Early in the season there was a problem.
The Magic were rolling to a 13-4 record when illness struck and losses began piling. The team was winning at a solid rate, but did not exhibit the same cohesion and dominance that had marked the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
When Otis Smith pulled the trigger on those fateful December trades Orlando was 16-9 and coming off a 1-3 West Coast road trip that had Dwight Howard questioning the commitment of teammates after a loss in Portland.
It was clear the team the Magic had was not going to win a title, but why was elusive. Rashard Lewis was struggling to make shots. Vince Carter continued to burrow himself in the comfort of deferring to others. Dwight Howard was magnificent, but nobody seemed ready to foot the rest of the bill on a nightly basis. The problem was perhaps exposed even more when Howard was sick and Marcin Gortat, a supposed defensive stalwart off the bench, got torched by Andrew Bogut in Milwaukee.
No matter how relatively successful the team was, or hopeful everyone seemed to be that once the nurovirus that ravaged the team in early December passed everything would turn out all right, something was off and we could not quite put our finger on it.
Thursday's NBA Draft was hardly a time to talk about what happened in early December when a team that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals seemingly fell apart at the seams. Not even an infusion of new blood (or a complete transplant for that matter) could shake the Magic out of that funk. But when the 53rd pick came up and the Magic were finally on the clock, the discussion on ESPN turned to what happened to the Magic and how they could bounce back.
Justin Harper and DeAndre Liggins are not going to fix every problem. They may not even fix any problem. But that does not mean there is still not a lot of internal house cleaning and soul searching that needs to go on.
ESPN analyst, and Stan Van Gundy's brother, Jeff Van Gundy had this to say during the broadcast: "They've gotten older, Rashard Lewis got older. Turkoglu in his second turn back did not play real well. They've had some injuries and some turnover. They've just have a lot of age creep in. I just think they have to get their chemistry right again. Clowns kill chemistry and they've got to get serious minded professionals who come ready to play every single night."
There are some interesting thoughts there in Jeff Van Gundy's comments.
The Magic were already a pretty veteran team in 2009 but had Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee to add some youth and energy. Lewis and Carter's skills were slowly deteriorating in 2010 as neither seemed able to work well together. That got worse in the early parts of the 2010-11 season before they were both shipped off.
Hedo Turkoglu too got older. He had one magical run to get the team to the Finals, but many Magic fans who had watched him play the previous four seasons saw it more as a temporary spike -- like with Jameer Nelson in 2009 -- and waited for the hard crash to the mean. That came for Turkoglu in Toronto and he is still at about his average level of play (maybe a little lower).
As the roster currently stands, its average age is 26.6. That includes the two rookies the team just drafted. Gilbert Arenas is an old 29. Turkoglu is 32. Jameer Nelson is 29. These guys are not old, but in Orlando's current rotation there are not many young guys either. Dwight Howard might be the youngest at 25. The team needs an infusion of youth.
But of course youth is pointless if they are not serious. And that brings up Van Gundy's second point: the chemistry was off.
Jeff Van Gundy claims it is because there were too many "jokers" on the team. Howard is good for a few laughs, but is serious about winning basketball games. Jameer Nelson is the quiet prankster on the team, but it there are no indications he does not take the game seriously as well -- although perhaps not as aggressively as he should. Hedo Turkoglu was known for keeping guys loose during the 2009 Finals run with some of his jokes.
In fact, I would say the joking nature of the team in 2009 and 2010 was one of the positives. At times this year, I thought a little playfulness would have done the team some good as they were often very tight.
Of course, it is a positive when you win and a negative when you lose. Some of Gilbert Arenas' antics this summer have drawn criticism as he tries to release himself a little bit from his self-imposed prison. But you can see some chemistry problems arising when Arenas lashed out at Otis Smith a few times on Twitter. He has already said he thinks the team should be given a full year (something, I tend to agree with, except for just a training camp). There was a post (I cannot seem to find it, might have been deleted) where Arenas said he is a professional basketball player and thought it was ridiculous that Otis Smith would ask him not to play. And, of course, Dwight Howard came out and said he believed Stan Van Gundy used Arenas the wrong way this season.
There appeared to be some dissension in the ranks.
Maybe the Magic need someone who has won a title to come in and remind them what it takes to win it to balance out the playfulness (my so-called "Horace Grant Theory"). That is something the Magic have not had in this recent stretch of success.
The problem with the 2011 team is still hard to grasp. There were definitely problems with the makeup of the roster -- to many shooters and not enough drivers and slashers -- and problems with the players on the roster at times.
How those problems get fixed, well, that is what the offseason is going to help us discover.
Photos via DayLife.com.