Denton: Chat With Otis Smith

By John Denton
December 1, 2011

ORLANDO – Like all NBA fans, Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Otis Smith spent the past five months fretting about whether or not there would even be a 2011-12 NBA season.

  An avid motorcycle rider, Smith would often leave his office at the Amway Center and take a night-time ride to Jacksonville to dine with his parents. But even Smith eventually tired of his usually cherished time on the bike, and longed for a return to running the basketball side of things for the Magic.

  ``These are only so many bike rides you can take before you really start to miss it,’’ Smith said recently. ``I’m ready to go back to work.’’

  With a tentative agreement in place between the reformed NBA Players Association and the owners, Smith finally could go back to work on Wednesday. It was the first day he was able to contact agents about players already on the roster and prospective free agents. Training camp is slated to begin Dec. 9 with the NBA season tipping off Dec. 25.

  Smith sat down with OrlandoMagic.com on Wednesday and discussed his plans in free agency, how he will handle Dwight Howard’s looming decision, his hopes for Gilbert Arenas and his desire to have Jason Richardson back on the roster. Smith also had a message for the basketball fans in Orlando that, like him, missed the Magic the past few months.

  Here is Smith’s interview with OrlandoMagic.com: 

  QUESTION: Because of the lockout, you weren’t allowed to speak to your players since July 1. What’s the latest update on when you can begin talking to players again and finding out their conditioning heading into the opening of camp on Dec. 9?

  OTIS SMITH: ``On Thursday, players can start having contact again with trainers and our strength and conditioning guys. But they can’t have contact with our coaches and staff yet until training camp opens on Dec. 9.’’

  QUESTION: Describe your relief that the lockout if finally over? How worried were you that this season might have been cancelled? How difficult have these last few months been on those in the Basketball Operations Department?

  OTIS SMITH: ``It’s been tough from the standpoint that the end of last season finished on a sour note and then we’ve had an extended offseason and couldn’t get back to work. I don’t think the time off has been good for anyone – the fans, the players or anyone with the Magic. So, really, it’s a relief that we can finally get back to work and get this thing right again.’’

  QUESTION: Do you think because you have a veteran team and a deep roster that those factors will help you significantly help you during a condensed season with a shortened training camp?

  OTIS SMITH: ``I think it helps us tremendously. We already have a bunch of guys who are familiar with our system. That’s a big plus for us and having a lot of returning guys. There are a lot of rosters around the league that have only a few guys back. But from a standpoint of our team, we have a lot of core guys back that we are counting on for big things.’’

  QUESTION: You were allowed to begin negotiations with agents on Wednesday. How will you approach free agency? What holes are there on the team that need to be filled?

  OTIS SMITH: ``I like our team. We have a couple of unrestricted free agents that we’d like to get addressed first and get them back if we can. J-Rich is a top priority for us. Remember, we made a lot of changes last year and sometimes you have to allow it time for things to marinate and gel a little bit. So getting those free-agent guys back in the fold is what we’re looking to do first.’’

    QUESTION: What are your feelings on Gilbert Arenas and how he will bounce back this season after struggling following the trade from Washington last fall? Any guess on what the condition of his knee is?

  OTIS SMITH: ``Well, if he’s done what was asked of him as far as the rehab, working his knee and getting his weight down I really think he’s going to be OK. And he might just have to adjust the way that he plays. If he’s taken care of all of his stuff, I think he’s going to be OK.’’

  QUESTION: How do you think you will use the Amnesty clause that is a part of the new CBA to allow teams to get under the luxury tax threshold?

  OTIS SMITH: ``I’ll have to look at the whole package of what we’re trying to do as a team. We’ll look at everything as it relates to that. We’re still having a lot of considerations about what our next move is going to be and what we’re going to do. Will we use it this year or next? Those are the questions that we’re up against right now.’’

  QUESTION: There are new provisions in the new CBA that penalize teams that are paying the luxury tax and advantages for those below the threshold. Is it a mission of yours to get below that tax line?

  OTIS SMITH: ``What we have to do is do whatever is in the best interest of the club. So we have to look at what is going to give us the best opportunity to win. Whether it’s staying above the tax line or dropping below it, we’ll go the direction that most helps us in our push for a title.’’

