1. Finals Preview: It’s been a long road this year to the Finals and there have been quite a few twists and turns that were unexpected (notably the fact that the Lakers aren’t here). Still, after all the happenings, the Heat are in the Finals and are prohibitive favorites (as most expected last FAll) and we have a very fun Finals match up with the Mavs, who are far from pushovers. Aside from the actual games, there are tons of questions being raised. Let’s take a look at the major issues/questions FAQ-style and see what we learn…
-Who is going to win?
I guess we should start with the most important question. At first glance, the Heat seem to be serious favorites. Maim has so much star power that it is hard to imagine how Dallas can keep up. Forgetting this superficial analysis, a deeper look doesn’t change much. We all understand the Heat: an excellent, albeit slow paced team (20th in pace), that needs the three stars to score. If a secondary player gets hot, the opposition is probably can’t win.
Even without the stars, Dallas plays at a fairly similar pace to Miami but are just a little worse offensively and defensively. Dallas still gets its point from the three-point line and accurate shooting overall. They were able to score despite being only 27th in free throws. Defensively, the Mavs only have two legit shot blockers (Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler). What you have then is a slow team that plays tough man defense and avoids giving up free throws but can’t really stop shot blockers and relies on jump shots offensively. This has worked very well in the playoffs, since Dirk, Jason Terry, and Peja Stojakovic are shooting great from three and most of the team has outperformed their regular season numbers.
In contrast, Miami lives at the line offensively (Miami’s Big Three all had more free throw attempts than anyone on Dallas) and the Heat don’t have any superlative shot blocking big men but are effective (Dwyane Wade actually has more blocks than anyone on the Mavs). On paper, this looks like a mismatch in the Heat’s favor. But the Mavs have been a different team in the playoffs and no one has been able to stop Dirk. Miami will have to do something different than OKC and Los Angeles tried. I suspect this means, that we’ll get to see some fun match ups where LeBron is guarding Dirk. Most of the time, though, we’ll see a lot of Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem on Nowitzki. Not sure that Bosh/Haslem can stop Dirk but you would have to figure that Dirk will slowdown a little from his torrid series against the Thunder (who were more loose defensively than Miami).
For Dallas to win this they have to hope Dirk can continue his amazing run (which is definitely possible) and that the secondary players who killed L.A. and OKC (Terry and J.J. Barea) continue to play well. Miami will probably avoid doubling Dirk to leave Terry free since Pat Riley teams usually hate to double and Terry has been really effective in that role. As for Barea, he is a key player, who brings a scoring ability to the floor that Jason Kidd doesn’t have. J.J. turned around both of the previous playoff series with huge scoring off the bench and Mike Bibby clearly can’t guard him either. As for defense, Dallas has some issues. They will put Shawn Marion on LBJ and hope that that this works and Kidd will have to guard Wade. J-Kidd is still an effective defender (he did good work on Kobe last month) but that is a tough cover for a 38-year old after a long season. Dallas will probably put Tyson Chandler on Chris Bosh to let Dirk rest defensively against whomever is playing center for Miami (Joel Anthony doesn’t really make much sense against Dallas, so Haslem may play more center in the Finals).
I see LBJ and Wade running all over the Mavs and Miami doing enough to slow down Dirk defensively to pull this series out. Prediction: Miami wins 4-2. Continue reading NBA Finals Preview…
Round Two is over and this leaves four teams with time to assess what happened in the playoffs and what might happen next year. The most notable elininations are last year’s NBA finalists in Boston and L.A. Meanwhile, in Memphis and Atlanta we have to decide how real these teams really are going forward. Let’s take a look:
1. Boston Celtics: Assessing the Celtics’ last few years really depends on whether you are an optimist of pessimist. Here’s how the KG Era has gone:
-2007-08: Everything comes together and the Celts get stronger with every round of the playoffs and win the title.
-2008-09: Kevin Garnett is injured and the Celts struggle until the playoffs. In the playoffs they have problems beating a young Bulls team in the first round but take a very good Magic team seven games before losing. One could easily envision Boston beating Orlando (who later would beat Cleveland) and going to the Finals again if KG was healthy.
-2009-10: Celts stall out in the last few months of the season before an almost unprecedented run in the playoffs and nearly win it all before losing to the Lakers in a tight Game 7.
-2010-11: Celts stall out again in the last few months and struggle against the Heat in the playoffs (though they played better than a team that lost 4-1).
