NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 14. Orlando Magic

14. Orlando Magic
2011-12 Record: 37-29.
Key Additions: Al Harrington, Arron Afflallo, Gustavo Ayon, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Moe Harkless (R), Andrew Nicholson (R)
Key Losses: Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon

There are precisely two potential scenarios in play with new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan. He either believes that he actually got fair value for Dwight Howard, and therefore would be off to one of the worst starts to a GM career in sports history, or he broke new ground in the NBA when he became the first executive to knowingly try and get the worst players in a deal in order to take lottery pick tanking to the next level. He’ll be a small market visionary if it works out or fired within two seasons if it doesn’t.  I have a hard time seeing any middle ground.

To be fair to Hennigan, he inherited a position that had one huge problem (trading Dwight), and little in the way of leverage or options when it came to solving it, both of which had been eroded away prior to his arrival. The Magic’s ownership group and their refusal to cut ties with Howard for so long – even though it was painfully obvious that he was going to turn his back on them the first chance he got – helped drag out the fiasco and damage Howard’s value in the process.  Dwight’s manipulation of the media all last season – leaking his preferred list of teams one day and then floating the idea that he’d be open to staying in Orlando if he was able to handpick his teammates, coach and GM a day after that – meant that the market for such a dominant player was uncharacteristically small. Hennigan’s predecessor Otis Smith left him a one-dimensional and generally overpaid roster that was on the verge of trading it’s one elite player. Realistically, there wasn’t any way for Hennigan to win here, just various levels of losing.

I don’t blame the Magic for saying no to the Brooklyn Nets reported offer for Howard of Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks and three future first round picks between now and 2017. The draft selections look great at first glance but would likely be in the 22-30 range when they came to fruition. Lopez is a fringe all-star at best who played in only five games more than I did in the NBA last season after breaking his foot twice over a span of a couple months. Seven footers with bad wheels is a recipe for disaster, especially when Lopez ended up getting a max contract extension this past summer. Humphries has managed to carve out a nice career for himself on the hardwood (his off-court activities remain highly suspect) but he’s had exactly two above average seasons out of his eight in the league, and they both came on lousy teams. Brooks had a solid rookie season and has the potential to do more, but he too may have benefitted from the inflated-stats-on-a-bad-team phenomenon. Either way, he’s not a difference maker in a deal like this.

Plus you don’t have to look back very far to find out what a team with a core of Lopez-Humphries-Brooks and a bunch of other middling talent is going to do. They were called the New Jersey Nets the past couple of seasons, and they sucked. The Magic did the right thing by not accepting the Nets offer, even when Dwight was taking a public “Brooklyn or bust” stance to try and scare all other teams away  because they were basically signing up for a half decade of mediocrity finishing between tenth and sixth in the Eastern Conference if they did.  Oh yeah, and they’d be paying Humphries and Lopez close to a combined $30 million to do it. It’s probably the same reason why they didn’t take back Andrew Bynum in a straight up deal with the Lakers, and said no the Rockets package of Kevin Martin, Patrick Patterson and a couple of young prospects. They didn’t want to do a half-assed rebuild where they take a single step back from fringe title contender to fringe playoff team. They wanted to be the worst.

So I’m actually going to give credit to the Magic for the one thing you can say about the combo platter of second level talent, aging veterans and middle of the road draft picks that they got from the Lakers, Sixers and Nuggets. It’s going to make them very bad, and it’s going to do so very quickly.  There will be no grey area when it comes to tanking over the next couple of seasons in Orlando. They’re all in. They even traded away Ryan Anderson to New Orleans for 50 cents on the dollar so he wouldn’t accidentally win them a couple of games next season and hired a rookie head coach who should be overwhelmed on most nights with this makeshift roster.

The Magic are clearly trying to bottom out and land a couple of top five draft picks over the next two to three years. If they can get a pair of blue-chippers that way, they’ll start seeing some financial freedom around the same time with the Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Harrington and Afflalo contracts expiring running out between 2014 and 2016. If they get lucky and have one of the additional first rounders they acquired in the Dwight deal turn into a top ten pick, the Magic may actually have a young base that they can start building around again with some flexibility under the cap.

