Commentary

Magic boldly put big money on the line

Originally Published: December 18, 2010
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Say this for Otis Smith: The Orlando Magic president is not afraid to roll the dice. With the Magic underachieving and his team's underwhelming offensive attack being the main reason, he rolled the dice on two different tables and hopes at least one will come up snake-eyes.

And say this for Smith's owners in Orlando: Small market or not, they're not going to let Dwight Howard's prime waste away without taking every shot they can at an elusive championship ... even if it means putting out every blaze by blasting money at it through a firehose.

On Saturday, Orlando took on a bunch of money in one deal by trading Rashard Lewis to Washington for Gilbert Arenas, and then sent out a bit in another that swapped Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, cash and a 2011 first-rounder to Phoenix for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark.

But combine those two blockbuster deals, and the small-market Magic's payroll is looking positively Gotham-sized. The Magic will have $80 million on the books in 2012-13. Not this year, and not next year -- I'm talking about 2013, people. And they can only get the number that low if they don't keep Richardson.

While Orlando's cap numbers going forward never had looked good, most had figured the Magic would use their trade chips -- most notably Gortat, who had a limited role with Dwight Howard around but was coveted by several size-starved clubs, but also backup power forwards Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass -- as a means to reduce salary in future years. But once figuring in the value of the cash and the first-rounder going to Phoenix, Saturday's deal becomes close to neutral cash-wise.

Moreover, Bass and Anderson are no longer trade chips; they are now necessities. In fact, forget Arenas, Richardson and Turkoglu for a moment -- Bass and Anderson are really the keys to the deal, because their development started this ball rolling. Both players had badly out-produced Lewis over the past two seasons, leading to an increasingly loud chorus of observers wondering why Lewis was still starting. The undersized Bass is also likely to see service as a backup center -- a role he actually filled fairly productively in Dallas -- although massive rookie Daniel Orton could also be part of the picture there.

As for Arenas, he'll help the backcourt because he's better than Chris Duhon and will have his moments as a sixth man, but let's be realistic here. He isn't better than Jameer Nelson or Richardson, he's not anywhere near the player he was five years ago, and his laissez-faire attitude to defense is going to put him at odds with coach Stan Van Gundy.

I have similar feeling about Turkoglu. While Pietrus has been awful this year and Turk is likely an improvement, we need to nip this revisionist history about his Orlando years in the bud: Turkoglu wasn't particularly good in his last season in Orlando, save for a glorious Game 7 in Boston, and he's unlikely to provide more than a small bench upgrade at a very expensive price.

The Carter-Richardson swap at shooting guard looks even on paper, but Richardson's catch-and-shoot 3-point game is tailor-made for Orlando's system. He's another player who doesn't defend much, however, so Van Gundy will have his hands full getting his three new offensive-minded players to play his kind of defense.

As a result, I expect Nelson and Quentin Richardson to remain starters in Orlando, with the added benefit that the Magic can confuse opponents by starting two wing players both named Richardson.

The other key player here is Phoenix, which took one more shot at salvaging its season with the first trade of the post-Steve Kerr era that made actual sense. Carter and Richardson are roughly equivalent players, but the acquisition of Gortat should solidify a center position that's given the Suns major problems this year. Phoenix is last in defensive efficiency and 29th in rebound rate, while Gortat ranks 10th among centers in rebound rate. Combined with recently returned Robin Lopez, it gives the Suns two effective centers who can dive down the middle in the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash and solidify the team's horrific rebounding and defense.

Better yet, it dumps the toxic contract of Turkoglu for the less onerous one of Pietrus; while Pietrus is yet another small forward, the Suns will feel no compulsion to play him and can move forward with a coherent rotation that has two real centers, Channing Frye as a full-time power forward, a four-man wing rotation of Carter, Grant Hill, Josh Childress and Jared Dudley, and of course Nash and Goran Dragic at the controls.

Additionally, the partially guaranteed 2011-12 season of Carter's contract is a plus for Phoenix in some ways, as it gives it more time to figure out whether to nuke the roster or keep charging forward with the current nucleus. Richardson was heading into his free-agent year, adding pressure to make a decision more quickly than perhaps the Suns were willing to do.

One thing is for certain: I don't see this trade in any way as a sign that the Suns will look to move Nash. It was more an opportunistic move to acquire a center while dropping Turkoglu's toxic contract, and they were able to dump him while getting a first-rounder rather than giving one up.

For Washington, meanwhile, the logic is straightforward. The Wizards would have traded Arenas for a crate of oranges -- so as long as the contact they took back was less onerous than they one they gave up -- so they were giddy about cutting this deal. They have to be pleasantly surprised it didn't cost them any picks or assets either and gives them a somewhat useful player in Lewis that they may be able to package to a contender at some point in the future.

In the big picture, however, this was Orlando's deal. I can't say I'm crazy about it given the risk the Magic took and the assets they gave up, but in the short term the team is definitely better. The Magic improved three rotation spots (backup point guard, backup small forward and starting power forward) and got worse only at what is the least important one for them (backup center). They just committed a lot of resources to doing so, and one has to wonder if the other owners are chortling at a small-market team's willingness to pony up so much cash while the owners plead poverty heading into this summer's collective bargaining negotiations.

That's a problem for another day, however. For now, Smith will forge forward with his revamped roster and hope that Van Gundy can teach the new guys a thing or two about defense. Smith probably figured he had to do it to challenge the Celtics and Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy, which was the only way to justify the Magic's exorbitant payroll. I still doubt they can do so, which is another reason I question this trade ... while, at the same time, remaining somewhat in awe of Smith's willingness to throw caution to the wind and risk it.