Now Boston is a year older and they are still taking another crack at a title (Doc Rivers will be back for five more years). An optimist could view Boston as a team that easily could’ve won three straight titles before this one weaker season. The pessimist sees Boston as a team that made a nice run last year that was kind of an aberration (few teams have ever made this kind of playoff run after a decent regular season) but was on its way out. I think the answer is closer to the optimistic point of view. The Celts were a serious contender for three years and only injuries kept them from looking even more serious. The problem is now that the Celts probably are no longer the same team they were the last few years.
I don’t know what it is but it seems that most serious contenders who have an older core do not remain serious contenders after they are dispatched from the playoffs early. This may not be entirely true but take a look at some of the contenders of the last few decades after they are knocked out early:
-1980s Celtics: In 1988-89, Larry Bird missed nearly all the seasons and Boston was swept out in the first round. Bird came back the next year at 33 and was still a very good player and Boston won 52, 56, and 51 the next three seasons with him but could never get past the second round again. Bird retired after those three seasons and the team fell into mediocrity for a decade.
-1980s Pistons: In 1990-91, the Pistons were swept in the Conference Finals by the Bulls. They went 48-34 in 1991-92 but lost a tough first rounder to the Knicks in five games. The Isiah Thomas core never made the playoffs again and fell apart due to age and dissension in 1993-94.
-1980s Lakers: Unlike the Pistons and Celtics, the Lakers were still dominant in the regular season when they were knocked out of the playoffs early in 1989-90. The Lakers went 63-19 but lost 4-1 to a young Suns team in the second round. Kevin Johnson ran circles around an older Magic Johnson and the Suns just generally played better. The Lakers regrouped in 1990-91 by signing Sam Perkins and moving Magic away from guarding little point guards. The Lakers won 58 games in 1990-91 and went to the NBA Finals. We don’t know if they could’ve kept it up, however, as Johnson was forced to retire the next fall and the Lakers were a .500 team without him.
-1980s 76ers: After winning the title in 1982-83, Philly lost in the first round in 1983-84 to the Nets and the 76ers looked old and slow despite winning 52 games. Philly bounced backed to 58 wins in 1984-85 (with a young Charles Barkley added to the core) and lost to the Celts in Conference Finals. The 76ers were good in 1985-86 (54-28) but lost a tough seven-game series to the Bucks in the second round. That off-season, Philly gave up Moses Malone and the first pick overall (which ended up being Brad Daugherty), for Jeff Ruland and Roy Hinson. Philly then fell off the map as a contender for a few years.
-1990s Rockets: The Rockets lost 4-0 to a younger Sonics team in the 1995-96 in the second round. Houston doubled down with vets, trading younger players Robert Horry and Sam Cassell for Barkley (who was not young any longer). The Rockets nearly went to the Finals in 1996-97 but age/injury caught up with the team in 1997-98 and though they were dangerous, they didn’t get out of the first round again.
-Early 2000s Lakers: The Kobe/Shaq Lakers were beat up by the Spurs in 2002-03 in the second round. L.A., like Houston, decided to flood the core with vets (Gary Payton and Karl Malone) and go for one more ring. The plan worked pretty well until Malone hurt his knee and Kobe and Shaq began feuding. The Lakers made the Finals but were beat 4-1 by the Pistons. After the season, Shaq and Payton were traded (the Celts got the pick that turned into Rajon Rondo in the Payton trade) and Malone retired. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2004-05.
So, there is some precedent for being competitive after playoff disappointment but there quite a few teams that didn’t really contend again. Fortunately, there is some young talent on hand (Rondo) to help offset the age issues. But 2011-12 could be last call. KG and Ray Allen are free agents after the season and looking at pay cuts if they want to stay in Boston. The Celtics are in the position to take another shot if they can find some vets on short term deals (the payroll is quite low for 2012-13) and if there is a lockout, Boston maybe able to parlay a helter skelter free agent pool into some nice short term bargain deals that would facilitate contention again. It is impossible, however, to know what will happen. What is clear that Boston lacks young athletes (outside of Rondo) to compete with Miami and Chicago and will have to find some youth at all positions to fill in some weak depth.
