BOSTON -- There is agony in Cleveland and apathy in Toronto, the footprints of free-agent ruin in the NBA. The Cavaliers have lost a record 24 consecutive games, and the Raptors are so mediocre that nobody even cares.
In Orlando, where the Magic headed after getting smacked again by the Celtics on Sunday, this is the calm before the storm. This shell of a team with a $90 million payroll and a future free agent with one giant foot out the door put up no resistance in a 91-80 loss. Since two franchise-shaping trades were consummated on Dec. 18, Orlando is 16-10 -- and 1-5 against the four teams ahead of them in the East.
While Dwight Howard held court in the visiting room at TD Garden, the focal point of those transactions -- Gilbert Arenas -- sat at the opposite end of the room and acknowledged the formation of some angry looking clouds off in the distance.
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"Not yet," Arenas said after the first scoreless game he could remember since he picked up a basketball, referring to the pressure to get Howard a championship before he follows LeBron James' lead. "But we know and I know they brought us here for a reason."
We all know that reason was not to finish fifth or sixth in the East and get knocked out in the first round.
Howard, and maybe Ryan Anderson, were the only guys in blue other than Patriots fans who showed up Sunday. The Magic shot 34 percent -- 30 percent without Howard -- and got as perplexing a performance as you'll ever see from not one, but two of their most important rotation players. Hedo Turkoglu was 1 of 10 from the field and Arenas missed all seven of his shots while appearing to go out of his way to avoid an imaginary force field around the basket. Either that, or he just can't get there anymore.
Stan Van Gundy knows Turkoglu, which gave him the authority to say, "I've never been through a stretch with him where it seems like the majority of the plays he's making I'm sort of saying, 'What the hell is he doing?' "
But Arenas? This enigmatic talent and personality who was thrust on Van Gundy in a December moment of desperation to keep Howard employed in the land of no state income tax? Van Gundy is at a loss for what to do. He resisted criticizing Arenas' offense or defense directly Sunday, except when he allowed that Rajon Rondo "totally dominated us" and "got where he wanted to go any time he wanted to go." But clearly the difficulty of incorporating Arenas' individual talents -- what's left of them after so much inactivity over the past three years -- has made Van Gundy's voice even raspier and his famously thin patience more penetrable than ever.
|Gilbert Arenas is supposed to receive $43 million after Dwight Howard's free-agent summer of 2012. (Getty Images)|
With 10 of their next 12 games at home, where the warmer weather apparently will help Arenas' arthritic knee feel better (I'm not making this up), the Magic have a chance to make this right. Van Gundy, who has been brainstorming different ways to get Arenas going offensively, said he'll need every bit of the 10 weeks left before the postseason begins to figure out how all the new pieces fit. The Magic are allowing nearly four more points per game in the 26 games since the trade (96.6) than they did in the 26 games before (92.9).
"Ten weeks basically is what we've got until the playoffs start," Van Gundy said. "I think we'll be pretty good defensively by then."
Howard evidently is willing to be patient. A free agent in 2012 along with the Hornets' Chris Paul, Howard has yet to form a strong opinion one way or the other, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking. Stay or go? To paraphrase LeBron, what should he do? If he does leave, Howard has his eyes on two teams -- the Lakers and Knicks -- as the big-market destinations where he'll chase down his championships and marketing opportunities if things don't work out in the Sunshine State. The Nets, who are supposed to be in Brooklyn by then, also are in the mix, the person said.
So the Magic are on the clock -- the way the Cavs were with LeBron and the Raptors with Chris Bosh, and the way the bill has come due for the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony. But if you ask Magic GM Otis Smith -- and I did -- there isn't some knee-jerk plan to deal with Howard's future. Smith has been planning for the next year and a half for the past seven years.
"He's been a free agent since he’s been here," Smith said. "Meaning I'm not going to wait until he's a free agent to become worried about free agency. Who are we kidding? When you have one of the top five players in this league, you're always trying to retain him, I don't care who you are. So there's nothing I would do differently. Nothing. Zero. I've pretty much done it for seven years, since he was a rookie."
The 2012-13 season seems light years away -- two more playoff runs, not to mention a lockout that could change the landscape of the NBA. But nothing changes the landscape like top-five talents packing up and leaving their franchises in a ditch.
In that regard, Smith has found himself in the same boat Danny Ferry was last season in Cleveland, only a year earlier. With the second-highest payroll in the league and a new arena to fill, Smith had to do something -- and he took a calculated risk by trading two defensive players, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus, to the Suns for two offensive players, Jason Richardson and Turkoglu. But the biggest gamble was Arenas, whose career Smith hoped to resurrect along with the championship hopes of his team.
The result? Don't know yet, but the Magic are no closer to competing with Boston and Miami -- not to mention Atlanta -- than they were 26 games ago.
"We're not even in the ballpark with these guys right now," Van Gundy said of the Celtics, who don't look like they'd need six games to escort Orlando out of the playoffs this year. "We can be, but we’re not right now.”
What else could they have done? Like the Cavs with LeBron, there'd be no surviving the public outrage of trading Howard now -- a year before this becomes a real issue -- in an attempt to get close to equal value. Think about it, though: If Ferry had traded LeBron in February 2010 instead of imperiling the payroll with Antawn Jamison's contract and watching James leave anyway, what would've happened? The Cavs still wouldn't have won a championship, but they wouldn't be one of the worst teams in the history of basketball now, either.
Realistically, that couldn't have happened in Cleveland, and it won't happen in Orlando or New Orleans. There is no explaining that to season-ticket holders or sponsors, and if that's what it takes to head off disaster in the NBA, then maybe the league really does need a lockout to fix it.
Instead, Smith followed the Cavs' preemptive approach to superstar wanderlust. It's hard to blame him, given the alternatives, but now the Magic have to sleep in that bed.
That is the lesser of evils in today's NBA, where superstars toast to forming mini Dream Teams and executives are forced to do things they would never do otherwise. That is how the future of the Magic franchise, with its palatial arena and a star hungry for titles, rests on the achy knees and suspect psyche of Gilbert Arenas.
In Washington on Friday night, where Arenas was served with child-support papers during a game against Miami on Thursday night, Arenas overheard the Orlando radio announcers divulging their keys to the game. One of them, to his great surprise, was whether Arenas would "try to do too much."
"I'm going to play my game," Arenas said. "There's so much talent that I don't feel like I have to try to score so much. I just have to play a balanced game. I have to find open guys, make buckets, make plays, and if they need me to come in and score 15 or 20 off the bench, then that's where I'll put my mindset. But right now, I don't really think that's needed."
The question that should worry the Magic, who still will owe Arenas $43 million after Howard's free-agent summer of 2012, is not whether that's needed from Arenas. It's whether it's even possible.