Surprisingly, Magic fans are excited about the 2013 season.
That might be hard to believe with Dwight Howard going to the Lakers and a relatively unsatisfactory return of players. There are no superstars on this team. There is a long road ahead.
The general assumption is that the Magic made the trade to be bad — really bad. Orlando is restocking the cupboard and trying to clear away bad contracts and position the franchise to make the next big move. That might not come until the summer of 2014, leaving the Magic to wonder in the wilderness for two years. The going thought is that the Magic will sit and wait, playing the draft to lay the foundation for the next era of Magic basketball.
That is tough to take as a fan. Sure, right now, Orlando fans are excited about a new era. But that changes once the losses begin to pile up. And, they will.
The gloom and doom though might be a bit overstated. There are reasons to believe the Magic will not challenge the Bobcats recent record for lowest winning percentage in league history and won’t be a bottom feeder. They may not compete for a Playoff spot, but this is a team that might pull of some stunners and will play hard. That is the overarching expectation more than wins and losses.
It is both similar and dissimilar to the most beloved and cherised team in the franchise’s history — the 1999-2000 Heart and Hustle squad.
That squad was incredibly fun to watch. It was full of gritty players who played their hearts out. It did not feature a single player with an All-Star appearance to their names. Ben Wallace, Bo Outlaw and Darrell Armstrong were pure hustle. Veterans like Chris Gatling and Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Ron Mercer came in to provide some sense of consistency. Some how, that team went 41-41 and was in the Playoff race to the last moment.
Certainly, any team can find the right mix, catch lightning, get hot and compete for a Playoff spot. The game is not played on paper.
And on paper, the Magic are not the most talented team.
But Pat Williams, an executive vice president with the Magic is, for one, looking forward to this year’s team. He told David Baumann on his radio show on 1080 AM in Orlando that it will be a fun team to watch that will play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He said they have a lot to prove.
He invoked the “Heart and Hustle” team in his comparison of how this team is going to play. Williams always an optimist is certainly in the group that thinks this team can compete for a Playoff spot.
There is reason to believe that.
Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis, Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick are all experienced players. Al Harrington is plenty experienced too, although several reports suggest Harrington will be Orlando’s main trade chip this season. They will be extremely professional all year and will sacrifice themselves for the team, you would expect. The Magic will likely lean on these players to push the Magic in games on offense and keep them together in the locker room.
Unlike the Heart and Hustle team, this is not a team full of young players or expiring contracts (some would suggest a lot of the motivation of that Heart and Hustle team was the payday that would await many of them if they played well). This is a team filled with some experienced and accomplished veterans thrust onto a team without a star player and, perhaps, begin asked to play a bit above their pay grade.
This could make for both some games of surprising skill and could make for games of disappointing results. The question is which will happen more often than not.
The long-running assumption that this team will be flat out bad could be flat out wrong. There is talent there. Just mayble not talent to reach the playoffs or compete with the best in the NBA every night. It will mean most likely a lot more blowouts and a lot more volatility on the floor.
Playing like that Heart and Hustle team will be incredibly important for this year’s Magic. They have a lot working against them. But if you take a close look at the Heart and Hustle roster, you find some similarities:
Darrell Armstrong was the consummate captain and workhorse much like Jameer Nelson is for this team now. Nelson may not be the defender or spark plug Armstrong was, but he is certainly a more capable scorer when he gets going. Nelson has to be the heart and soul of this team like Armstrong was that year.
Arron Afflalo too seems much more accomplished than any of the shooting guards the Heart and Hustle Magic trotted out. Afflalo is better than Tariq Abdul-Wahad and, arguably, on par or better than Ron Mercer (who was acquired in a mid-season trade). J.J. Redick provides nice depth at shooting guard and Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington are decent offensive options, more than Matt Harpring could offensively. Moe Harkless could be a solid offensive player. Everyone is excited for Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn after their first go-round in Summer League.
It is defensively that the Magic will have to make up the difference.
Bo Outlaw and Harpring were selfless players who would give themselves up defensively and drove the team defensively. Ben Wallace was a big boost in the paint too. This is where the different will really be seen. Gustavo Ayon is great at playing within himself, but not doing much more. Nobody knows what kind of defender he can be. Same could be said for Nikola Vucevic. Glen Davis is a good defender, but he is not someone that is going to repel players from the paint like Ben Wallace could.
While the hustle and energy of Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw is what we remember from the Heart and Hustle team, statistically it was the Magic’s ninth-ranked defense (a defensive rating of 101.7) and the second fastest pace in the league that propelled the Magic.
As I noted previously, the Magic might look to run the ball more like that Heart and Hustle team did to try and create points without relying too much on one on one play. This team lacks a true offensive creator and there may be a lot of frustrating moments late in the shot clock if Orlando gets into too much of a half court offense. Particularly against good defensive teams.
And can the Magic copy the defensive statistics the Heart and Hustle team posted? Unless Gustavo Ayon is Ben Wallace re-incarnate, that seems unlikely.
The Magic will play hard in 2012-13. The question is will they execute a defensive plan that will match what looks like a pretty decent offensive team?
That is what could be the difference between this being a really special and fun city that calls back to Heart and Hustle, or a frustrating (but not unexpected) difficult year.
The draft pick may be what Orlando is ultimately after, but the players on the team will not settle for only that. They will be out there to win. And they may need to take a lesson and become Heart and Hustle 2 to make that effort successful.
Images: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press, Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images, Andy Lyons/AllSport