Expectations high for Magic in '09-10
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Painful as it was for him to swallow this loss, 83-year-old Rich DeVos was still the picture of semicontentment as he exited the Orlando Magic's locker room and greeted the members of his extended family.
Sons, daughters, grandchildren -- all of them were on the receiving ends of kisses from the family and franchise patriarch, the wealthy Amway co-founder and entrepreneur who bought the Magic 18 seasons ago but has yet to raise an NBA championship banner to the rafters of the arena that bears his company's name.
He had been to this stage once before, back in the early days of the franchise when Shaquille O'Neal was wearing a black, pinstriped uniform.
But that appearance in the NBA Finals ended dismally, as the Magic were swept by the Houston Rockets, and this one ended in an even more upsetting fashion -- at least to DeVos.
If Game 5 had ended the way it should have, he would have been kissing those grandkids goodbye, because he'd have been off to California for Game 6.
Instead, these were gestures of mutual condolence after a sad ending to what could have been -- with a better bounce of the ball here, a more sound late-game strategy there -- a much happier time.
"This one hurts a little more because I think we fought a little harder to get here, and it was a more miraculous achievement that we got here," DeVos told ESPN.com. "And I was surprised we were even here at all, and so here we are, and what a great year. We're grateful for what happened."
The 14 years that connected the team's two Finals appearances brought much more hardship than success. Shaq left in the summer of 1996 when the Lakers offered him a bigger contract, and several years later Tim Duncan was all set to come aboard with Grant Hill -- whose injuries ruined his Orlando years -- before a last-minute intervention by David Robinson persuaded him to stay in San Antonio.
Tracy McGrady became the backup free-agent signee that summer. But he subsequently was turned into Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, and Francis eventually was turned into Trevor Ariza, and the ill-advised trade that sent Ariza to the Lakers for Maurice Evans and Brian Cook came back to haunt the franchise more than it could have expected in its worst nightmares.
This one hurts a little more [than in 1995] because I think we fought a little harder to get here, and it was a more miraculous achievement that we got here.” -- Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos
When the Lakers made their third-quarter charge to turn around Game 4, Ariza led the way.
And when Los Angeles put forth what turned out to be its championship-clinching 16-0 run to put the Magic on their heels in Game 5, Ariza excelled again. The player the Magic practically gave away was both burying them and bullying one of their primary players, Hedo Turkoglu, whose free-agent stock may have dropped in the final two games as precipitously as it rose in the 22 playoff games that preceded Orlando's collapse in the end.
Now, the Magic head into the summer uncertain whether they'll be able to retain Turkoglu once he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. (Although, as ESPN.com NBA writer John Hollinger asked, if you are Detroit president Joe Dumars and you want to add a small forward, do you go after the 30-year-old Turkoglu, who will want a new contract starting at more than $10 million per season, or the 23-year-old Ariza, who could be available for less?)
The Magic likely will need to find takers for Rafer Alston and Tony Battie (while taking little or no money in return, a nearly impossible task) to retain Turkoglu and remain beneath the luxury tax. It'll be on DeVos during the next three weeks to decide what price is worth paying to keep together the core of a team that proved itself to be more than the equal of the defending-champion Boston Celtics and the team that was the class of the conference during the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Oh, well, we'll work on that. I think we'll hold our team together pretty well, and there are pieces we've got to add. We've got to get a little better," DeVos said.
Indeed, Dwight Howard needs to get better in at least two key areas -- developing a more diversified low-post repertoire and continuing to improve his free throw shooting -- and Jameer Nelson needs to continue to fully recover from the shoulder surgery that knocked him out for four months before he made his surprising return in the Finals.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy now has the same bitter taste of defeat in his mouth that his younger brother, Jeff, experienced a decade ago when his New York Knicks made their unlikely run to the 1999 Finals. And as wise a man as Stan is, he'll be wiser from this experience when he returns in the fall and sees what management has given him to work with.
"I haven't given one thought to next year, or what's next," Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy's system of surrounding a dominant low-post presence with an array of shooters was the right formula for knocking off the Celtics (although they were seriously short-handed against Orlando's size without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe) and the heavily favored Cavs. But Boston should be back at full strength to start next season, while Cleveland will do all it takes to find a low-post presence with the defensive strength to contend with the powerful Howard, whose 40-point performance in the elimination game over the Cavs will stand over this summer as the greatest postseason performance of Howard's young career.
Turkoglu is a wild card, as is backup center Marcin Gortat. And Gortat might well be worth $5.5 million if the Magic are not a luxury-tax team, although his cost would seem excessive should Orlando become a tax-paying team for the first time in four seasons.
Magic general manager Otis Smith made the best move he could when he brought in Alston after Nelson's midseason injury, but he grossly overpaid Lewis two summers ago when no other teams were bidding against him and traded away a better player (Keith Bogans) for a lesser one (Tyronn Lue) in a panic deal immediately after the Nelson injury. And we've already covered the Ariza trade, which was an unmitigated disaster.
In the end, the Magic emerged as the class of the East, but they were in a different class against an opponent that craved a title rather than hungered for one.
And when it comes down to just two teams left standing, no matter how equally they are matched, the one with the stronger yearning is the one that usually prevails.
"It's always a hard thing to sort out how much of it is you playing poorly and how much of it is them playing well. I don't have the total answer for that," Van Gundy said. "But I think, when you get to this point and the team wins a championship, you have to give them credit. I think it's the proper thing to do rather than bemoan the way we played."
Like his team's owner, Van Gundy took the loss surprisingly well.
We've seen Jerry Buss and his posse storm out of The Palace of Auburn Hills during the third quarter of Game 5 of the 2004 Finals, when the Lakers were clearly a beaten team against the Pistons. We've seen Mark Cuban go through the various stages of his 2006 meltdown following his Mavericks' collapse against the Heat.
Now, we've seen DeVos absorb this loss like the genteel man those close to him say he is.
But a year from now, if the situation is the same (and it could be, given the strength of the team's core if Nelson is healthy and Turkoglu is re-signed), it's difficult to imagine seeing quite so many smiles and smooches from the leadership of the losing side.
With as close as the Magic came to raising that elusive first championship banner, the bar of success will be set quite a bit higher for Orlando in the 2009-10 season.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.