When Dan Gilbert wrote a letter to the other NBA owners asking “When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?” following the botched Chris Paul trade, he was speaking from experience. After all, his team was the one that had laid out the perfect blueprint for irrelevance. By surrounding LeBron James with “veteran” (translation: old) players and going into “win-now mode” (translation: refusing to develop any young talent), Gilbert and his management team created a situation where their entire franchise hinged on James’ Decision. And they got burned.
What Gilbert and Danny Ferry began in Cleveland, Otis Smith has been perfecting down in Florida. When the Magic started out hot this year, many in the media speculated that Howard might be tempted to stay, given the development of Ryan Andersen and the quasi-reemergence of Hedo Turkoglu. Since their 12-5 start, however, the Magic have fallen off a cliff, losing four straight before eking out a six-point win against the lowly (and I mean lowly) Washington Wizards Wednesday night. Hollinger’s Power Rankings now have the Magic at number 19, nestled between the Rockets and the Knicks.
Many have blamed Orlando’s recent swoon on the “distractions” of Howard’s trade demands. And there may be something to that. I’m sure that the best player on the team saying “These guys are terrible, get me out of here” isn’t doing wonders for the other Magicians confidence. But here’s the thing: they really are terrible. Jason Richardson, whom the Magic signed to a 4 year, $25 million deal before the season, sports a PER of 11.8. Glen Davis, who they traded the younger, better Brandon Bass for in the off-season, has the 5th worst PER among all power forwards. That didn’t stop them from extending him for another 4 years and $26 million. Jameer Nelson has gone in the tank, and having started the year shooting a truly absurd percentage from 3, Andersen has settled down to a much more reasonable 41%. That’s still good, obviously, but it’s not enough to make up for the failing of the rest of the roster. And neither, apparently, is a disgruntled and seemingly uninterested Dwight Howard.
Meanwhile, up in the hinterland of Minnesota, David Kahn continues to try to make Bill Simmons’ head explode. Having finally hit with a draft prospect, Kahn got so excited that he’s now decided that Ricky Rubio is the second coming of Pete Marivich. Within the first few weeks of Rubio’s NBA career, Kahn is so confident that he’ll be great that he made the decision to piss off Kevin Love, also known as “the best player on the Timberwolves,” so that two years from now he can back up a Brink’s truck at Rubio’s door. Now that Love has signed the Bosh/James-style “mini-max” extension, he can fly the coop in three years, and we’ll have to hear again about how tough it is for small markets.
The lockout happened, ostensibly, to begin to repair the gulf that exists between big-market, rich teams and small-market, poor teams. That Chris Paul and Dwight Howard sought to flee their small-market teams immediately after the lockout ended was seen by many as an abject failure to achieve that objective. That’s one of the reasons that David Stern vetoed the Paul-Lakers trade: it would make the league look bad. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City and San Antonio keep plugging away as two of the consistently well-run and successful franchises in the league, and New York continues to flail, pouring James Dolan’s money into a sinkhole of a team with a creaky, mismatched and a non-existent backcourt.
One could argue that San Antonio and Oklahoma City got lucky, with Duncan and Durant, but no more than Orlando, Cleveland or Minnesota did. The difference lies in the roster that each team has built around their stars. Meanwhile, the Lakers and Bulls have taken the same advantage in assets that New York has squandered and turned it into success. The division was never between the rich and the poor, and always between the smart and the stupid. When Howard and Love are wearing different uniforms, it will be another blow to stupidity, and another triumph for intelligence.