NBA Scouts Grade New-Look Magic
When Orlando general manager Otis Smith lit the fuse on his roster over the weekend and added Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark to the Magic mix, his intent was hardly a secret.
This was about keeping up with the Joneses.
Or, more specifically, the Miamis and Bostons and even the Chicagos of the Eastern Conference. In losing Rashard Lewis (to Washington), Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat (to Phoenix), Smith opted for offense over defense and pulled out an entirely new form of dynamite that he hopes sparks celebratory parades down Main Street in Disney World six months from now.
The stakes are certainly high, as center Dwight Howard can be a free agent after the 2011-12 season and Smith is well aware of that ticking clock and what it means. He had been scouring the NBA landscape looking for the most impactful way to elevate his club, to rise above the B-list of the elite and thereby convince Howard to stay when that time arrived.
Smith's inquiries about Chris Paul during the summer said everything about the sort of blockbuster move he wanted to make, but those attempts fell short and it has since become even more clear that the New Orleans point guard is not going anywhere anytime soon. Landing the dynamic floor leader via free agency in 2012 (assuming he opts out) was both too slow and too impossible, as the albatross otherwise known as Lewis' contract -- six years and $118 million at the start, with two seasons and a combined $46 million remaining -- meant the necessary cap room simply wouldn't be there. And while Arenas' similarly-structured deal comes with an additional year as compared to Lewis', the financial handcuffs as they pertain to the Howard factor are the same.
Sources close to Smith say that he, like most of the league, considered taking the Carmelo Anthony route. But landing the Denver small forward would have meant doing so without any assurances that he would be there beyond this season, and the notion of hoping to convince Anthony to stay by way of a strong finish and perhaps even a championship was far from appealing to Smith.
As Smith indicated Monday, he certainly isn't done. The loss of Gortat leaves a huge void behind Howard, and Lewis' length that is now lacking adds to the team's serious decrease in size. FanHouse's Tim Povtak reports that Smith is eyeing New York's Ronny Turiaf and Philadelphia's Tony Battie, although a source close to the Knicks says that there's "no chance" of Turiaf being moved in light of their own concerns about a thin frontline.
The big man quandary, it seems, is at the top of Smith's priority list and could result in Jason Richardson's stay in Orlando being short-lived if it's not solved soon. While league rules mandate that Richardson, who has an expiring contract worth $14.4 million, can't be traded again until Feb. 18, one league source said Smith will likely make him available just in time for the Feb. 24 trade deadline if he is still shopping for a backup center at that time.
As was the case with the Celtics in 2007 and the Heat this season, there are now the natural questions of chemistry and how the new pieces will fit. There wasn't much cohesion in their debut Monday night, when Orlando fell 91-81 to Atlanta and Richardson, Turkoglu and Arenas were a combined 6-for-23 from the field.
Before their first tipoff together, FanHouse picked the basketball-breathing brains of four scouts in attempt to glean insight from those most qualified to project such matters. They spoke anonymously because they're not authorized by their respective teams to comment publicly. The verdict on whether Orlando improved as a team as a result of the trades was three thumbs up and one thumbs down, with all involved providing salient points to ponder as this Magic show unfolds.
Scout No. 1
Verdict: Thumbs up.
Overall assessment: "The first thing that struck me is how it's so rare, maybe unprecedented, that you get three guys of that quality in a trade. That's what's so earth-shattering about it, is the level of talent -- all of whom have some issues. ... That's what's so eye-opening about the deal is just the level of talent, and what they gave up in talent -- a fading Vince Carter, a backup center in Gortat who may or may not ever emerge to be much more than a good backup. And Pietrus, who is not at all on the same level of the three guys they got. They did give up a (2011 first-round) pick (to Phoenix), and money ($3 million to the Suns). But just the level of talent acquired is what's so astonishing to me. I think they came out like bandits. I really do."
Xs and Os Perspective: "From a basketball perspective, I think that the relationship with Smith and Arenas (who are very good friends and have discussed this possibility for quite some time) will hopefully handle that situation to some extent. They got those three guys, and the only thing they really gave up are, well, (consider that) early in the season, (Magic officials) were saying, 'This guy (Carter),' it's just not going to happen with him.'