2. Atlanta Hawks: Every year, Atlanta improves a little more but ever year, there are reasons to question where the team is headed. While the Hawks have never been so competitive in the playoffs, the team was only 44-38 and were actually outscored in the regular season (expected record was 39-43). Throw in an anemic offensive output (20th in efficiency) and the future indicators are not great. Moreover, the Hawks have invested way too much in Joe Johnson and should never have paid Marvin Williams to begin with. Now, this will probably cost them Jamal Crawford, one of their only perimeter scorers.
On the brighter side, the Hawks still have a great front court and Jeff Teague looks like he can step and either start at the point or replace some of Crawford’s points off the bench. If the CBA isn’t changed, the Hawks have a payroll of $64 million with only seven players under contract (JJ, Josh Smith, Kirk Hinrich, Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Al Horford, and Teague). In short, depth will be a series problem and regression looks likely. Given how weak the East is, the Hawks should still be a team with a shot at making the second round but without some creativity in adding to this roster (or subtracting Williams) Atlanta could backslide.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: Much of what was said about Boston can be said about the Lakers. This is not a young team and depth and athleticism seemed like huge issues in the postseason. It is now obvious that Derek Fisher is not a starting level point guard anymore, even in the triangle. But the rest of the core is not that old. Here’s a look at the core players, their current ages, and their PERs from the last three years (the most recent PER is the last number in the list):
-Kobe Bryant (age 32): 24.4, 21.9, 23.9
-Ron Artest (age 31): 15.6, 12.1, 11.2
-Lamar Odom (31): 16.6, 15.9, 19.4
-Pau Gasol (30): 22.2, 22.9, 23.3
-Andrew Bynum (23): 20.0, 20.2, 21.1
While age is an issue, this doesn’t look at a team in imminent collapse and is much younger than what Boston has. If Kobe is healthy, most of the rest of the horses are ready to contribute at the same level for at least another year. The only real problem looks like Artest, who is not a good offensive player any longer. Some of that is the system (Artest put up the 15.6 in Houston where they needed scorers but dropped down as role player in L.A.). So, the Lakers should be good if they can add a point guard and some more decent young players.
The larger issue is that Phil Jackson will likely be gone and coaching can really matter with some teams, particularly on defense and with the cast of characters on the team. Any coach must have a real defensive system and the ability to command the respect of Kobe. That means no no-name hires unless Kobe accepts them. In other words, Brian Shaw will only get the job if Bryant wants him to. The Lakers are also supposedly looking at Mike Dunleavy, who did a nice job replacing Pat Riley on the Lakers in 1990-91 in a very similar situation. I frankly think the clear choice is Rick Adelman, who is precisely the type of coach who has succeeded in almost every situation he was put in and is a perfect short term fix. So, the coach choice will really matter here but no matter who is chosen, the Lakers should stay the course with only minor tweaks. There is no reason this team can’t contend again in 2011-12 if they stay healthy, hire the right coach, and make the right roster tweaks.
4. Memphis Grizzlies: Sure they lost to the Thunder but the enthusiasm in Memphis is palpable. The Grizz have a nice core and it’s locked in contractually for several more years. Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay both will make big money through 2014-15 and Mike Conley has relatively big deal through 2015-16. The Grizz also have to deal with Marc Gasol’s impending free agency. Gasol is 26 and has established himself as an important cog in the team, as a rebounder and defensive presence, who can score a bit too. Above average centers merit pretty large contracts in the NBA and Memphis will have to keep him. This means that Memphis is gambling that this core can continue to compete for the next five years and that they may have to let some expensive talent go. The obvious cast off will be O.J. Mayo, who has one year left on his deal and can probably get a sizeable deal on the open market. In a perfect world, Memphis would keep Mayo but, instead, they’ll have to trade him and left Sam Young and Tony Allen divvy up his minutes. There will be a loss of depth but keeping Gasol is clearly the better move.
Can Memphis improve on its dream run of this year? Frankly, I’m not sure. Memphis looked good but they have relied on Randolph continuing to be a force. While I applaud how well and seriously he has played in Memphis, investing on him for another four years is hardly riskless given his past issues staying in shape and engaged. Hopefully, he stays on the right path and Memphis will stay a tough team. Also, Memphis will need Tony Allen to continue to play as well as he did this year. Allen has always been a great defender but he has never come close to putting up a the 18.4 PER as he did this year at age-29. On the other side of the ledger, Young, Darrell Arthur, and Mike Conley are all very young and are all candidates to potentially improve. In short, a lot is up in the air here. The Grizz are as likely to slip as they are to build on their success but this is not a bad thing for a franchise that has been in limbo for so many years.
