Ball Don't Lie - NBA



The Orlando Magic entered this season as championship contenders. Two months into 2010-11, however, they've been revealed as an inconsistent team with an above-average offense that often deserts them, and a defense that has stumbled in the two seasons since it helped lead them to the 2009 NBA Finals. On pace for a disappointing 53 wins, the Magic have decided to make some major, major changes.

According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Magic have agreed to two deals with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. Orlando will send Rashard Lewis(notes) to the Wizards for Gilbert Arenas(notes), while the Suns would receive Vince Carter(notes), Mickael Pietrus(notes), Marcin Gortat(notes), Orlando's 2011 first round pick and $3 million for Hedo Turkoglu(notes), Jason Richardson(notes) and Earl Clark(notes).

This is a massive restructuring, especially for a team with championship hopes, but it's typical for Orlando GM Otis Smith. Smith has been in win-now mode since he signed Rashard Lewis in the 2007 offseason, and each of his deals has been structured around winning a championship sooner rather than later. Even if it meant bringing in significant players who were seven or eight years older than the Magic's all-world center, Dwight Howard(notes).

Richardson is a very good scorer and rebounder, Hedo Turkoglu had success two years ago as a jack-of-all-trades type with this Magic team before leaving as a free agent, and Gilbert Arenas can still put up 20 points a game occasionally. But this is a desperate move. A last-second shot at something great, handing over every tradeable asset in the organization along the way.

Carter was a major disappointment in his one-plus year with the Magic. He fell off significantly from what was an All-Star level in his last season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09, and while his ball-handling and passing were actually on par with what Turkoglu (who left as a free agent a few weeks before the Magic traded for Carter) gave Orlando that year, all those passing instincts seemed to leave him in Orlando.

By trading for Turkoglu, the Magic are hoping to bring back the point forward who helped them so much with Jameer Nelson(notes) injured during Orlando's Finals run in 2009. The problem with that is Turkoglu was likely overrated in his time with the Magic because he had the ball in his hands so much, and even with that sober analysis of his contributions, he has fallen off significantly since leaving 1 1/2 years ago, looking much older than his 31 years.

He's averaged just 2.3 assists a game in Phoenix, but it should be pointed out that his assist ratio (the amount of possessions he takes up that result in assists) is right around the level established by several other able passing wing players, like Joe Johnson(notes), Manu Ginobili(notes), Andrei Kirilenko(notes) and Stephen Jackson(notes).

It's Richardson, leading the Suns in scoring with 19.3 points per game, that will be the significant upgrade. He's not the penetrator Carter was, but Carter often refused to take advantage of his ball-handling gifts. And Richardson has consistently improved his 3-point stroke through the years, making 41.9 percent mark in 2010-11. The two-time dunk contest champion can also throw down with the best of them, and his contract expires at the end of this season, which could be good or bad for the Magic (if he disappoints, he can go away, but if he thrives, he could still go away for more money elsewhere).

Arenas isn't a wild card. He's an inefficient scorer and terrible defender who could follow two months of make-good play in Orlando by completely scuttling things, and he owns the league's worst contract, one that has four years and $60 million left on it including this season (a year that has seen him shoot under 40 percent). But even with Arenas' off-the-court issues, and the fact that his contract goes two years longer than that of Lewis, just about anything (at any position) would be an upgrade over Lewis.

Amongst rotation players, only converted small forwards Danilo Gallinari(notes) and Jawad Williams(notes) had worse rebounding rates (the percentage of available rebounds you pull in) than Lewis this year, and that's not a stat that can be blamed on Howard's ability to clean the glass. Lewis doesn't get to the line, doesn't post up any more, and his contributions were limited to hitting above-average (36.7 percent) amounts of 3-pointers. But after hitting just 1.8 per game this season with Orlando, something tells us they'll be able to live without him.

As stated above, this is yet another win-now move for Orlando, desperate to bring in a ring and keep Howard in Florida. Howard has an option to become a free agent in 2012, but with the way the new collective bargaining agreement could be structured, he might choose a guaranteed $19.5 million in 2012-13 (all salaries courtesy ShamSports.com) on a team he's unhappy with, rather than playing for less money somewhere else. Still, it's Orlando's hope that he extends for far longer than that.

