DALLAS — The more change that comes to the Orlando Magic, the more Jameer Nelson remains true to himself, and devoted to his team.
Few would have blamed Nelson for becoming bitter over the Magic’s rapid descent. A survivor of the Dwightmare that cost the franchise its coach, the league’s most dominant center and its standing as an Eastern Conference contender, Nelson could have, without guilt or repercussion, forced his way out of this Orlando rebuild that enters Year 2.
Entering his 10th season, matching Nick Anderson as the longest-tenured player in Magic history, Nelson chose otherwise.
“It’s fun,” Nelson said prior to Monday’s preseason win against the Mavericks. “It’s fun to see the way things progress, where we’re trying to take the franchise and rebuild and do things with a young group. Me coming in 10 years ago, it was kind of the same scenario.”
Nelson finds himself surrounded by a young team beginning to create a bit of a buzz with players such as Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris, Nicola Vucevic and the summer’s No. 2 pick, Victor Oladipo in the fold. The Magic’s top prospect is an exciting player Nelson is eager to mentor while knowing Oladipo could ultimately replace him.
“He’s humble and he’s very talented,” Nelson said of the Indiana product. “He has great upside and I think he’ll be a great player in the league for a long time.”
Nelson took Monday night’s game off and watched an Orlando starting five that boasted six seasons, 358 games and 199 starts among them. Nelson has started 488 of his 583 career games.
The Magic could have, maybe should have, cut ties with him prior to last season. He’s now four years removed from his lone All-Star appearance and has been injury-prone, playing more than 70 games just once since 2006-07. At 31, Nelson has likely reached his peak. Orlando signed him to a three-year extension last summer, raising eyebrows around a league that asked what good Nelson could do for a franchise committed to its youth.
“I’m not a guy looking for accolades. I’m not a guy looking for publicity or notoriety,” Nelson said. “My job is to do my work on the court and off the court in the community and be the person I’ve been for the last 31 years. There’s a reason why I’ve been here for 10 years, a reason why the organization has kept me around.”
Still, Nelson isn’t naive. He knows he’s on the block this season and likely will be playing elsewhere before the February trade deadline as second-year general manager Rob Hennigan, who’s the same age as Nelson, marches onward with his post-Dwight blueprint. The 6-foot point guard could help a contender as a steady reserve, or slide into the starting role for a team needing a veteran in charge. Though neither seems to be what Nelson truly desires.
“I still want to play here in Orlando and see this thing turn around,” Nelson said.
He certainly witnessed it implode. The Magic played in the 2009 Finals and were in the 2010 East finals. By the end of 2013, they had a league-worst 62 losses.
“Just weird,” is how Nelson described the past few seasons through the Dwightmare haze and beyond. “We competed for a championship for four or five years in a row. We were one of the elite teams, so to see where I’m at now in terms of rebuilding, you know, it’s still fun. I’m doing something I love to do, I’m around a bunch of guys who are great, young guys. We don’t have any knuckleheads, we don’t have any guys who cause any problems. Everybody wants to be the best player they can be and wants to learn.”
Teaching and preaching is what Nelson is doing for this squad of early 20-somethings … and for his appreciative, 38-year-old, second-year coach, Jacque Vaughn.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s been a guy that I’ve been able to count on to carry my message in the locker room,” Vaughn said. “And that’s extremely important when young guys are doing this for the first time around. He’s been a leader for us and someone I can count on.”
Nelson passed on a question about his feelings toward Howard. He said he followed the big man’s free agency this summer: “How couldn’t you? You turn on the TV, he was everywhere.” He even said Howard made the right choice by leaving the Lakers and signing with the Houston Rockets because, ironically, “they have a similar system that we played with (former coach) Stan [Van Gundy].”
So how much progress can the Magic make this season? Even in an Eastern Conference that will provide playoff opportunity for an upstart, there’s little doubt this will be an ongoing struggle. And more upheaval is likely with Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Glen “Big Baby” Davis all available for the right price.
Nelson said he’ll keep pushing as long as the Magic let him.
“My job is to continue to be professional whether we win or lose and move forward,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to help these guys develop as much as we can and, with that being said, a lot of them look up to me.”