Just for fun, here’s how the other eight seeds followed up after knocking off one seeds:
-1993-94 Nuggets: This was a very talented and young Denver team with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Robert Pack, Bryant Stith, Laphonso Ellis, Rodney Rogers, and Dikembe Mutombo. They knocked off a 63-win Sonics team in 1993-94 and took Utah seven games before losing. In 1994-95, the Nuggets did not improve primarily because Ellis missed the season with injuries. They were the eight seed again but were swept out by the Spurs. The Nuggets never got it together and lost Pack in 1995 and Mutombo in 1996 as free agents. They didn’t make the playoffs again until Carmelo Anthony came to town.
-1998-99 Knicks: These Knicks beat the one-seed Heat on Allan Houston’s buzzer beater. This was the lockout season and the Knicks were not a true eight seed in the classic sense (they were 28-22 and just peaking and would’ve likely moved up in the seeds in a regular 82-game season). After beating Miami, they made a run to the NBA Finals, fueled by Marcus Camby’s defense and energy and some crazy plays (LJ’s four-point play against the Pacers). In 1999-00, they followed up by going to the Conference Finals before losing to Indiana. In 2000-01, the Knicks lost in the first round and they haven’t won a playoff game since.
-2006-07 Warriors: Somehow, Don Nelson engineered an upset over a heavily favored Dallas team by shooting tons of threes, using Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes to defend seven-foot Dirk Nowitzki, and because Baron Davis played like a Hall of Famer in April and May 2007. People forget this but the Warriors built on the success, improving from 42-40 to 48-34 in 2007-08. Alas, the West was so good, the Warriors improvement still wasn’t enough to get them in the playoffs again. After that, Nellie lost interest and made a series of odd trades and created a front office civil war that knocked Chris Mullin out of town. With Nelson in full control and too content, things got bad. The Warriors fell to 29-53 in 2008-09 and have been struggling ever since.
Outside of the Knicks, the eight seeds have stalled out after the playoff success. The Grizz look like they are in better shape of continuing their success than Denver or Golden State but we the ending in Memphis remains to be seen.
Continuing our first round fall out column, we turn today to the Western Conference…
1. San Antonio Spurs: That definitely smarts. The Spurs managed a last gasp heroic regular season only to be beaten soundly in the playoffs. The loss to the Grizz wasn’t just a random upset either. It took about half of one game to realize that Memphis was at least the equal of the Spurs talent-wise. The real pain though was watching Tim Duncan, who just isn’t the player he was. TD is still very good but he showed a total inability to hit his old step back jumper or to create much offensively outside of point blank put backs. Without the old Duncan on offense, the Spurs are just not a real threat.
So, do the Spurs blow it out or double down with more vets? A double down with more vets will be more fun but is unlikely to end with a title, unless the vets that are imported are really good. Essentially, the Spurs are now where the Rockets were back in 1996, when they had some good but declining stars and were at a the same crossroads. The Rockets took a shot at another title, trading young Sam Cassell and Robert Horry for an old Charles Barkley and it failed because the vets (Hakeem Olajuwon and Barkley) couldn’t stay healthy anymore. The Spurs are in a slightly different situation because some of the core is younger (Tony Parker) but they will take the same shot the Rockets did. I’m not sure how San Antonio will do this but clearly a real small forward and power forward are key elements to taking that shot (Richard Jefferson looks done as a starter). It’s sad to see the Spurs in decline phase but basketball mortality is a fact of life. Hopefully, the Spurs get one or two more runs in the playoffs before the wheels fall off but the odds are against them.
As an aside, did you notice that none of the first round series went seven games? I wondered how unusual this was. In my own memory, I don’t remember too many seventh games in the first round but I thought I’d check it out and see the actual numbers since the NBA went to a seven game series in the first round in 2002-03. Here are the year-by-year results of seven game series in the first round:
2002-03: 2 (Detroit over Orlando, Dallas over Portland)
2003-04: 1 (Miami over New Orleans)
2004-05: 2 (Indiana over Boston, Dallas over Houston)
2005-06: 1 (Phoenix over L.A. Lakers)
2006-07: 1 (Utah over Houston, 4-3)
2007-08: 1 (Boston over Atlanta, 4-3)
2008-09: 2 (Atlanta over Miami, 4-3 and Boston over Chicago, 4-3)
2009-10: 1 (Atlanta over Milwaukee, 4-3)
This is actually the first year that we haven’t gotten a seventh game in the first round. Many of these seven games series aren’t particularly memorable of late. Both of the 2002-03 series are remembered because Detroit came back from 3-1 down and for Portland rallying from 3-0 down before losing. Similarly Miami-New Orleans was Dwyane Wade’s coming out party. As for the rest, only Kobe’s battle with Phoenix in 2005-06 created much stir.
