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July 20, 2009
The Magic's Offseason
Crowding the Frontcourt

by Kevin Pelton

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A variety of adjectives have been attached to the Orlando Magic's offseason, but "passive" is not among them. After the Magic reached the NBA Finals, GM Otis Smith could have brought back the same core of players and called it a day. Instead, facing the challenge of free agency and the threat of the other Eastern Conference contenders loading up for another run at the title, Smith and company have acted boldly to tweak the Orlando lineup with an eye to returning to the Finals and winning this time around. Still, the nagging feeling I'm left with is that the Magic's moves don't quite fit together properly.

As the offseason began following the Magic's five-game loss to the Lakers, Orlando's roster situation was this: Forward Hedo Turkoglu, the team's versatile point forward, was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, seeking his last big contract at the age of 30. Marcin Gortat, whose effective play behind All-Star center Dwight Howard made him one of the postseason's breakout stars, was headed into restricted free agency and due for a sizable raise. The other eight Magic players who saw action in the Finals were all under contract, presenting something of a logjam at point guard with a healthy Jameer Nelson and the player acquired to replace him, long-time starter Rafer Alston.

Orlando's first decision, it is clear in hindsight, was to replace Turkoglu. The so-called "Michael Jordan of Turkey" picked the perfect time to hit free agency, coming off an excellent 2008-09 campaign and a playoff run that showcased his multifaceted skill set. While the Magic would have been hard-pressed to advance deep into the postseason without Turkoglu's ability to create off of the pick-and-roll and at times take on point guard duties, his overall numbers told a more pessimistic story, painting Turkoglu as a slightly above-average player who, thanks to his durability, was worth about five wins above replacement. Given Turkoglu's age, his production could be expected to wane over the course of his new contract at the same time his yearly salary figured to increase.

Viewed in that perspective, a new deal for Turkoglu looked like an expensive risk. Orlando correctly judged the warm market for Turkoglu, who played his two primary suitors (Portland and Toronto) off against each other before ultimately wrangling a five-year, $53-million deal from the Raptors. The Magic got involved in a sign-and-trade that allowed Toronto to complete its own sign-and-trade sending Shawn Marion to Dallas, giving Orlando a trade exception that could come in handy down the road.

To replace Turkoglu, the Magic turned to the trade market. Looking to get under the cap in 2010, the New Jersey Nets had been reportedly dangling star Vince Carter for some time, and Orlando decided to bring the Daytona Beach native back home on the eve of the draft. Adding Carter came at a price for the Magic, which had to supply not only the ending contracts of Alston and Tony Battie but also one of the team's prized young players--shooting guard Courtney Lee, who had emerged as a starter in his rookie season out of Western Kentucky. To make up for the loss of Lee, Orlando did get back sophomore forward Ryan Anderson--drafted a pick ahead of Lee a year earlier.

In terms of overall talent, Carter is an obvious choice over Turkoglu. He was a nine-win player for the Nets a year ago, bouncing back from an off 2007-08 campaign, and his skill set at this stage of his career is similar to Turkoglu's. The only quibbles are that Carter is more of an isolation player and less accomplished in the pick-and-roll compared to Turkoglu, and that his defensive motivation comes and goes. If Stan Van Gundy can keep his attention at the defensive end, Carter should be a terrific pickup for the Magic.

The wing situation settled, Smith went shopping for depth up front and--theoretically--a replacement for Gortat. Waiting out a rumored five-year, $25-million offer for Brandon Bass, the Magic ended up signing him to a reasonable deal of four years and $18 million that did not require the team's entire mid-level exception.

Signing Bass figured to wrap up Orlando's offseason, other than a few smaller signings like another wing player and a third point guard to add depth. That's why it was a surprise when we first began hearing rumblings that the Magic would match the Dallas Mavericks' offer of the full mid-level over five years to Gortat.

Lo and behold, Orlando has done just that, bringing Gortat back last Monday. That's where I start to jump off board. I understand the logic, in that Gortat has proven to be a valuable asset who commanded the interest of multiple teams. It's hard to lose a player like that for nothing, and Gortat was extremely valuable for the Magic in the playoffs. Still, Orlando has now committed nearly $10 million a year to a pair of reserves who play behind All-Stars Howard and Rashard Lewis, two players who averaged a combined 72 minutes a game last year during the regular season. That would leave 24 minutes a night up front for both Bass and Gortat, either of whom could capably handle that load.

What worries me is that the added frontcourt depth becomes an excuse to give Lewis more minutes at small forward. Doing so makes the Magic more conventional, and much less dangerous. Lewis' ability to space the floor as a power forward who led the NBA in three-pointers a year ago has been key to opening up the Orlando offense for everyone else. Bass is a good midrange shooter, but does not have three-point range, while the biggest problem with ramping up Gortat's minutes is that he and Howard are both non-shooters who are most effectively deployed on offense either in the paint or as the roll man in a screen-and-roll.

While Van Gundy has more options up front, he is more limited in the backcourt. During the postseason, he mixed and matched his shooting guards, getting minutes from Lee, Mickael Pietrus (who will likely now start on the wing alongside Carter) and J.J. Redick depending upon the matchups. With Lee out of the picture, Pietrus and Redick will have to produce on a nightly basis.

Unless or until Gortat is moved for value elsewhere--which isn't likely to happen until next season because of his base-year contract status, not to mention that he'd have to approve any trade because Orlando matched his offer sheet--the Magic isn't getting particularly good bang for its money. The benefit of strengthening the frontcourt is limited by the minutes available up front, and offset to some extent by the loss of Lee.

None of this should be taken to mean the Magic had a bad offseason or will fall from the ranks of contenders in the Eastern Conference. Those assessments would be much too dire. It's just that I'm not certain Orlando did as well as was possible.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Nash Re-Ups in Phoenix (07/21)

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