Magic GM: Orlando's Depth Will Top Miami's Star Power
And they aren't going to like it.
After winning the Southeast Division the last three years, reaching the conference final the last two, and expecting continued improvement this season, the Magic suddenly find themselves invisible when standing next to their ubiquitous, in-state rivals, the most celebrated non-championship team in league history.
"I got tired of the Heat as soon as LeBron James announced he was going to Miami,'' scoffed Magic center Dwight Howard Monday.
It may have been the eve of the Magic's training camp -- held in their sparkling new downtown arena -- but all anyone asked about during media day was the omnipresent Miami Heat.
And that got old real quick.
You can't be the best team in the league -- which the Magic are desperate to become -- if you aren't even the best team in the state.
"ESPN is like 'all Heat, all the time,' " remarked Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "This isn't about us getting together for training camp and the theme is we have to beat the Heat. That's ridiculous. There are a lot of good teams. They aren't the standard bearer.''
The Heat and their potential dynasty that includes the Three Kings of Miami -- James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- will become the target for all 29 other teams, but nowhere will the temperature rise quicker than in Orlando when they come to town.
A rivalry that has simmered for years broke out into a real strong dislike for one another after the Magic were openly critical of the way James and the Heat handled his free agency this summer. Heat president Pat Riley blasted the Magic, then Van Gundy blasted back at Riley, re-opening some old wounds that are sure to fester now.
"We will see each other down the line in the playoffs, and that will take care of itself,'' said Magic guard Vince Carter.
Until that potential playoff series, though, the Magic will be virtually forgotten by comparison. The Magic still believe they are one of only two teams in the Eastern Conference -- Boston being the other -- capable of matching the Heat through a long regular season.
Center Dwight Howard -- easily the best in the league -- gives them a chance. And so does their depth, which improved with the offseason additions of Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon. And so does their familiarity with each other, a core of players around Howard that has grown together for years.
"They've got a good three (players). I've got a good 12. We're as deep as any team in the league, probably deeper,'' said Magic general manager Otis Smith. "They've got three, and we're solid 1-12. Until they start playing the games, it's just a team on paper.''
It was Smith who riled both James and Riley this summer when he joined the chorus around the league wondering why James -- the two-time MVP -- had left his home in Cleveland to play with Wade and Bosh.
"I stand by what I said. Guys in my (playing) era wouldn't have done that,'' Smith said Monday. "You didn't see (Larry) Bird, Magic (Johnson) or Michael (Jordan) doing that. Don't get me wrong, Miami has put together a real good team, but we're not conceding anything.''
Told that 99 percent of the analysts are picking the Heat to win the East, Smith frowned.
"I'm in that one percent then,'' he said. "Boston won the East last year, and the rest of us finished second. They might beat us 3-4 times during the regular season, but once the playoffs start, it's a different ball game."
The Magic were seeded No. 2 in the East behind Cleveland last season after winning 59 games for the second consecutive year, but they played poorly against the Celtics in the conference final. While the Heat completely revamped their roster, the Celtics also made significant changes, adding Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West. The Magic only tinkered with Richardson and Duhon.
"I like what we have. Teams were still adjusting to us this summer, not the other way around,'' Smith said. "Right after (Miami) signed LeBron and Bosh, they went out and signed eight centers (to guard Howard).''
Smith told the Orlando Sentinel Monday that he expects to offer a contract extension next summer to Howard, who currently has two years remaining on his $80 million deal. Howard also has given every indication he wants to remain in Orlando.
The Magic play the Heat four times during the regular season. They also play them once during the exhibition schedule. It's a rivalry sure to intensify with each matchup.
"They have the best talent on paper, but that doesn't always win,'' Van Gundy said. "A lot of times it doesn't win. Maybe more times than it does win.''