2. New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets had reason to be proud in forcing the Lakers to a sixth game in their series. The Hornets’ entire effectiveness, though, came from the amazing Chris Paul. The rest of the team is less impressive. What’s worse, the Hornets are pretty much locked into the rest of the lineup. Emeka Okafor was solid at center but not worth the cash he makes (which makes him untradeable). Trevor Ariza just can’t score at small forward and neither Marco Belinelli or Willie Green are starting material. David West is coming off of a knee injury and can be a free agent but is unlikely to opt out because he probably will want another year to re-establish his value before embarking on free agency.
On top of all this, the Hornets are owned by the NBA, which is looking for a buyer. Any new buyer will have to deal with with upgrading a static starting lineup, declining attendance in New Orleans (this was their third straight season with a decline in attendance), and with Paul (who will be a free agent after next season and can hold the franchise hostage unless the new CBA changes team rights). So, unfortunately, making the Lakers struggle may be the Hornets’ swansong with Paul before the franchise hits another dark period.
3. Portland Trailblazers: Despite the Blazers’ ability to amass talent and compete, they still have not won a playoff series since 1999-00. There is core talent here with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, and Nicolas Batum. The rest of the lineup raises questions. At point, Andre Miller has been surprisingly good since signing but he is 35 and has a team option at $7.8 million. The option is below market value for an above-average point but the Blazers have been non-committal so far on what they will do. I think it is a no-risk proposition and that it is a little early to hand the job to Patty Mills but clearly Portland wants to think about it. The Blazers do want Greg Oden (a restricted free agent) back, if only because of the time and money invested. Oden hasn’t been healthy but his numbers have been great when he has played and he’s still only 23. If Oden can come back and play, it totally changes the Blazers’ outlook from good playoff team to possible contender but I’m sure Blazers fans are not holding their breath on that score.
Finally, Brandon Roy is the elephant in the room. His heroic playoff performance in Game 4 won’t be forgotten but that one brief moment flies in the face of the rest of the season, which has shown him to be hampered by knee problems. The Blazers should not be relying on Roy to be their starting two guard going forward, even though he is due almost $50 million over the next three seasons. How do balance Roy’s expectations and salary with his likely production won’t be easy.
4. Denver Nuggets: Denver is stacked with players but have many decision to make. Nene, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler are all free agents. Denver has stated it wants to keep Nene, who is the building block for the future, and probably will. The other three are less clear. Smith can score but has quite a few moments where he takes bad shots or does something dumb off the court. I don’t think Denver knows what they want to do with Smith but I imagine they will let the market develop and keep him if the bidding is favorable to them. Chandler is an extra trinket because the Nuggets already have Danilo Gallinari but, like Smith, they will keep him if the price is right. Finally, I think Martin is gone. Martin plays hard and is a good defender still but he has played more then 66 games in only three of his seven seasons in Denver and has only been okay when he did play. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great signing.
enver must also balance the rest of the roster. They have two good points in Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, a few good small forwards (Gallinari, Al Harrington, and Chandler, if he is re-signed). The only two guard here is Smith, so it seems clear that a trade should be in the offing from the glut positions.
We are now into the nitty gritty of the post season…Round Two. Before we consider some pretty interesting battles , some of the fun is to look back at the teams that were left behind and we can look to see where their playoff losses leave them. This our annual First Round Fallout column. And there is quite a bit of fallout in a few places, particularly San Antonio and Orlando. Let’s take a look at the losers in the East…
1. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers played a pretty competitive series with the Bulls. They won a game against the one seed and were in most of the games. That’s about as much as most eight seeds can reasonably expect (with the notable exception of the Grizzlies of course). Indiana also has some nice young players (Paul George, Josh McRoberts, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, and Darren Collison) and significant cap room. Fans deserve to be a bit excited coming off a season like this. Now allow me to be the wet blanket here. I’m not super optimistic about the future here for a variety of reasons. None of the young players really project as more than useful starters. The only player who can be considered a star is Danny Granger, who is already 27 and the Pacers aren’t likely going to be able to persuade a mega free-agent to come to town to turn this nice roster into a formidable one. Rather, the hope is that some of the good young players can be packaged in a trade. It’s a tough situation. This is a nice franchise but they were still last in attendance in the NBA and actually lost fans from last year (hopefully, that the several year trend attendance decline finally reverses itself next season since the team played better in the second half after years of floundering). So I’m a little more bearish on the Pacers the most but, at the very least, they should have a solid but low rung playoff team next year and Frank Vogel sounds like he’ll be back too. Now Pacers fans have to hope that one more star falls into their laps by draft, trade, or supreme luck. Otherwise, they will be stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.
