Something has been off all year. Just about everyone has a hypothesis to what it is and how to fix it — whether it is having too many shooters and not enough cutters or remaking a team mid-season or anything having to do with Jameer Nelson and his inconsistency.
We are four months removed from a major roster-shifting trade and this team is still searching for an identity — or, better put, it is still waiting to play at a championship level consistently. It is already March and the season only has four weeks remaining. These are not questions we want to be asking right now if Orlando is to win a title.
Still, the Magic are confident (at least in their words to the press) they will be ready once the postseason begins. I tend to agree that Orlando will up its level of play, focus and intensity once the games start really counting. The only problem is that everyone else — at least the Chicagos, Bostons and Miamis of the league — will do that too. It is an uneasy place for Orlando to be in as the team is still very much working its way toward the consistency the team has come to recognize the past three years.
One piece of evidence suggesting the Magic can turn things around was revealed by Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel last Thursday. Howard told Robbins the team has become a tight-knit group and are getting along fine. There is nothing to suggest anything is wrong in that locker room. Quentin Richardson, who has gone from starter to bench warmer this season, even said he would rather be playing, or not playing, for a winner than starring for a losing team.
Of course, what they say to the press and what they say to themselves might be different. But nothing suggests the team has any problems. That is a good step forward.
It was the next part of the article that caught my eye:
“Even though he has been more serious this season, Howard always has maintained that the Magic play their best when they feel loose and relaxed. He facilitates that process before every game when the players huddle together immediately following pregame introductions; his teammates typically gather around him and he offers something — maybe a joke or even occasionally a funny dance — that puts smiles on everyone’s faces.
To be sure, the current group of 13 players share a goofball spirit.”
This is perhaps the identity that is missing, at least overtly. This team is acting a little too seriously.
It was about this time last year that articles began being written about “The Magic Show.” It was that loud, bombastic dunk display the team had before games last year. The team got into it and even during the Playoffs the fans got into it too.
Some viewed it as the team showing off and disrespecting their opponent. The Celtics probably thought that way. Others viewed it as the team showing how non-serious it was. It might be the reason the thing stopped after the Magic lost the first two games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While it certainly could be those things and it probably was something that should have ceased long before the postseason, it is an important character trait of this team. Dwight Howard is a fun-loving guy. Jameer Nelson is one of the big jokesters on the team. Hedo Turkoglu is also known as a funny guy. And Gilbert Arenas is… Gilbert Arenas.
I am harping a little bit back on the old: “Is Dwight Howard serious enough?” debate. I am not doubting his drive, motivation or seriousness about winning a title. I think that is just about all he thinks about.
This team needs to play much looser to excel.
Howard is doing his part, making the pre-game team huddle a little more fun. The Magic have already gotten into hot water for mimicing LeBron James’ team photo pregame routine earlier this season.
Still the team has taken a much more measured approach to the season, trying to show its seriousness about winning a title. We have all been looking for what that lost edge might have been this year. Why wouldn’t it be the team’s fun-loving spirit?
Maybe Orlando should go all out and have tons of fun during pregame warmups and throw any inhibitions or fears of criticism to the wind. The Magic and its players need to be themselves. This may rattle Otis Smith a little bit (and maybe Stan Van Gundy) but the team is undoubtedly better when it does not feel it can be itself.
Van Gundy has always told his players to shoot the ball — perhaps to its detriment. He has said he is never upset if guys miss shots, he just does not want them to be afraid to shoot.
This is the type of mentality Orlando should take on the floor. The team should be itself and play with the kind of fun-loving spirit that baffles national pundits and endears the team to its fans.
The Magic are a good team. Perhaps their championship potential needs to be unleashed with a few jokes.