The Magic have been like the Chicago Cubs of the NBA. Their talent and regular-season record makes it impossible to leave them completely off the list of title contenders, but at the same time, nobody’s really gonna step up and put money on Orlando to win the big prize.
Despite posting the League’s fourth-best record (58 wins through Monday) and notable W’s over the Celtics, Cavs, Spurs and Lakers, Orlando’s recent slump — last night’s loss in Milwaukee was their fourth L in the last five games — has them backing into the playoffs needing to worry about the Bulls, who have been as hot lately (12 wins in their last 15) as Orlando is cold.
Even at their best, though, the Magic can’t win a championship as presently constructed. True, Dwight Howard will be a perennial MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu make up one of the League’s best 3-4 combos, Jameer Nelson (out for the ’09 playoffs) has reached an All-Star level, and Stan Van Gundy is a good enough coach to take a team deep into the postseason. But they’re just not there yet.
One glaring reason is the lack of a go-to perimeter scorer to take over at the end of a game. Dwight’s immature post game and poor free-throw shooting means Orlando’s best player isn’t their best crunch-time option, hence the trickle-down effect: Hedo is a second option play-acting as an alpha dog, Jameer and Rashard are third options pretending to be second options, etc. Sometimes it works, but it’s not a championship recipe; imagine Portland having Travis Outlaw as their go-to clutch scorer instead of Brandon Roy and you get the idea.
It’s not gonna happen for the Magic this year, but there’s one trade they can make this summer that’ll get them over the hump, right in the championship mix in 2010 and beyond:
ORLANDO gets — Vince Carter, Sean Williams
NEW JERSEY gets — Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Battie, J.J. Redick
First off, it works money-wise. Vince makes $16.3 million next year and Williams makes $1.6M, totaling $17.9M. On the other side, if you sign-and-trade Turkoglu at, say, $9 million, Battie’s $6.2M and Redick’s $2.8M gives you $18M on Orlando’s side.
Beyond that, why would New Jersey be interested? An article in the New York Daily News the other day said the Nets have no plans to trade Vince, but that’s more because his contract would be hard to move than the team being vehemently opposed to letting him go. Believe me, the Nets aren’t married to VC and wouldn’t mind getting out from under the money they owe him. If the right offer comes along, they’d listen. They’d also have a chance to get rid of Williams, who’s become an embarrassment to the organization. The Nets get Hedo, who can put up 17-20 points a night and allows Devin Harris to take over as the franchise’s leading man, plus a pure shooter in Redick and a quality, veteran big in Battie.
Why is it the right move for Orlando? Hedo has already said he’s going to opt-out of his contract this summer — a sign-and-trade gives the Magic a chance to get something back for a borderline All-Star. Meanwhile, Vince gives them a bona fide go-to scorer on the perimeter who can create his own shot and come through in the clutch, whether it’s a jumper, getting to rack, or getting to the line. Carter (a Florida native who’d be elated to go home and compete for a ring) takes the pressure off Dwight, Rashard and Jameer in late-game situations, and his outside shooting is accurate enough to fit into Van Gundy’s system. And that tired, “He doesn’t play hard” stigma should have been put to rest given what he’s done for the Nets this year. (Redick doesn’t have spot in the Magic’s rotation anyway, Battie becomes expendable with Marcin Gortat‘s development into an actual player, and they can just dump Williams if they think he’ll be a problem.)
Why wouldn’t this get done? A few reasons: New Jersey is still under the impression they’ve got a good shot at LeBron in 2010, so bringing in Hedo with a long-term deal when he plays the same position as ‘Bron might turn them off. And if Orlando is looking simply to cut costs, they may just let Hedo walk and pass on somebody with Vince’s cap number.
But if Orlando’s brain trust is really trying to take the next step and win a championship, this is the move to make. A core of Jameer, Vince, Rashard and Dwight, led by Van Gundy, can go places beyond the first two rounds of the playoffs. Instead of just resembling a title contender, Orlando would actually be one.