Magic show has new cast of characters
On paper, upgrading a roster with new talent is an easy fix. In practice, it usually takes a little time for the pieces to jell. In the Magic's first practice after adding five new rotation players in the offseason, coach Stan Van Gundy bore witness to that.
"I don't know how many turnovers we had," said Van Gundy, "but I'm guessing, in three quarters, upwards of a hundred."
He's exaggerating, obviously, but Van Gundy's statement points to the biggest challenge in Orlando's training camp. The Magic must integrate Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, Jason Williams and Ryan Anderson into a system that worked phenomenally well last season -- and there could be some bumps along the way.
That's especially true to start the season. A 10-game suspension for forward Rashard Lewis, for testing positive for a banned substance, creates an added complication. So does reintroducing point guard Jameer Nelson, who made the All-Star team last season but missed the second half due to injury, until a rocky return in the Finals.
With all the new additions, one thing that was missing was talk of goals. They don't really need to be stated these days -- the Magic lost in the Finals, and this season they're planning to win the championship.
"Anything less than that is not a successful season for us," said Lewis. "We got to the Finals, didn't win it, but we got that experience. We know what it takes to get back there."
To win the franchise's first-ever championship, the Magic made several roster upgrades at a major financial cost -- signing high-scoring power forward Bass as a free agent, matching Dallas' offer sheet to backup center Marcin Gortat, trading three role players to New Jersey for Carter and Anderson, and signing veteran free agents Barnes and Williams. With a $9 million trade exception still at their disposal, they may not be done.
Since Bass and Anderson are both power forwards, and since both of last season's starting wing players are gone -- Courtney Lee to New Jersey in the Carter deal, Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto in a sign-and-trade -- many onlookers assume Orlando will play a more traditional lineup by moving Lewis to small forward and starting Bass up front.
Not so fast, says Van Gundy.
"People assuming that [Bass starts] are way ahead of the game," he said. "We've been very successful playing Rashard at the 4. I don't intend to go away from that."
What will happen, he concedes, is that Lewis will play more minutes at the 3 than in the past -- if not in the opening minutes, then at some point during the game. Lewis is familiar with the position from playing it so long for the Sonics, but after playing exclusively as a 4 in Orlando the past two years, he has to relearn life as a wing.
"I don't think it will change too much," said Lewis. "We'll still spread the floor and shoot a lot of 3s and let Dwight play inside by himself.
So it's a bit like riding a bike ... with a twist.
"Today I played the 3, but my mind was at the 4," said Lewis. "I did play it for nine years in Seattle, but the past couple years I was strictly 4. So I have to get my mind back to playing that position. I know how to ride the bike, but I have to remember how to pop that wheelie like I used to."
It's possible that Lewis' assignment will vary on a nightly basis. Van Gundy and Lewis both alluded to the possibility of playing small against some teams and big against others depending on matchups. Lewis cited Atlanta and Phoenix as teams he'd be better off playing against as a 4, and Boston and the Lakers as opponents he'd match up better against as a 3.
"To me, four starters are pretty well set," said Van Gundy. "That fifth starter would come from among Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson. So we have four other guys who can fit into that starting spot. It's not like one lineup of five guys will be out there all the time."
In addition to deciding where to play Lewis, the Magic have a major adjustment to make on the perimeter, with Carter replacing Turkoglu. In a vacuum, Carter is the better player, but the Magic's chemistry with Turkoglu operating as their main pick-and-roll weapon will be tough to match. Carter now inherits that role in one gulp.
"Turk's tough to replace," said Van Gundy, "because he was so key to what we did and the ball was in his hands all the time. Obviously, in two years with him, he gains a real understanding of what you want, so after a while it's all second nature. So I think that's clearly a real loss."
"Vince will take on a large part of the role Turk had in terms of running pick-and-rolls and putting the ball in his hands. There are a few different things we'll do for Vince, but I don't expect much change in terms of style of play."
At least there's a degree of familiarity with Carter. He's an Orlando resident in the offseason and played pickup games with the Magic players over the summer. He also has joined several of them in Philadelphia when Nelson hosts pickup games there.
If the Magic do get off to a rocky start, they can always look back to last season. Orlando lost its first two games to Atlanta and Memphis and lacked home-court advantage against both Boston and Cleveland in the playoffs, but overcame those problems (and the absence of Nelson) to win the conference.
Nonetheless, things get much easier with home-court advantage. Securing it may depend on starting the season on the right foot and overcoming Lewis' early absence, and then -- the overlooked part -- reintegrating him successfully afterward.
"The one thing I'm still confused about," said Van Gundy, "is how ... to make sure we're ready to play with Rashard, but we're ready to start the year without him.
"We have to play a lot [in preseason] with the rotation we're going to have. Ten games is a lot of games. People underestimate that -- 12 percent of your schedule is gone right there. [But Lewis] needs minutes. I want to get him minutes at the 3. I noticed today in the scrimmage he's just more comfortable in our system at the 4 than he is at the 3. I don't think it's a big adjustment; he just needs more minutes at the 3 to get comfortable."
So the Magic have to integrate a lot of talent quickly, get a key holdover trained at a new position and then play without him for 10 games, and still stay with the league's elite. If not, they risk losing home-court advantage past the first round of the playoffs.
As such, their training camp is even more crucial than most. Unfortunately, it isn't any longer. Everyone agreed that cleaning up the sloppiness and avoiding "100-turnover" scrimmages would take some time ... but in this case, time is the one thing they don't have in great quantity.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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