The lockout has given us time to think. Lots of time to think.
The surprising first round exit still stings. Most of the offseason discussion has been about wholesale changes Orlando needs to make to get back to a championship level. The Magic have been linked (or have tried to be linked) to just about every major player that hit the market before the lockout.
If there were no lockout, there would be answers by now. Free agency would be in full swing and nearing its completion. They might have been unsatisfactory or woefully short, but at least we would have some answers. For now, the roster stands the same as it did at the end of the season with the same questions and uncertainty surrounding it. There is no progress because there cannot be any right now.
So, again, time to think how did we get here. How did, in the matter of two years, the Magic fall so hard so fast?
Eddy Rivera of MagicBasketball.net did a good job chronicling Orlando's fall in his player evaluation of Dwight Howard (an obvious A+) that makes you think a little more critically about how the Magic went from two-time Eastern Conference finalist to a Playoffs cameo.
"Let's flashback to the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. Heading into the series, the Magic had home-court advantage and were favored to beat the Celtics and advance to the Finals for a second consecutive year. Questions about whether or not Smith made a mistake by making several personnel changes to the roster that made it to the 2009 NBA Finals were erased for the time being, as Orlando steamrolled through the second half of the regular season with a record of 33-8 and swept the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"It was generally understood that the Celtics would offer stiff resistance to the Magic. Boston had Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace to throw at Howard, which allowed them to stay at home on Orlando’s shooters. Nevertheless, many believed that the Magic would persevere. That didn't happen."
It is hard to remember exactly what happened that led to the failure in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. Orlando had that incredible run through the final half of the season and the first two rounds of the Playoffs and things seemed completely fine. They really did. There was no shame in losing to the Celtics and plenty of reason to remain optimistic that the team could duplicate its success in its second year around.
But perhaps that was too optimistic and as Rivera suggests the Eastern Conference Finals had a larger effect on the team.
Vince Carter shouldered a lot of the blame for his performance in that series. He was fantastic in Game One, but his two missed free throws in Game Two made Orlando's final possession much more difficult to avoid the 2-0 hole. He was never the same and it carried over to the 2011 season -- he averaged 15.1 points per game on 47.0 percent shooting and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. It was his worst offensive season of his career.
It carried over to Rashard Lewis too. He was not quite himself throughout the series -- reportedly fighting a flu bug he could not shake in the series and going up against a pretty healthy Kevin Garnett. He struggled heading into 2011 too. Lewis, who was never real comfortable playing alongside Carter, averaged 12.2 points per game and shot 36.7 percent on 3-pointers. Whatever was wrong with him, did not fix itself over the summer.
It was clear that both players would not help the Magic win a championship in 2011. Even with the team's fast start, once trouble hit, it hit hard. And the team more or less fell apart, forcing Otis Smith to make a move in December to shake things up.
The end result was failure and (perhaps) a hole that has the Magic scrambling to fix things to get back to where they were at the end of the 2010 season. And that is where we are now.
As Rivera notes, it was not all bad. That Boston series taught Dwight Howard how to be more assertive and to use his athleticism to get around the guys like Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace who would try to push him around. Howard became a better offensive player and had his best offensive season. It was a big leap. Rivera seems to believe it started with his performance in the last few games of the Boston series. Who knows if it actually did.
It is interesting to wonder what if and whether this series really did change things. Rivera certainly makes good points and introduces a relatively new thought to analyze the 2011 season.
The loss in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals may very well end up being the kind of collapse that changes the franchise's fortunes. Consider the Kings' loss to the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Kings had home court advantage and were heavily favored in that series too. That was perhaps the franchise's best team as the 2010 Magic might have been (an argument for later, but grant me that statement for now... they were definitely in the top three teams in franchise history).
The Kings also were not quite the same after that series.
Sacramento never reached the conference finals again. The next season they repeated as the top team in the regular season, but failed to get out of the second round in falling to the Mavericks in seven games. Slowly Sacramento faded into obscurity as Chris Webber's body broke down.
Their decline was not as fast or sudden as the Magic's, but it goes to show how quickly the window closes. You have to take advantage of the opportunities when they come up.
What Orlando may have been doing and what got them in so much trouble was the team's desperation to hold on to that window and keep it open. Things have gone wrong and the team is now in a hole.
The waiting is the bad part now. There is no chance to fix it and get things moving forward.
Photos via DayLife.com.