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Sunday Basketball Notes

Midseason deals are a shot at finding Magic formula

By Gary Washburn
December 26, 2010

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With franchise center Dwight Howard flexing his muscles impatiently, Orlando general manager Otis Smith quickly pulled off two trades that thrust the Magic right back into the premium lot of title contenders, along with the Celtics, Heat, Spurs, and Lakers.

There was more of a sense of urgency than one might suspect, given that Howard is only 25 years old. But Howard, who has been a member of the Magic for nearly seven years, might feel the opportunity to win a title in his prime is slipping away. And with free agency two years off, he might have been pondering his long-term future.

The addition of Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu — for Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, and Mickael Pietrus — offers hope in Orlando, which was off to a sluggish start.

Major trades during the season are major risks, especially if a team expects to compete immediately, so the Magic are a little tense right now. Some of that concern was relieved with a convincing win over the Spurs Thursday, snapping San Antonio’s 10-game winning streak.

But the acquisition of three players not known for their defensive prowess in a conference where the top two teams play shutdown defense is a concern. However, something had to change.

“We knew that this is going to take time,’’ Howard said. “We’re not playing for December or January. We’re playing for June, the playoffs. That’s when we want to be at our peak.

“Right now, it’s early. We have a lot of talent. But talent only gets you so far. We understand what we have on the floor, but that’s not going to win us games.’’

Howard is the unquestioned team leader, but his veteran teammates didn’t seem to follow his example of toughness. Carter averaged about a career-threatening injury per month, and Lewis never mentally found comfort in being one of the league’s highest-paid players.

Richardson has scoring ability and is a capable addition. Turkoglu was at his best during his previous stop in Orlando but was a slug in Toronto and Phoenix.

A scout said he likes the deals for the Magic because they needed more weapons. But they still need a backup center. Coach Stan Van Gundy joked that he would play Howard 48 minutes if possible. Maybe he wasn’t joking.

The Celtics have four capable centers to use on Howard if the teams meet in the postseason, but no team has as many scoring swingmen as the Magic. The three players just acquired, along with J.J. Redick and Jameer Nelson, are long-range threats, and that could spread the floor for Howard to take on the opposing center one-on-one.

“All those kind of weapons, they gotta pick their poison,’’ Arenas said. “I guess that’s why when I come off the pick-and-roll, everyone’s sagging back because they don’t want to get dunked on by Dwight. And they don’t want to leave the shooters, so I got an easy jump shot.

“With a team like this, it really doesn’t matter. The ball is going to find you and you’ve got to make plays.’’

While the offensive possibilities seem endless, the new Magic players have to adapt to Van Gundy’s system and style without a training camp. Van Gundy has already conceded it will be difficult to catch the Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the East, though that may be coachspeak. He realizes integrating three new players and expecting to win a title in six months will be his most difficult responsibility since taking over the Magic.

“Right now we’re a virtual unknown,’’ he said. “[Beating the Spurs] shows what’s possible. We still have to be a lot better on the defensive side of the floor and we still have to be a lot better with our half-court execution.

“There’s a long way to go. What we’re trying to do is throw the house up and then go back and put in the foundation. Not the ideal way to build something.’’

There are still questions. Arenas is more comfortable as a starter but said he was fine coming off the bench; then Van Gundy said he was unsure whether to replace Nelson with Arenas. Who, exactly, is the power forward? And what happens with Howard gets into foul trouble?

“I don’t think it matters a whole lot who is it who starts,’’ Van Gundy said. “Everybody is going to get minutes.

“Again, we’ve been together four days so I’m not going to sit up here and pretend like I’ve got all the answers. I just want us to keep playing hard and playing well.’’

OFF TO BE A WIZARD
Less pressure for Lewis now The scrutiny began moments after Rashard Lewis signed his six-year, $118 million maximum contract with the Magic three summers ago, a stunning deal for the one-time All-Star. Lewis had been the complement to Ray Allen in Seattle, but at age 28, he was looking to emerge as a No. 1 option.

But there were problems with that thinking. Lewis would never be the No. 1 option in Orlando while Howard was the team’s centerpiece. Also, Lewis was quite comfortable as a secondary option, and according to some observers, he had never shown the take-charge mentality of a team cornerstone.

So Lewis cemented himself as the third option after the Magic acquired Carter, and along with Carter, he was blamed by many for the team’s struggles this season. So both were shipped out.

Lewis’s numbers decreased every season with the Magic, sinking from 17.7 points per game and 40.9 percent from the 3-point line in his first season to 12.2 and 36.7 this season. The contract put immense pressure on Lewis, who is known for his laid-back Texas style and quiet demeanor.

With 2 1/2 years remaining on his deal and still more than $55 million owed (although only $10 million is fully guaranteed in 2012-13), Lewis becomes the veteran presence among a bunch of youngsters in Washington. He will get his opportunity to shoot — and without the pressure of playing with a title-contending team on a max deal.

“I don’t want to say I was underutilized, but when you’re on such a good team like the Orlando Magic, some people have to sacrifice,’’ Lewis said. “I needed to sacrifice some shots and, not necessarily be a role player, but it’s all about sacrificing for your team, and I was one of the guys to sacrifice to try to make it work and at the end of the day try to get wins.

“Hopefully I can get back to my old self of when I was in Seattle when I made the All-Star team and when I was playing the 3 position.’’

Was Lewis’s tenure in Orlando a success? The Magic did reach the NBA Finals one year and the Eastern Conference semifinals another year, but Lewis never developed into the right-hand man for Howard, and eventually the Magic became a less-imposing team because of that.

