlando Magic heroes.
The first thing to remember, as news of the four-team blockbuster Dwight Howard trade leaked and then gained legitimacy Thursday, was that the Orlando franchise had very little choice. Its centerpiece player wanted out in the worst way. And thanks to his constant diva antics from early in the 2011-12 season right into August, Howard seemed determined to go that route: the worst, as in awkward, unprofessional, even shameful.
Yet as the names began to swirl — a mix of All-Stars and starters and role players, from Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala to Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and Nikola Vucevic — something else became clear: Orlando was screwed and, even given little choice, should have done better.
If anyone has learned anything from recent NBA free-agent history, it is this: Do not fall in love with someone who does not love you back. Rather, trade his ungrateful quitter’s butt ASAP, bite down hard, deal with the pain up front and move on. The Denver Nuggets should have done it with Carmelo Anthony, the Toronto Raptors should have done it with Chris Bosh and, in hindsight, one could argue that the Cleveland Cavaliers even should have done it with LeBron James. Most of all, though, the Magic should have done it with Howard.
Instead, as if to keep a happy veneer on the fleeting fun of All-Star Weekend 2012, Orlando management let things drag on far too long while getting used and misdirected by Howard and his handlers. It squandered the 2011-12 season, agonized through much of this offseason and now is poised to waste several more years, selling youth and development in an arena meant for superstars and banners.
With an inexperienced coach (Jacque Vaughn), hired by a novice general manager (Rob Hennigan), to oversee a roster of unproven and under-ripened talent, the Magic at least can say they’re all on the same page. Trouble is, it reads “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. Sally sees Dick run…”
They’ve gone waaaaaayyyy back to the basics in Orlando. And they’re doing it while hiding behind the fresh, smiling faces of young men and younger players.
Let’s keep this simple: How can you trade the best center of his generation in a deal in which two other All-Stars switch teams (Bynum, Iguodala), yet wind up with neither of them? No offense, but Afflalo, Harrington, Vucevic and Philly first-rounder Mo Harkless evoke memories of Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann and Lee Shaffer — the three guys San Francisco landed when Wilt Chamberlain wanted off the Warriors in 1965.
This might not leave the Magic as bereft of prospects and options as Shaquille O’Neal‘s outright departure-for-nothing did in 1996, but it feels close. If there’s a trend here to be discovered — a lower-wattage team donating the reigning all-NBA center to the Lakers every 16 years or so — it’s not likely to catch on.
Philadelphia seems to be doing all right, based on initial reports of its haul, in reaping Bynum and Jason Richardson chiefly for a player, Iguodala, with whom it has been ready to part anyway. The 24-year-old, second-team All-NBA center still can be a free agent next summer but, with the Sixers, will be playing about an hour from where he grew up in New Jersey. He is in line to sign an extension or, if he waits, to re-up with Philadelphia for a longer term (five years) than he can get elsewhere.
Denver, which went through something similar with Anthony, seems content to tag along to upgrade its perimeter defense and backcourt rebounding via Iguodala. The Nuggets gave up some scoring in the transaction and, maybe, greater upside in Afflalo. But Iguodala, who will begin his ninth season, still is just 28.
All of this was made possible by Orlando’s momentary flexing of savvy and leverage last spring — getting Howard to waive his opt-out to table the whole mess until further notice. Clearly, that decision has backfired. Better trade packages from Houston and Brooklyn for Howard’s services came and went. The relationship between Howard and the team that drafted and catered to him turned increasingly bitter, not better.
Now this: A Finals team from three years ago blown up, a return trip inconceivable for heaven-knows-how-long. A solid coach in Stan Van Gundy — who could have done wonders in a situation devoted to youth and development — trash-canned simply to please a superstar and to squelch some rare honesty.
A franchise caught empty-handed at closing time, the harsh fluorescent lights turned up high now, nothing pretty where it’s standing. All sorts of unknowns in terms of lottery balls, Draft evaluations, free-agent recruiting and future trade partners. And a league embarrassed once again by a tail wagging its dogs, a superstar getting darn near everything he wanted (OK, so the Lakers aren’t the almighty, alluring Nets) without regard for the team, coaches, staffers and fans left behind.
At this point, the NBA might not know what it is anymore to not have an active prima-donna hostage crisis to drive its 24/7 coverage, its social media and other Internet frenzies. In which case … hey, Chris Paul, Bynum or (ugh) Howard again, you’re on the clock.