Otis Smith and just about every one on the team said the West Coast trip would be revealing. So what did we learn in a 1-3 trip to Portland, Utah, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Denver? This team may not be who we thought they were.
There are problems in keeping a consistent defensive intensity. The offense sometime sputtered, especially without Dwight Howard. And generally when the opponent ratcheted up its intensity in the second half, Orlando could not match.
In other words... if difficult road trips reveal character, the Magic have some soul-searching to do. The comments coming out of this road trip are not at all encouraging or resembling of a Stan Van Gundy-coached team.
And pretty much everyone who is watching the Magic are sure of this.
Eddy Rivera of Magic Basketball put it best:
"Orlando isn’t an elite team or a championship contender.
"Something is missing from the roster. Against the Blazers, the Magic couldn’t score if their lives depended on it. Against the Jazz, it was a lack of defense. Against the Clippers, after a brilliant first quarter against one of the worst teams in the league, complacency and consistency cropped up as ever-too-familiar issues. ...
"Is this an overreaction? No, it’s not. It’s a harsh reality.
"Is it time to panic? No, it’s not. It’s time to be honest."
Seriously, read the rest of his recap from Tuesday's game for more context. But the analysis and the sentiment among the Magic faithful is absolutely correct. The uneasy feeling that developed over these last few weeks -- losing five of the last six and following very similar patterns in each game -- got substantiated more and more as the Magic's flaws were exposed. And this does not feel like last year's January swoon. It could be, but this is not last year's Eastern Conference. There are good teams outside the top three teams.
So where does Orlando go from here? Complacency will not do.
It looks like the easy way out is to make a trade. Gilbert Arenas rumors are starting to crop up again (and a deal appears imminent according to Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post). Golden State fans are discussing possible landing places for Monta Ellis. And Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul appear to still be in play. Vince Carter, who has played better this year but is not at the All-Star level the Magic expected of him when they acquired him last summer, is the main trade bait and now that the December 15 deadline has passed, everyone on the roster is eligible to be traded.
Even Fran Vazquez seems to be in play as it looks like he is willing to come over next year. Orlando has plenty of trade assets.
Since there are very few teams looking to trade and we all know Otis Smith as a pretty patient guy it is more likely that Orlando will wait this one out (at least until February). The players on this team are likely what we will have for another month and a half.
With 25 games under their belt, the Magic are becoming who they will be this season. And so far it is a team that struggles to hold on to leads, oftentimes does not provide a consistent defensive effort and when the shots are not falling, struggles to score. This is not the team Orlando had last year even though this is virtually the same roster.
Brian Schmitz of The Orlando Sentinel suggested the possibility of moving Rashard Lewis to the bench. A move that Lewis was a little peeved to hear and one that will raise plenty of question marks -- and maybe a few expletive-laced exclamation points -- considering the elephant in Lewis' bank account. We have already seen Van Gundy tweak the lineup in moving Brandon Bass into the starting lineup and using Jason Williams as the backup point guard.
Another thing is Van Gundy's new approach to the season. Rather than ride his starters as hard as he usually does, Van Gundy is trying to keep guys fresh for the postseason (read: Vince Carter) and also employ strategies that the team may need in the playoffs that Van Gundy does not typically run. We have already seen some zone defense from the Magic, something Van Gundy does not typically employ.
Perhaps these can explain some of Orlando's recent struggles. The team's rhythm was interrupted by the sickness which ravaged the team and Orlando is still trying to figure things out. Perhaps making things more simple and letting guys just simply play will get the team out of its funk. As Dwight Howard said, the players have to motivate themselves individually. Getting rid of some of the extraneous thinking could help that.
There is still a lot to do. No season is going to go perfectly well. Remember the Magic lost eight of 12 after a Christmas Day loss to the Celtics and really looked bad (almost as bad as they look now). This year might feel more different because of the increased competition in the Eastern Conference provided by the Miami juggernaut, the resurgent New York Knicks and the always-dangerous Atlanta Hawks.
Let's not summarize 25 games completely in the last six. Before a strange stomach virus took over this team was playing like it was the best team in the conference, even toppling those villainous Miami Heat. The Magic had won 10 of their past 11. That loss was in San Antonio in a classic regular season (November) game.
So perhaps this panic is not as justified as we seem. But the feeling and frustration from the fans and the players are not going away until the confidence returns and this team starts playing to its potential. Howard is right, someone needs to light a fire under this team. You want to believe that it will occur from within the locker room than from the outside. But even that may not be enough. We are a long way from the point where a title is out of the question -- after all the season is determined by which of 16 teams can get to 16 wins first.
But this team does not look like a championship-level team at the moment. Something has to change to get it to that level. And that may be a hard truth to swallow.