In the meantime however, expect the Magic to struggle mightily. Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo will be asked to contribute offensively in ways they’ve never been asked to before, and probably for good reason. Al Harrington will give us occasional flashes of brilliance off of the pine, but he’d be much better served on a contending team where he can afford to take a few nights off at this point in his career. Rookies Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson (Canadian content) both have the potential to be contributors on this specific team, assuming they don’t get completely swallowed up in the tidal wave of losing before it can happen. Jameer Nelson, JJ Reddick and Hedo Turkoglu make up the remaining core of the previous era, and I’d expect a slide in all of their production in the absence of Howard getting them continuous open looks throughout the season. Call me crazy but I just don’t see Gustavo Ayon demanding the double-team the same way Dwight did.

Overall this is a spotty roster that is short on talent and not particularly cohesive on paper. I’d be surprised if they eclipse the 22 win mark. Somewhere Rob Hennigan is smiling. Mission accomplished.

NBA Eastern Conference Preview: 15. Charlotte Bobcats

15. Charlotte Bobcats
2011-12 Record: 
0-100
Key Additions: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions, Brendan Haywood (I guess?)
Key Departures:
 Corey Maggette, D.J Augustin, Michael Jordan as a basketball decision maker.

The Bobcats are coming off of a season where they took the term ‘bad basketball team’ to previously unseen lows. Their 7-59 record set a new mark for futility in the NBA with a .106 winning percentage, and the only thing that kept them from overtaking the 1972-73 Sixers team for the outright title of the worst team in league history was the fact that the lockout shortened the season to only 66 games. Thank goodness for loopholes.

The good news for the Bobcats and their fans is that things can not get any worse, quite literally. The bad news however is that this year’s version of the ‘Cats will start the season with only a marginal increase in talent, and many of the glaring holes throughout their lineup that led to such a dismal season only a year ago.

Michael Kidd Gilchrist was chosen second overall by the Bobcats this past June and has been given the unenviable task of “changing the culture” in Charlotte, an expression that gets thrown around with increasing regularity in sports these days. We’ve heard about coaches changing the culture, star players doing the same, and now an 18 year old rookie (he’ll be 19 when the season kicks off) who is roughly 14 months removed from his high school prom has been tapped on the shoulder to do it as well. Somehow I don’t see it going that smoothly.

The reality is that MKG is still very much a work in progress, and he should be given adequate time to improve the weaknesses in his game (his handle, jumper and physical strength for starters) before he’s saddled with the responsibility of establishing an environment of success in Charlotte. Yes, he will play right away and I have no doubt that he’ll make positive contributions as the season goes on, but this is a dire situation that will require much more than a single player to turn it around, especially one that is as raw as Kidd-Gilchrist.

Ben Gordon was acquired in a trade with Detroit for Corey Maggette, which is about as fair of a deal that you’ll find in NBA circles these days considering they’re both volume shooting gunners who are on the backside of their careers. BG will shoot, shoot and then  shoot some more – But he won’t do much else. Brendan Haywood was picked up off of the amnesty scrap heap after being cut loose by the Mavericks, but who knows what kind of physical and mental shape he will show up in when training camp rolls around. If I were compiling a list of players who would completely check out after landing with a lowly team like the Bobcats, Brendan Haywood would rank pretty high. Freshly inked Ramon Sessions will fill the void left by DJ Augustin at the one spot, and assume his role of being one of the worst starting point guards in the league.

Besides those new faces, it will be much of the same decrepit roster that they rolled out last season. Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo – lottery picks from 2011 – are both still trying to gain traction in the league and show that they can be counted on for a consistent effort on a night-to-night basis. Gerald Henderson will continue being the least impressive leading scorer in the Association. After that… wait… Who else plays for the Bobcats again? It goes without saying that new coach Mike Dunlap will be in tough trying to pull this team out of the league’s basement.

The only other piece of noteworthy news surrounding Charlotte is that Michael Jordan has announced that he is stepping away from basketball personnel decisions and will focus more on the business side of his ownership position. For Bobcats supporters, this news comes as a blessing. It’s hard to believe that a man who so regularly dominated his opposition on the basketball court could be so inept in the front office, but it’s absolutely true. Jordan has enough bad moves on his resume to fill up a blog post of his own, so Bobcats fans should take comfort in the fact that he’s no longer steering this ship (reportedly). GM Richard Cho will now take over the reigns and begin trying to get this franchise back on track.

All I can say is good luck (and don’t hold your breathe).