Friday, August 31, 2012

The Dreaded 'T' Word

‘Tanking’ may be a word once again developing in Magic fans’ vocabulary for the first time since the beginning of that eye-gouging 2003-2004 season. The local and national media have for the most part been resigned to the fact that Orlando is in 'tank mode' for the next year or two as Rob Hennigan builds us back into a title contender. There are still more player transactions that must occur before we can truly analyze if we'll be terrible or not. This current roster has enough veterans and talent that the Magic could still potentially sneak into the playoffs in an overall weak Eastern Conference. Now if you're taking a peek at the potential top 10 prospects for the 2013 Draft class already, you don't want to hear that. 

Rob Hennigan is not in a hurry to win games. Not at the sacrifice of his vision. 'Henny' is looking at building a championship product with much help from the draft and new non-player personnel acquisitions. Selecting Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn appears to have been a fantastic start. We also have our coaching staff for the '12-'13 campaign in place. Now more than ever it seems the magnifying glass gets whipped out for any new Orlando addition. I'm waiting for articles about the new janitorial and parking staffs hired. Jacque was an atrocious point guard with the Magic, but he's done an amazing job already in convincing myself and Magic fans that he is up for the challenge. If we play the uptempo style of play the Head Coach has described, then we're going to have a fun year. Even if that high energy doesn't translate into victories, it'll reveal who is busting their ass to try and make a difference on this franchise. We'll know quickly who wants to be a Magic man in the long-term. Shipping off Dwight Howard to Los Angeles in that blockbuster 4-team deal with Philly and Denver has basically wiped the grim-filled slate clean. Dumping Jason Richardson and Chris Duhon will go a long way in improving the squad as well. Arron AfflaloAl Harrington, and Nikola Vucevic are just a few brand new faces we'll have to get used to. With 16 contracts going into training camp, 17 players if you count DeAndre Liggins who can't be thrilled at the E'Twaun Moore signing, Hennigan has some more decisions to make as far as more wheeling and dealing goes down or if he cuts contracts like Justin HarperJosh McRoberts, and Christian Eyenga off the payroll books.

Let’s be honest now. For the first time since the Rashard Lewis acquisition in the 2007 offseason, Orlando has zero pressure to perform well. That can either motivate a squad or lead down an awkward path of complacency and mass losses. Even if ESPN thinks so, there is no way in hell the Magic are only winning 21 games. I was a season ticket holder for that 21-61 '03-'04. I have witnessed the abhorrent scene of a team with no hope or support. The '12-'13 team can lose half of its roster to a bubonic plague and Hennigan can trade away the other half for a box of Amway toiletries, and I still see it tough for this Vaughn-led roster to win 30 games.

Tanking doesn't solve or guarantee anything. The 'Thunder model' that everyone seems to claim they want to imitate depended on the Blazers drafting Greg Oden, and the Sonics/Thunder 'brilliant minds' having the luck and great scouting of finding diamonds in Russell Westbrook (#4 pick) and James Harden (#3 pick). It took years for the Sonics/Thunder to become good. In that time they changed time zones and changing its name and colors. No one wants to see that happen to any Orlando team. It wasn't that many years ago where the Magic almost ended up in OKC or Kansas City. Losing games and having an outdated arena will do that. In David Stern's league you can play abysmal and still end up with a terrible draft class to select from. When you're dealing with eighteen and 19-year-old individuals, it is rare to find a healthy-minded and moldable 'can't miss' stud. We're not in the National Football League, lotteries exist to potentially punish tankers. The ping pong balls have to drop in your favor, and we've taken Pat Williams' good fortune for granted over time with beating the odds and earning three #1 spots for the Magic.

Other franchises in years past have endured nightmares from those damn ping pong balls. The absurd actions teams have gone to lose games are frightening as well. As the years of the Draft Lottery have gone by, more and more we find that, statistically, tanking doesn't get rewarded. Would it be nice if another Shaquille O'Neal or even uncertain Dwight Howard were waiting in the wings to be chosen as a new potential superstar? Of course. But until the NBA raises the draft age restriction, the risk of drafting raw kids will continue to be very high. 