"Offensively, they've improved a lot. Now defensively, all of those guys are not good defenders. Turkoglu, they used to say at one point, that he was pretty good (defensively). And the other two are not very good defensively. They've given up a little size and some defense for this major firepower. You have to assume (they add size). You can't compete with the Lakers with the size of the lineup they have, or even the Celtics, with Shaq, Garnett and whoever else they throw in there is huge too. That sounds like that would happen at some point.
"I think it's exciting because they're willing to throw the dice a little, and they realized their scheme wasn't working so they're like, 'Screw it, let's do something.' All those guys can put the ball in the basket. That's some firepower, and then some."
Improved championship chances or not?: "Yeah, I think so. On paper they are, because Vince was just fading. And then the other guys, they're rotation guys. They're not significant contributors -- maybe Gortat to some extent, and Pietrus has had his moments -- but I just don't think those two guys are the same level of talent that they're bringing in. The guy I thought got aced out of this and who has value is (Magic shooting guard) J.J. Redick. He's got a bigger contract (three years and $19 million signed last summer) and he's having a bad year ... but where's he going to play? If you're going to start Jason (Richardson) and bring Arenas in as a two and one (shooting guard and point guard), and they have two pretty good backup point guards too, so the guy out of the equation is Redick. Maybe Redick (gets traded)."
Scout No. 2
Verdict: Thumbs up.
Overall assessment: "I kind of flip-flopped (on his opinion on the trade). At first, I didn't like it, but then I thought, 'Well they got younger, and Turkoglu -- who hasn't played well since he left (the Magic) -- maybe this revives him. I would say that maybe they did (improve), but still the whole defensive thing makes me question it. I think they got better offensively, because J-Rich can still explode. If Turkoglu can regain some of the form he had when he played there, that's going to make them a lot better. Gilbert obviously is the wild card. ... Everybody is thinking, 'Well if he plays really well, then this is going to be a great couple of trades they made.'"
Xs and Os Perspective: "The thing that strikes me about this is the way (Magic coach) Stan (Van Gundy) wants his team to play defense. And when they play well, they play really good defense, and my curiosity is what kind of defense are these newcomers going to bring?
"You've always got the (defensive) wall on the backside with Howard, and that allows guys to be more aggressive, but the three guys they're bringing in just don't have defensive reputations. So maybe they'll be more willing to put forth more effort knowing that if they do get beat, they've got the big guy back there. But that's the interesting part to me.
"I'm a big Gortat fan. ... He can run the floor, set those open court picks, get to the basket on the roll. I think he's a good player. He'll definitely be missed in Orlando. (Gortat's role in keeping Howard out of foul trouble) is one thing we always talked about -- can we go at (Howard) early and pick up a couple of fouls, because then they have to sit him. If you play him, then you might sink your ship before halftime if he picks up the third foul. That's going to be a tough one to lose.
"Do they devise another system for when he's not in, a small-ball system? That might be the plan. That's for Stan to figure out now. Or does he just make Dwight shadow people and not be quite as aggressive. He tries to avoid the foul problems. He still gets a fair amount of blocks, but not as aggressively as he used to just because he always has that in the back of his mind."
Improved championship chances or not?: "I will give it a thumbs up. I'm kind of a gambler. I like to see what guys do, a guy like Arenas, when given a fresh start. Obviously that situation for him was definitely not working out there in Washington. This could be the fresh start that he needs, and the guy has five or six great years ahead of him."
Scout No. 3
Verdict: Thumbs down.
Overall assessment: "It's a huge risk, mainly (because of) Gilbert. I don't know where he's going to fit in -- whether he'll be the scorer (in the starting lineup) or off the bench. Or if Richardson is going to be (starting). The one thing they lost is a defender in Pietrus, who kind of complemented their offensive players. I would've liked to have seen them keep Rashard and see if he could get it going with Turkoglu because that's when they were at their best is when those two guys (had it going). ...They were just a tough match together. Turkoglu now is going to have to play a lot of four (power forward). Losing Gortat is rough because he's a tough backup.
