Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Orlando Moves: Why Not Gamble on Youth?

Watching the Orlando Magic early this season, the contrast was striking: Dwight Howard, with a noticeably improved offensive arsenal, looked better than ever, while Orlando's wing players looked just terrible, unable to create any offense. Through the end of November, Howard was my choice for MVP for having carried the Magic on his back to a 13-4 record.

As the bottom fell out in early December, it became clear that the Magic needed to make some kind of move to shuffle the deck, but to my eyes, they were at a crossroads, based on this single fact: Dwight Howard turned just 25 years old on Dec. 8. The quandary for Orlando was this: Do you gamble on veteran players to try to remain in short-term championship contention, or do you perhaps take a step back and gamble on younger players who could grow into a long-term nucleus alongside Dwight?

Now, we've learned that Howard has apparently been adding pressure of his own to the mix, reportedly threatening to leave in the summer of 2012 if the Orlando roster is not championship-worthy, making things even trickier for Magic management.

So, Orlando essentially exchanged Vince Carter (age 33), Rashard Lewis (31), Mickael Pietrus (28), and Marcin Gortat (26) for Jason Richardson (29), Gilbert Arenas (28), Hedo Turkoglu (31), and Earl Clark (22).

I think that this exchange is a mild upgrade for Orlando in 2010-11, and I especially like the Richardson acquisition, though I do not think it is enough to elevate the Magic back into true title contention.

More importantly, in the summer of 2012, when Dwight Howard is surveying the NBA landscape with the opportunity to be a free agent, I think there is no chance that this collection of players will be enticing him to stay. None. Arenas, signed through 2014, will be 30. Turkoglu, signed through 2013, will be 33. If Richardson, who is a free agent this summer, is re-signed, he will be 31. Arenas and Turkoglu might help Orlando this season, but these are players who have seen their best days. I think they will be in deep decline by the summer of 2012.

I hate to say that about Gil, I've loved the guy and his refreshing honesty over the years, but he can no longer live up to anything near the player who made his name averaging 29 points per game and 10 free-throw attempts per game. Knee injuries have sadly robbed him of his explosiveness.

In fact, when Magic-Wizards trade rumors floated in early December involving a deal of Arenas and Andray Blatche for Carter, Lewis and Daniel Orton, I thought that Blatche was actually the most intriguing name of the bunch.

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Blatche is a 24-year-old 6-11 PF with excellent length, and in a 32-game run as a starter after the All-Star break last season, he averaged a 22.1/8.3/3.6 on 48% shooting.

Now, is Andray Blatche a sure thing? Oh, boy howdy, no way. He has regressed this season, and often displays atrocious shot selection. As Zach Lowe said in SI's The Point Forward: "I can’t think of a player Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy would like less than the current version of Andray Blatche. He isolates too much on offense, takes questionable shots outside the flow and is rarely interested in playing defense."

I mean, I really can't disagree with Zach, but also take a look at John Hollinger's player profile for Blatche from the preseason:
    "Blatche enjoyed a breakout of sorts once Jamison was traded, averaging [more than 22] points a game after the All-Star break. But the development that's even more encouraging was his late-season burst of passing. Blatche initially reacted to his go-to role with "Cool, now I can hog the ball like Gilbert" enthusiasm, but he had seven or more assists in five of the final 11 games … after zero in the first 71.

    Averaging 20 points and two assists, Blatche doesn't stand out. Averaging 20 and five assists? Now there's a quality offensive player. Blatche still needs to improve his shot selection, rely less on his jump shot and draw more fouls, but he's only 24 and it's his first extended run as a featured performer. It's been a rocky journey to this point, but if he can share the ball and improve his defensive focus, he can become a star."
A fair assessment of the ups and downs of Blatche's game, I think, but look at that last phrase: "he can become a star." Not definitely on the road to stardom, by any means, but maybe, he might become a star.

In the summer of 2012, there is no chance that Arenas will be a star, and there is no chance that Turkoglu will be a star, but there is a chance that a then-26-year-old Andray Blatche might be a star, even if it might hurt the team more in the short-term. Who knows, maybe integration into Stan Van Gundy's system would instill more discipline in Blatche's game. Rashard Lewis, for one, was a better defender in Orlando than he was in Seattle.

Acquiring Blatche would have made the Arenas acquisition more palatable to me. I feel like the Magic needed to take a gamble on young guys with potential as part of their bounty.

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Let's go with a trusty Player A vs. Player B comparison for the next one. Here are per-36-minute stats for two players - which one would you rather have going forward:
          AGE FG% 3P% FT%  FTA   PTS REB AST  PER  MIN
Player A 28 39 32 84 3.5 17.8 3.4 5.7 13.6 (34.2)
Player B 22 45 40 75 6.3 19.0 5.3 6.6 18.7 (22.4)
Player A is Gilbert Arenas in 2010-11, Player B is Jerryd Bayless since he joined Toronto on Nov. 24, a ridiculously small 14-game, 314-minute sample, I grant you.

