Commentary

Hard to see these deals improving Magic

Originally Published: December 18, 2010
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

The only way to make sense of it is to think that the NFL just can't upstage the NBA when it comes to absurdity, so Gilbert Arenas to the Orlando Magic just had to happen. It can't be a coincidence that this long-rumored move became official the day after Michael Vick stole the spotlight from the Lakers' visit to the 76ers by entering the arena to a standing ovation during the third quarter.

If Vick can come back from his dog-killing depths to become an MVP candidate and one of Philadelphia's most beloved athletes, why can't Gilbert Arenas be viewed as the final piece of Orlando's championship puzzle almost a year to the day after bringing guns to the Washington Wizards locker room? This is the NBA, where the ridiculous becomes routine, where Ron Artest has gone from in-stands brawler to a champion who's raising awareness for mental illness.

Except ... even in the NBA universe the concept of Arenas as savior is a little too much to digest. I'm happy that he'll get a new start and optimistic that he'll fit in Orlando's lighthearted locker room atmosphere, which should restore his playful side. Most of all, though, I'm curious about how, exactly, this is all supposed to work.

How much faith should be put in a player who, because of injuries and suspensions, has played only 68 games since the start of the 2007-08 season? How will Arenas respond to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, especially after one person close to the trade talk says that Van Gundy was opposed to trading for Arenas?

The Magic were the one team involved in the NBA's Saturday Swap Meet that absolutely had to make a move at this time. They're also the one team we can't say for sure addressed a need, despite the bold moves.

Magic general manager "Otis Smith has pushed all of his chips to the center of the table here," an Eastern Conference executive said.

The Magic decided to reconfigure their roster to try to get back to the Finals. This overhaul doesn't make them any more likely to do it. It's change for the sake of change. No one's worrying in Boston or sweating in South Beach.

As they receded toward the horizon in the rear-view mirrors of the Celtics and the Heat, the Magic had to do something to stay in the championship race. They've lost five games this month; the Celtics and Heat haven't lost any. The Magic had a listless swing out West marked by poor defense and inconsistent play by everyone except Dwight Howard.

So they got rid of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis, said goodbye to Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus, a first-round pick and cash, and brought in Hedo Turkoglu, Arenas, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.

As one NBA executive said, "That's a beast of a team offensively." There's Howard inside, Turkoglu can shoot or drive, Arenas can still score 20-30, Richardson can drop shots from the corners and Jameer Nelson can run the point.

But what about the other end of the court? The Magic's defensive inadequacies are only exacerbated now that Pietrus, their best perimeter defender, is gone and Gortat isn't around to fill the middle when Howard gets into foul trouble (something that's even more likely with the gigantic funnel that will be Orlando's defense.)

It's as if the Magic saw Miami's recent success but didn't notice the method behind it; the Heat haven't allowed an opponent to score 100 points in the month of December.

Yes, Orlando is 21st in the league in scoring, down six points per game from last season, with Carter, Lewis and J.J. Redick among those whose scoring average has slipped. But will bringing in three important pieces and asking them to adjust on the fly produce instant results on the scoreboard?

There are far too many unknowns for the Magic. Can't say that about the other teams involved in the trades Saturday.

The Phoenix Suns got the size they desperately needed by adding Gortat, plus payroll relief in Carter's short-term contract, while sending the productive-but-expensive Richardson and high-cost, low-result Turkoglu to Orlando.

The Washington Wizards have one less year of a big contract obligation and 3 3/4 less years of Gilbert Arenas. Wizards staffers were saying things like, "It changes the culture of our team and our locker room," and, "We've got to get away from the past."

But is Otis Smith too caught up in the past? In acquiring Richardson and Arenas he has two of the top three scorers from the 2002-03 Golden State Warriors, when Smith was the executive director of basketball operations there. By taking on the three years and $62 million remaining on Arenas' contract beyond this season, Smith proved two NBA adages: no contract is untradeable, and all transactions begin with familiarity.

"People go with what they feel a sense of comfort," the Eastern exec said. "This is a comfort move for Otis."

It also means he's comfortable admitting mistakes. Sending Lewis to Washington shows he has come around to what the rest of the NBA believed: that investing some $20 million a season in Rashard Lewis isn't the way to build a championship team. And Smith is also asking for a do-over on his main decision of 2009: letting Turkoglu go and bringing in Carter.

So Turkoglu wasn't worth $10 million a year to the Magic when the Raptors signed him, but he's worth that to Orlando now?

That's why it's hard to see these moves as a step forward. If you want to beat LeBron in the playoffs, why trade someone who's done it before (Lewis hit the winning 3-pointer in Game 1 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals) for someone who lost to him three times? Why trade someone whose last All-Star appearance was in 2009 for someone who's last All-Star Game was in 2007 (even if it did include a trampoline dunk)?

Arenas is "not the guy he once was in terms of that last step of explosion to the rim," a Wizards source said. "He's still pretty good on the floor with his ballhandling and strength and getting by. He can't finish as effectively. He's diving into people" to draw the foul.

The Wizards felt that Arenas had trouble committing to the franchise because he felt they didn't do enough to support him in the wake of the Dec. 21, 2009, gun incident and his subsequent behavior that ultimately resulted in a league-imposed suspension for the rest of the season and a felony conviction for an unlicensed weapon. One source noted that "when he was focused and wanted to audition," Arenas scored 31 points in Orlando this season. Perhaps being reunited with Smith, a GM who was willing to take a chance on him post-conviction, Arenas will respond with something closer to the mid-to-high-20s scoring performances he produced regularly in the middle of the last decade.

But if the Magic wanted to gamble and were willing to deal with a couple of teams, they should have worked with a third party to get Carmelo Anthony. Now that's a move that would inspire more fear than questions. Even if Anthony departed as a free agent it would be worth a shot at grabbing a championship now. They're the one team that's close enough to take the chance even if he didn't commit to signing an extension. How many other chances will they get to add a player that good, even for half a season?

Howard is only 25, but he feels a sense of urgency. "Any time you have an opportunity to win a championship while you're young, you've got to take advantage of it," he said when he was in L.A. to play the Clippers last week.

The looming danger in case these latest moves don't work this is that Howard can opt out and become a free agent after next season. While it's hard to imagine him leaving $19 million and stepping into the expected salary restrictions in the next labor agreement, he will have the chance to wield that power over the franchise the way Anthony has in Denver this year.

Another subplot to Saturday's moves is the way the Magic are now beholden to agent Dan Fegan. Fegan represents Howard and Richardson and has been advising his former client Arenas. Does Fegan want to continue to consolidate power in Orlando and do his best to help Howard succeed there? Or will he take his guys elsewhere, which happened when he had a glut of players in Golden State?

It all adds up to a lot of uncertainty. Any time you're talking about a situation involving Gilbert Arenas, that's usually the case.