"It seems like they kind of panicked and had to do something. ... I look at Carter and Richardson as kind of like a wash. Richardson probably will give it to you more every night than Carter at this point in his career. I don't think Carter can give it you every single night, scoring-wise. But it's going to put a lot of pressure on Dwight now. Gortat was a good backup for him. They'll rely more on Bass a lot at the four, and he's been playing really well for him but he'll be seeing a lot more minutes."
Xs and Os Perspective: "Defensively, that's where you'll have to rely more on Dwight, which could get him in foul trouble and put him on the bench a little, where they don't have anybody to come in behind him. (In) the Phoenix deal, they lose two key guys. ... Pietrus as a defender and spot up shooter was a great piece. You're not going to have a defender now pretty much at all. ... Turkoglu and Richardson as (your new) two and three? There's not a defender there. Gilbert comes in, and he's not a defender. Pietrus came in (before them), and before him you had (Matt) Barnes as your defender. That's going to really hurt them. There's going to be a lot of penetration, and that's going to put a ton of pressure on Dwight in the middle."
Improved championship chances or not?: "It's just too risky for me. I always loved what they did, with spacing the floor. They were a tough matchup for any team. They just didn't get to that (championship) point, but that didn't mean that they wouldn't. I really think that Stan Van Gundy does a great job with them, and his system worked with those players. I always thought it was the perfect match. ... I just don't know how this is going to work. I love the fact that they got Turkoglu back. I love that. That thing is their one positive, because he has not been the same since he left them, and for whatever reason him and Van Gundy -- offense (fit) to player, whatever -- they blend. So that part is great. But I think they're taking a risk with what else they gave up and what they're going for. I would never take a risk on Arenas. We'll see what happens."
Scout No. 4
Verdict: Thumbs up.
Overall assessment: "If anyone -- not today, but down the road -- benefited, I think it's Washington. With (Wizards point guard John) Wall, another guard in (Kirk) Hinrich, and having Rashard (Lewis) allows them to spread the floor. (Washington center) JaVale McGee is getting better every single night. He really is. But by bringing Rashard in, they're able to now play a different style. I wouldn't be surprised if it affected the way (Wizards coach) Flip (Saunders) coaches, because they can play a different style than what they're currently playing."
Xs and Os Perspective: "Can those (Magic) guys fit, co-exist? Sure. (Van Gundy) runs a system where they'll be able to easily acclimate themselves and he does a fair job of sharing the ball. They'll definitely miss Gortat. Earl Clark is not that type of player. I think they each made a change for their own reasons. I think the Magic did it because they didn't want the same results by doing the same thing. I think Washington now is really an attractive place. You have a great point guard, if he stays healthy, and you have a (floor) spreader in (Lewis). If anyone gets an A-plus, it's not a today A-plus, but it's an A-plus for making that move, both money wise and player wise, it's Washington.
"People always talk about defense, but I think (the Magic are) going to score the ball more. They're going to have more offensive possessions, which is less time defending. I do think that having Gortat as a safety net behind (Howard) was helpful, and Earl Clark is not that guy. ...
"J-Rich has the ability to defend when he wants to. Stan will just have to demand that they defend. And I didn't consider Pietrus a lock-down defender anyway. J-Rich is coming from a style of play, and the style of play change for him will be interesting. (The Suns) had 50 to 55 pick-and-roll possessions every night for (Phoenix point guard) Steve (Nash) or involving Nash, and now all of a sudden he's going to be on the wing. Orlando is not a high volume pick-and-roll team like say Phoenix is. The pace of play for him, he's going to have to throttle it back. Gortat gave a Matt Harpring type physical presence, and there's not many guys in the league who do that -- especially at the five spot."
Improved championship chances or not?: "Orlando probably saw an opportunity to make a change. (On the Magic's mindset:) 'What we have is not enough. It's proven to not be enough. Madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.' Are they better? Yeah, I think they are."
E-mail Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.