Is Jerryd Bayless a sure-thing future star? No way, he still has plenty to prove. Who would I rather have in 2010-11? Well, probably Arenas.

But who would I rather have over the next *five* years? Bayless, no question. Again, is there a chance that 30-year-old Arenas is a star in the summer of 2012? No way. Is there a chance that then-24-year-old Bayless - acquired along with Peja Stojakovic for just Jarrett Jack, David Andersen and Marcus Banks - could be a rising star in the summer of 2012? I think there is.

I know it sounds borderline crazy to talk up guys like Blatche and Bayless like this, but I feel like we learn over and over again to be careful about giving up too soon on young players. Michael Beasley is proving this in Minnesota, and I do believe that Portland should regret giving up guys like Bayless, Josh McRoberts and Martell Webster at a young age, especially for receiving so little in return.

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The Magic have gambled on the NBA equivalent of comfort food, names which sound good and which could yield a modest improvement on 2010-11, but have no chance of addressing the real problems: their roster needs to be sound in the summer of 2012, and ideally, built to run with Dwight Howard all throughout the 2010s.

Given two imperfect choices of gambling on veterans or gambling on young players, I would have chosen to try to work in some young players with the potential to be solid pieces for the next decade, such as Bayless or Blatche or Sacramento's Jason Thompson (rumored to have been offered for Atlanta's Jeff Teague) or Terrence Williams (essentially given away by New Jersey to Houston after a promising finish to his rookie year in 2009-10), even though I acknowledge there are plenty of risks with those players.

Maybe you absolutely hate all of those young players listed above, and maybe they just weren't available to the Magic. Fair enough. I still think that sitting tight and waiting for a deal that could yield some younger potential stars would have been better. Orlando's assets - Carter (partially guaranteed expiring year in '11-12), Lewis (partially guaranteed expiring year in '12-13), Pietrus (player option for '11-12), and Gortat (26-year-old with potential to be a starting center) - were only going to get more valuable between now and 2012.

Getting some sort of young talent was a must. Instead, the Magic are now saddled with the more onerous contracts of Arenas (contract runs through 2014) and Turkoglu (partially guaranteed expiring year in '13-14). Hope you have a hell of a run in 2011, guys.

It should be noted that it's really a remarkable lack of trust shown by Dwight Howard in an Orlando front office which built a team able to compete for a championship in both 2009 and 2010. In a league of 30 teams, it's really hard to build a top-4 team, and that's what Otis Smith and company have done, even if the parts may be imperfect. Now, pressure from Dwight seems to have forced a short-sighted trade, and it's a reminder of what an underrated factor it is to have star players, such as Tim Duncan in San Antonio or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, who have a commitment to and a trust in the long-term vision of a franchise.

Addendum: In today's link from the TrueHoop bullets (always appreciated), Henry Abbott notes that the Magic *did* acquire a young player with some intriguing potential, in Earl Clark. It's a fair point, though I suppose I was distinguishing players like Blatche, Bayless and Terrence Williams from Clark because the former three have produced impressive numbers at the NBA level at some point, even if only for relatively short periods. Clark has not done this to date, and I felt like the Magic's assets were good enough that they could attract a higher level of prospect, and he does feel like more of a throw-in than a guy Orlando was targeting. But hey, if Orlando can turn Clark into a player, then he's a player and it doesn't matter. I still think he has much more to prove.

7 Comments:

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Byron said...

Dwight Howard wants to win NOW not on 2012 so acquiring players like Bayless doesnt really make sense if you want to be a contender.

 
At 6:39 PM, Anonymous justin said...

they already covered that point in mentioning Durant and Duncan - if Howard wanted to win, period, he would trust his management in the long run. he still has what, 6 good years in him? that's enough time to get young pieces and grow into a championship team.

 
At 11:11 PM, Blogger mundanelunacy said...

Interesting assessment. However, same could have been said when the Magic traded for VC. Last time I checked Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston weren't lighting up the league.

 
At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Improve Vertical Leap said...

Very nice breakdown! I didn't realize that Dwight Howard is only 25. We have many more years to watch him play

 
At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Jamal said...

Good post. People should look at a player's game and not his reputation. If "Player A" is an aging shoot-first 6'4 guard with an unmoveable contract and "Player B" is a 24-year old 7'0 multi-dimensional forward ...

 
At 9:17 PM, Anonymous WOW Gold said...

However, identical could happen to be mentioned once the miracle traded for VC. final time I checked Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston
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