2. Philadelphia 76ers: The first year of Doug Collins pretty much went exactly as expected in Philly. Plucky overachievers improved and fought their way into the playoffs. Philly also has ample young players too. Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, and Louis Williams all continued to develop. Obviously, those young players are the core but the 76ers have to decide what to do with Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala, who both played well but are way overpaid. Brand and AI will make a combined $30 million next year, which is over 55% of next year’s payroll. With Young around, the 76ers can afford to trade one of these two vets. But any trade will have to be at a discount given the salarys the other team will have to absorb. Iguodala is younger and probably movable, so expect the Sixers to go that route. The other two issues to watch our (1) Evan Turner, who didn’t do as much as expected, and (2) the inevitable Doug Collins fatigue that sets in on most of his teams. Turner has had some moments the last few months to indicate he has some ability but the overall package, stat-wise, leaves a lot to be desired. Small forwards who rebound well but don’t shoot or score don’t project well. It’s too early to write off Turner but certainly there are some red flags here. Certainly, you want more than George Lynch from a second overall pick. As for Collins, his high strung style has worn out quickly in most of his previous tenures. Collins is older now so we can’t assume it’ll happen again but past history tends to repeat itself (almost every Don Nelson or Larry Brown ends the same way). For next year, though, this team will probably be the same .500ish hard playing team we saw this year, unless Rod Thorn can pull off a big move.
3. New York Knicks: Despite all the hand wringing about New York, the playoffs ended up pretty much exactly how we should’ve expected. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire did great (when healthy) and the team was killed by having to rely to heavily on fringers like Toney Douglas, Jared Jeffries, and Bill Walker. But there is no point worrying about depth issues. This was the price of Melo. Punting any shot of doing anything in the 2010-11 season seemed to be understood by management. When the team was healthy, the Knicks still did a credible job against the Celts too but losing Chauncey Billups ended that thought. Billups will also be back since he is still pretty good and the cost of buying him out ($4 million) plus the cost of signing a decent point guard to replace him is still pretty close to his 2011-12 salary anyway. Similarly, it rightfully appears that Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni will be back. Walsh has his work cut out to fill the gaps between Melo and Amare, since they need a starting two guard and more size up front very badly. In all, though, the future is pointing up. With a competent off-season, the Knicks should be somewhere between decent and pretty good.
4. Orlando Magic: This is the true bitter loss of the first round. It’s not that Orlando had an argument that they were better than Atlanta. No, they played tough but lost to a better team and the loss confirmed that Orlando was merely a good team that has been seriously slipping as a team for a few years in a row. Despite another great season by Dwight Howard, the offense regressed so much that they weren’t an elite team anymore. The frustrating part for the Magic was that they recognized the offensive drain and tried to replace Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis to inject some offense but the replacements were worse. Jason Richardson put up a 13.2 PER, Hedo Turkoglu a 13.5 PER, and Gilbert Arenas an awful 8.6 PER. Of course, there is no indication that team was any better with VC (who crapped out in Phoenix) or Lewis (who was slightly better when healthy with the Wiz). The problem was that the moves were never designed to address the major offensive problems but, instead, were minor tweaks. Sure, the Magic hoped Arenas would rediscover his pre-knee injury form but there was little evidence that was going to happen. Now, the lost opportunity means Howard may be out the door soon, which brings back painful memories of Shaq and later T-Mac skipping town. Losing Howard might be inevitable but the Magic failed to maximize his time with the franchise. In theory, they can take one more shot in 2011-12 but this feels like the end. The risk of losing Howard for nothing is too large for Orlando to hold onto him and see what happens in the next off-season (unless the new CBA changes the rules and limits Howard to a restricted free agent). A true gut punch of a season for the Magic.