My advice: Coach and play as best as you're capable of and the pieces will fall into place. You can do that while still developing your youth. We know it's something Stan Van Gundy was criticized about. Let Jacque and his staff input the new systems and culture, and build that foundation that will lead us to glory. Tanking isn't a guaranteed solution. Plus, you turn off your casual viewers and that leads to a large drop in ticket sales and merchandise. The hiring of Hennigan, and the removal of coaches, scouts and players has been done. The mentality to scout better  than all other NBA teams is there. If we don't have a top 5 draft pick, or even a lottery pick, we're in a better position to have much more consistently successful drafts than we have maybe ever. That's counting the Pat Williams, John Gabriel, John Weisbrod, and Otis Smith General Manager eras. Do your homework and execute. Training camp begins in a month. Let's have a fantastic season and win as many games as possible. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dwight's Eight Best Magic Games in 8 Years of Awesomeness

It can't be all negative. I won't waste a spot on Mr. Howard being drafted #1 overall in the 2004 NBA Draft, or his first career regular season game (the first of numerous double-doubles). I also don't need to show off Dwight's 3 straight Defensive Player of the Year trophies. Nor will I dedicate any weird high school highlights, Team USA moments, or All-Star Weekend spectacles 'list'. He's done too much in his 8 seasons in a Magic jersey to dilute this list with anything that's not an Orlando game with a physical stat line. These are not rankings. They're all superb performances. But they are sequential when it comes to the calendar. A common theme you'll notice is that all eight of these games that I've picked and prodded out of dozens of fabulous games were victories. So let's begin.

* The Stars Are Bright -

This was just Dwight's second of many 20-20 games in a career ready to rocket out of the ground. April 15, 2006. Believe it or not, this B-Hill 36-46 Magic squad was still in the playoff hunt at this point. With the postseason still a feasible dream, Dwight would put up an outrageous 28 points and 26 rebounds in a 102-97 win over the Sixers towards the end of the 2005-2006 season. This is what I refer to as his sophomore 'growing up' game that officially made every basketball viewing person on Earth know that Dwight would be a superstar one day. It's something that's near impossible not to thoroughly enjoy if you were there in person or watching on television just at how hard #12 worked to help win that game. I was within the first dozen rows at center court of Amway Arena on that evening just enamored at his lead-by-example play. You can't find a clip of the game, so the recap will have to suffice

* "You've got to be kidding me!" -

Well that's one way to break a 104-104 tie and avoid almost certain overtime. For a third year big man, 30 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks, and 3 assists against championship caliber opponents will always be a superb stat line. This was back when Dwight was actually making some free throws as the 8-for-12 from the stripe indicates. I bet you Jacque Vaughn still remembers this game from February 9, 2007. Tim Duncan still has nightmares over that game-winning dunk. It had to be super emasculating to be jumping as high as you possibly can, only to see another man soar clearly way above you for a jam. I still have never again heard David Steele go that berserk and off the chain as he did witnessing pre-Superman literally soar. While most of the globe has seen this play from the Spurs' broadcast point of view where Sean Elliott is still senselessly babbling up a storm at what he witnessed, Orlando got to see this rare feat with a phenomenal play-by-play crew. I'll admit, it would've been better if Dwight celebrated with Hedo or Jameer first. Instead, he had to settle for Chuck Arroyo. Yes, Carlos actually provided an efficient 12 points. I still don't know where Hedo went after that epic inbounds pass and strut-off. He should've been getting lifted up for such an amazing pass. The Magic had no right to win this game. These are the Spurs in their prime still and Brian Hill had Trevor Ariza and Grant Hill sitting out. The comeback is still branded in many Magic fans' brains still where it's become folklore. It helps when J.J. Redick had a career game and Jameer Nelson's score-first approach out-dueled Tony Parker. I always give B-Hill credit for not being shy to put Jameer in the game as a shooting guard. Somewhere around this middle point of his third season is when Dwight has to be respected for his offense. It's not just stifling defense anymore. 