A former NBA coach disagrees.

“I think they were a 40-win team before he got there, and the only changes were Grant Hill left, Darko Milicic left, and Rashard Lewis was signed,’’ said ESPN and ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “And they went from a 40-win team to a 52-win team to I believe a 59-win team.

“I think certainly he wasn’t having a great year this year but I think because of his uniqueness, he was able to open up the floor.

“Rashard Lewis can be proud of his three years there and of what he accomplished.’’

Lewis took his departure from Orlando well, tweeting shortly after the trade that he was grateful for the chance to play there and eager to help the Wizards.

“I played mostly the 3 for nine years when I was in Seattle, then moved to the 4 for three years playing in Orlando,’’ he said. “But I think for me it’s just whatever fits the team best. Whatever guys you have to put the best team out on the floor, if that’s me playing the 4 position or me playing the 3 position.’’

ROOKIE HEADS TO BENCH
Turner takes a wrong turn Evan Turner was supposed to be a game-changing player for the 76ers, a swingman who could play as many as three positions and perhaps make Andre Iguodala obsolete in Philadelphia.

But Turner, continuing a trend of rookie flops this season, has been relegated to a spot deep on the bench. He did not play Wednesday against the Celtics, his second DNP-CD in three games.

What’s more, Turner has registered six scoreless games and is shooting 35 percent in December. He was replaced in the starting lineup by former Kentucky sharpshooter Jodie Meeks, and his performance has been the biggest disappointment this season in Philadelphia.

“This is rock bottom,’’ he said. “It can’t get any worse, in my mind-set. I just have to work at adapting, trying to pick up the things the team’s doing and try to fit in somewhere and try to find a niche. The only way to go is up, and that’s pretty much it. Every day has been a learning experience.’’

Coach Doug Collins is attempting to relieve the pressure on Turner by reducing his role. Turner’s rookie season has turned from a showcase into a test of patience.

“He’s got to start knocking down open shots,’’ Collins said. “He’s really struggled to shoot the basketball. He’s got to keep working hard and he’s going to be out there.’’

Collins would not promise when.

CHANGE OF PACE
Bobcats try to pick up speed Two weeks ago, we talked with Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins about the plight of his downtrodden team, and he didn’t seem at all pleased with the lack of consistency. But the job of coach Larry Brown didn’t appear to be in jeopardy because, well, he’s Larry Brown.

But the Bobcats made a change this past week, replacing Brown with former Celtic Paul Silas, and the change was for the better.

The Bobcats are in disarray, and it began when they refused to bring back Raymond Felton, instead allowing the burly point guard to flourish for the Knicks. D.J. Augustin is a solid backup guard but not a starter for a playoff team.

Brown became increasingly disenchanted with the roster and began blaming himself, especially after a 93-62 loss to the Celtics Dec. 11, intimating that the team had tuned him out.

After discouraging losses to Washington and Oklahoma City, the team needed a fresh voice, and Silas has decided to completely change the style of play, going with a fast-break offense to accentuate the team’s strengths. Let’s face it, a club with Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, and Tyrus Thomas is not going to scare anybody in a half-court offense.

Until the Bobcats attract a quality big man — and no, Nazr Mohammed doesn’t count — they will have to win games with an up-tempo style.

“The one thing I want to do is to bring energy to this ball club,’’ Silas said. “We are going to have to try to get up and down so the fans can see us at our best.’’

Said Higgins, “The fact of the matter is, we haven’t given up on the season and we have to try to get back into it. Losing three of our last six games by 30 points or more, that’s a bad sign for us in the short term. Our goals will be to try to remain competitive and continue to try to improve our roster.’’

First, the Bobcats need a front-line point guard. They would love to move the final two years of Jackson’s deal to get one, but Wallace seems more likely because he’s younger and comes with less baggage.

Also, look for the Bobcats to try to gain cap relief by offering Boris Diaw to Orlando for the expiring contract of Jason Richardson, a former Bobcat. Diaw has a player option for $9 million next season, while Richardson’s $14.4 million comes off the books.

ETC.
Rookies aren’t terribly classy Safe to say the stock of the Kentucky rookie class is sinking by the day. John Wall has missed most of the season with knee and foot injuries. Patrick Patterson has spent time in the D-League. Daniel Orton just underwent knee surgery after being injured in the D-League. And Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins is facing more trouble after making a choke sign following a missed free throw by Golden State’s Reggie Williams late in the fourth quarter. Cousins was admonished — again — by Kings coach Paul Westphal and benched for a portion of Thursday’s loss to Milwaukee. The Kings have no argument in this case; they knew what they were in store for with the immature Cousins, who also has been plagued by foul trouble and emotional outbursts. It could be house-cleaning time soon in Sacramento, which desperately needs a boost to improve the chances at a new arena. Former NBA guard Mario Elie may have been in line to replace Westphal on an interim basis, but his chances took a hit after a recent DUI charge.

Layups Paul Silas added former NBA enforcer Charles Oakley to his coaching staff in Charlotte. Oakley, a close friend of Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, had been around the club the past few months and had some strong suggestions about how to handle the roster during a Boston visit two weeks ago . . . Detroit’s Richard Hamilton missed an overtime win over the Hornets because of an “upset stomach,’’ then went and dropped 35 on Toronto after a Detroit News article quoted sources saying that Hamilton had quit on the team. Hamilton, who has been ejected from games three times this season, wants out of Detroit because the Pistons are years away from being a championship contender. But it will take the Pistons accepting another lengthy contract to facilitate a deal. Hamilton has two years left on his deal, with $25 million owed.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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