  QUESTION: Of course, the mostly nonsensical trade rumors surrounding Dwight Howard have already begun in earnest. Do you think that Dwight’s pending free agency will be a distraction for him and the team this season? Is that a concern of yours?

  OTIS SMITH: ``It’s hard for it to not be a distraction. You have to first figure out the road that he’s travelled in the past and figure out a way to keep the distractions to a minimum. It was a (distraction) a couple of years ago with LeBron (James), and I’m sure it is going to be the same way with Dwight and Chris Paul. If you are going to have one of the best players in the league, this is part of the program and at some point his contract is going to be up and you will have to deal with the matter of what’s next for him.’’  

  QUESTION: Do you go to Dwight at some point in the next couple of weeks or months and press him for an answer as to his future? Is it an absolute must to know what his intentions are before he becomes a free agent next summer?

  OTIS SMITH: ``You have to do what’s in the best interest of your franchise because the future of this franchise is the most important thing at stake here. Dwight has been such a big part of our team and we’ve built around him for seven years. I really hope to get an indication of where he’s going so that our franchise can move forward. It’s tough to do that if we don’t have an inkling of what his plans will be.’’

  QUESTION: You were a part of the management team that drafted Dwight, you’ve always had a good relationship with him and you have been around him for seven years now. Do you have a sense at all which way he is leaning as it relates to his future in Orlando?

  OTIS SMITH: ``I can’t even venture to guess because it’s still up in the air. Because of the lockout, I haven’t spoken to him since July and there’s been no contact at all. I can’t really guess what he’s thinking right now, but I know he loves Orlando.’’ 

  QUESTION: Landing Jason Richardson last December in the trade with Phoenix was a player you considered a key piece of the transition. Now that he’s an unrestricted free agent, how much do you want to retain him? 

  OTIS SMITH: ``I’d really like to have him back because he’s important to us. I feel like he can do a lot more for us this season than he was able to do at the end of last year. So I’m very interested in having him back. I know he has his own situation to deal with being an unrestricted free agent. So it’ll be a challenge getting him back, but we definitely want him back. We understand that he’s a free agent, so he has to go where he feels the most comfortable.’’

  QUESTION: Do you feel like if Richardson goes elsewhere that you are well-positioned at shooting guard because of the improvement of J.J. Redick?

  OTIS SMITH: ``J.J. can fill that (starting) role easily and I don’t think there will be an issue there at all if he had to. But it would still be good to have J-Rich back at well and keep our depth at that position.’’

  QUESTION: How important is it in your eyes having a backup center on the roster behind Dwight? Is that even more important during a condensed season when you will be playing three games in a row at times and as often as five times a week?

  OTIS SMITH: ``It’s always important to have somebody behind Dwight, but it has to be the right pieces and players in place. He’s still going to play the bulk of the minutes and you want your best player on the floor most of the night. But you also want to be able to count on your bench when you go to it behind your most important player. So we’re looking to fill that hole (at backup center) as well.’’

  QUESTION: How long this summer did it take you to get over the playoff loss to the Hawks? Or are you even over it yet?

  OTIS SMITH: ``I don’t think you ever get something like that. I don’t think anybody who is still looking at winning a championship gets over losing in the playoffs? I’m sure a lot of our guys are still as upset today as they were the day it happened. I know that I am. We’re trying to keep things moving forward, and that’s what we’ll do this season.’’

  QUESTION: History suggests that championships windows open and close for teams. Do you still feel like with the best center in the game, a veteran roster and a solid coach that you are in position to contend for a championship?

  OTIS SMITH: ``We’re still a very good basketball team and still one of the best teams in the entire league. We made a lot of changes last year, and now our team will have that chance to gel and get back to doing what we do around here. I still believe that we’re a very good basketball team with a lot of really good pieces and I don’t see any reason why we can’t compete for a title.’’

  QUESTION: You are a guy who is out in the community a lot and you were at the Coalition for the Homeless last week serving Thanksgiving breakfast to people there. What reactions have you gotten from the fans about the lockout and how do you think they will react when the games return? What’s your message now to the fans?

  OTIS SMITH: ``The whole thing was tough on everyone, especially the fans. You just hope that they will come back and support who and what we are as an organization here in Orlando. You hope that the guys on our roster and our team. I really think that it’s going to be a good year. Even in a shortened season, I think it’s going to be an exciting brand of basketball that we play here.’’

  John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com.