* Triple-Double -

November 12, 2008. He got close again during the '11-'12 Lockout season with his 19 points, 16 rebounds, and 8 blocks against the Cavaliers, but D12 only owns one career triple-double. That came against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 blocks isn't something you can just brush off. Dwight should have kept wearing the Shogun outfit more. Imagine if Howard shot slightly better percentages from the field and line. Another rebound would've been sweet too. Jameer had 9 boards to loan out. I don't care if the former Seattle franchise was still rebuilding, a triple-double is a triple-double. It wasn't just lay-ups, dunks, and post-ups, we got to see and slobber at his jump shot. Howard did the majority of his damage in the first 3 quarters of blowout play. Enjoy the slaughter.

* Warning: Elbow Crossing - 

April 28, 2009. Dwight's 24 points and 24 rebounds in a 91-78 Game 5 win to put Orlando up 3-2 of this very ugly first round series was the start of things to come that postseason for Mr. Howard. Well, once Dwight served his Game 6 suspension that saw Marcin Gortat go nuts. An elbow to Samuel Dalembert gave David Stern permission to suspend Dwight for that 1 game. Thankfully, it ended up working out for Orlando. That Game 5 did indeed also claim Courtney Lee's face and knocked him out a few days. 'Leesus' in masked form and the emergence of Redick, Alston, and Pietrus as bigger scoring options fueled our Finals run. So we can thank Dwight's ridiculously powerful elbow throws for helping to rally Stan Van Gundy's squad.

* Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals -

May 30, 2009. Yes, this was on my 21st birthday and it was a given that every Magic fan would put this in their personal top ten victories list. Dwight's 40 points, 4 assists, and 14 rebounds guided Orlando back to the Finals for the second time in franchise history. There's not much more I can say about it. I've lamented and glorified one of our team's pinnacle moments in previous postings. Savor the 103-90 video clip.

* A Crack of Thunder - 

Here were two of the NBA's regular season elite teams going at each other. Two 'small' markets who were defying the trend of large city franchises dominating the circuit. Dwight has an interesting history of putting up gigantic numbers against OKC. Our team doesn't always win, but on February 25th of the '10-'11 season Orlando took down the solid Thunder squad at Amway Center 111-88 behind Dwight's 40 points, 6 blocks, and 15 rebounds. Up to this point in time, that 2010-2011 campaign is statistically Howard's greatest. The man put up even more beastly numbers than we were used to. It's such a shame that SVG led squad ended up choking grotesquely.

* Move Over Wilt -

January 12, 2012. It's okay, Magic fans, it's not greedy if you think Dwight easily should've scored fifty points on this night. It's not exactly one of the better Wilt Chamberlain records a player could break, but 39 free throw attempts is a new NBA best that truly may never be topped. Most of that is credited to Warriors Head Coach Mark Jackson's stupidity. Of course, the 45 points is what we Magic fans are choosing to remember right now since that's Howard's current regular season career-high which he matched from a previous game against the Bobcats in 2009. He did put up 46 points and 19 boards in Game 1 of that Hawks 2011 disappointment of a 1st round series just the summer previous. The 23 rebounds in a 117-109 road victory is just the cherry on top. Dwight hasn't had more than maybe a handful of games where he's truly taken over late in a 4th quarter (see the 8-0 run to end the contest). His hook shot was masterful in Oakland. You can watch the entire contest here. He's had a few 40-15s, but this is the only 40-20 Dwight has posted up to this point in his NBA career.

* 'Beat The Heat' One More Time -

Let's ignore the 6-of-18 free throw shooting and look at everything else. 9-of-13 from the field. 24 points and 25 rebounds against Miami's 'Big 3'. No Lockout excuses can be made on this March 13th night. This was the original farewell date to the Amway Center faithful. Because the trade deadline was March 15th, and all that remained between that final Sunshine State rivalry game and Dwight getting traded was a quick trip to play the Spurs on the 14th. So for all the supposed distractions and tumult Orlando was going through, to still muster up a gutsy and ballsy 104-98 overtime win in front of the Magic faithful is definitely a special moment. Comebacks are always fun.