Will it work? Well, Richardson is a clear upgrade over Carter, and Turkoglu (even in his diminished state) is probably an upgrade over Lewis. The move clears up more minutes for Brandon Bass(notes), who can rebound and score without needing any plays called for him (assuming he knows them, anyway), and hopefully marks the return of the sweet-shooting Ryan Anderson(notes) to the Magic rotation.

The Magic will miss Gortat's sound play in limited minutes, tough. And though Mickael Pietrus isn't the defender he once was, and his shot selection tended to enervate the Magic coaching staff, they at least could pick themselves off the floor the next time he nailed a corner three or shut down a wing player. As it stands, heading into a playoff bracket with Paul Pierce(notes), Ray Allen(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and LeBron James(notes), the Magic have very little by way of wing stoppers.

On paper, the move isn't bad, especially because we don't have to write the checks. But as a realization that the Magic have now traded away all of the assets they had to improve the team with? The bounty of merely Richardson, Turkoglu and Arenas is a little scary.

For Phoenix, this is a good deal for the organization and owner Robert Sarver, but another shot to the gut for a fan base that has seen deal after detrimental deal since the glorious summer of 2004, when the team ponied up for the right to pay Steve Nash(notes).

As with Richardson, Carter's contract expires this summer, and he's an on-court downgrade. Gortat fills a needed role on the interior, but this move was all about cash. Gortat makes far less than Turkoglu and for fewer years, while the $3 million sent from the Magic is much needed in a town that isn't buying Hakim Warrick(notes) jerseys to replace their Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) ones. And it's possible the team will trade Orlando's lower-rung draft pick for the going rate of $3 million this June, as they have many times through the years.

Does it knock Phoenix out of the playoff bracket for good? It's no lock, not with the team's improving schedule, but it doesn't help. Trading efficient team-leading scorers midstream rarely adds to those postseason odds. And in reality, the savings from this deal aren't too blinding. All the $3 million from Orlando will do is pay a little more than the difference between Richardson's and Carter's contracts. Carter's $18 million non-guaranteed deal for 2011-12 is a nice trading chip, but the league has quite a few of those expiring deals floating around to trade, and the Suns (even if they do decide to try and move Carter for more help for Steve Nash) don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to adding more salary, as we saw last summer when they dealt for Turkoglu.

What Phoenix decides to do with Steve Nash will be the story of the winter, possibly the spring, maybe the summer, or even early fall (if the NBA lockout goes on for that long). Trading Phoenix's beloved Sun could cause riots in the high street down in Arizona, but the Suns probably do have to own up to their long series of bum moves (with a lot of bad luck thrown in) as they tried to surround Nash with a championship core through the decade. For now, they probably don't even know what they want to do.

For Washington, the motivation is simple. They don't have to pay Gilbert Arenas $20.8 in 2013 and don't have to pay Gilbert Arenas $22.3 million in 2014. Rashard Lewis makes about as much as Gilbert from here until 2012, but his cash in 2012-13 isn't fully guaranteed (if the Wizards cut him outright before the season starts, he'll make just $10 million out of a possible $22 million; though if they keep him around incentives could pump that guarantee up a few more million), and the floundering Wizards had no use for someone like Gil who shot a lot to score a lot.

This is Orlando's move, though, meant to give coach Stan Van Gundy more rotation options, payroll be damned. Despite the fact that the team plays in a smaller market, owner Rich DeVos has given Otis Smith blank check status for years, and he's gone to town with it. The problem is that the team's two cornerstones (Howard and point guard Jameer Nelson) were still drafted by former GM John Weisbrod (who, it should be pointed out, was terrible in every other regard). And Van Gundy has this team overachieving through the years only after the Magic were lucky enough to see the Smith-hired Billy Donovan chicken out after agreeing to coach the team in 2007.

Howard is mindful about all of this, and while the "can-these-deals-bring-Orlando-a-championship" question should be the first thing on everyone's lips initially, the real story here is the group's last chance at making Howard happy. Because this team is capped-out and bereft of trading chips after this deal, unless it decides to give up on Richardson this February at the trade deadline. With Gortat gone and Carter's expiring deal somewhere else, the Magic have cashed in on what they had to deal, and this is the payoff.

Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas. There's a lot of offense in that sentence, and the Magic need offense.

But it hardly guarantees them championship contender status again. And it certainly shouldn't have Dwight Howard counting the days until he can sign his next contract extension.

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