By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
Posted Sep 22 2011 10:29AM
Pat Williams had the best seat in the house, and certainly the luckiest, when the Magic won the draft lottery for Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard, big men strong enough to carry a franchise and championship dreams.
But Williams and the Magic are now fretting the possibility of another déjà vu, helplessly watching Howard wander off in the free agent mist, following Shaq 15 years earlier.
Many teams go decades without getting a center the caliber of Howard and O'Neal, so in a sense Orlando has been fortunate. But the sucker-punch from losing Shaq was real, and a second blow would be just as painful if Howard refuses to re-sign with Orlando.
"The pre-eminent big men of their era," said Williams, with a sigh. "Not only are they elite big men, they're probably the only true big men."
Both owe their time in Orlando to Williams, the long-time Magic executive who worked his lucky charms to the hilt and scored jackpot twice. In free agency, though, luck plays no role. It's all up to the player and his whims and his desires, something the Magic first learned harshly when Shaq took his talents to Tinseltown.
"Total devastation" is how Williams remembers the immediate feeling in a Shaq-less Orlando. "Those were gloomy times."
Shaq took the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals and was easily the biggest name in town after Disney. But a few issues led him to sign with the Lakers in the summer of 1996. He had a bad relationship with coach Brian Hill. His Olympic teammates that summer told him to think bigger. He was bruised by an Orlando Sentinel poll, which asked fans if Shaq was worth the money to keep around. And Orlando low-balled him initially, offering five years and $55 million, which Shaq thought was an insult.
Also, his L.A.-based agent at the time, Leonard Armato, believed Orlando the city was too small-time for Shaq, who was beginning to feel his pop-culture oats, with rap records and movie deals. Shaq was one of the first athletes to have his own logo.
"From the moment we drafted Shaq," said Williams, "Leonard was plotting ways to get him to L.A. The thought was he could go there and become a mega-brand. This is what we were up against."
Also, the salary landscape began to shift suddenly under Orlando's feet. Juwan Howard and Chris Webber were getting deals as good or better than the Magic's offer to Shaq.
And finally, on the other coast, Jerry West was warming up. The Logo, one of the finest GMs of all time, began dumping salary to be in position to afford Shaq, essentially giving away core Lakers (Anthony Peeler and George Lynch) and sending Vlade Divac to Charlotte for a first-rounder. Which became Kobe Bryant.
When Lakers owner Jerry Buss green-lighted a $120 million contract, it was a done deal, and Shaq ignored Orlando's last-minute offer to match.
"By then," said Williams, "his head was in L.A. and it was too late."
Orlando was burned by its belief Shaq would never leave, ignoring what the Hornets did a year earlier. Fearful of losing Alonzo Mourning to pending free agency and getting nothing in return, the Hornets shipped him to Miami. Under the old labor deal, teams didn't hold options on players on their rookie contracts. There was no matching and retaining those players. Still, the Magic held onto Shaq for a good reason.
"We went to the Finals the year before and we were still an elite young team, with Penny (Hardaway) and all the right pieces," Williams said. "There was not even a thought of trading him before or during the (1995-96) season. Bail? No way. We were going to win the title."
As it turned out, they were left with nothing except discounted Shaq jerseys in the team gift shop.
They briefly had a glimmer of hope when cap space opened in 2000, but Tim Duncan decided to stay in San Antonio and Grant Hill earned most of his $85 million sitting on the bench with a bum foot.
"After Shaq left, it took us 10 years to get back on our feet," Williams said.
Losing games positioned them for another lottery score in 2004, this time a high school kid the Magic were convinced was better than Emeka Okafor. The choice was a correct one, and in short time Howard developed into a defensive force and raised title hopes once again, as Shaq did.
"He and Mickey Mouse are the two big stars of this area," said Williams. "That's why every piece of our fiber is going towards keeping him here. If we can help it, we will not allow another Shaq to happen."
If only it were that easy. Free agency is one of the few times players hold power over owners, especially elite players, who make so much money in endorsements there's no rush to sign long-term deals. So they can wait until their original contract, or second contract, expires before deciding their future.
"It's just the way it is," said Williams. "And it's not going to change. Whether it's good or bad, it's really a moot point. Every team is going to go through it at least once."
Or twice, if you're lucky.
1. It's not often a team with a dominant big man fails to reach the post-season, which bodes well for Orlando here in Howard's walk year. He will be motivated by money and pride and should easily carry the club on his broad shoulders. Remember, the East isn't exactly loaded with contenders.
2. For a team without any up-and-coming talent on the roster, Orlando must get the max possible from veterans who've seen better days if the Magic want to win 50 games. If nothing else, these veterans bring smarts and, with Quentin Richardson and Jameer Nelson, a degree of toughness.
3. Without a big-time scorer to compliment Howard, the Magic need to embrace defense like never before. This should be coach Stan Van Gundy's message from day one. Of course, Howard is infectious in this regard. Now it's up to Hedo Turkoglu and Brandon Bass and a few others (J.J. Redick?) to get with the gameplan.
1. Van Gundy shouldn't face any job security questions this season. He's been put in a tough position, not that it's an excuse, but his challenges are greater than ever before. Yes, even greater than connecting with Shaquille O'Neal in Miami. You try getting something out of Gilbert.
2. It'll be great to see Williams roaming the arena again. The long-time executive of the Magic was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and as always, Williams tackled the issue head-on and with spirit. He's a man who's amazingly positive and blessed with perspective. Please wish him well.
3. Howard really must steer clear of foul trouble, because Orlando suffers greatly when he's on the bench. Howard has only fouled out 4 times in each of the last two seasons, but his technicals are still rising (16, 17 and then 18 last season), which means he still gets frustrated easily.
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LAST YEAR: 52-30, 2nd in Southeast
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
JAMEER NELSON, POINT GUARD
13.1 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 6.0 APG
Nelson isn't flashy, but he's tough and capable of beating teams off the dribble and from the perimeter. He shot just 37.8 percent in the playoffs against Atlanta, which led to Orlando's first-round ouster.
JASON RICHARDSON, SHOOTING GUARD
15.6 PPG | 4.1 RPG | 1.8 APG
Richardson clearly benefitted from playing with Dwight Howard. He hit nearly as many 3s in 55 games with Orlando (127) as he did in 79 games (157) with Phoenix in 2009-10.
HEDO TURKOGLU, SMALL FORWARD
10.8 PPG | 4.4 RPG | 4.2 APG
The better days appear to be behind him, but the Magic value Turkoglu as a point forward. He's clearly slowing down as his 247 fouls were a career high.
GLEN DAVIS, POWER FORWARD
11.7 PPG | 5.4 RPG | 1.2 APG
Big Baby comes to the Magic in the sign-and-trade for Brandon Bass, and hopes to provide a little more consistency on the offensive end.
DWIGHT HOWARD, CENTER
22.9 PPG | 14.1 RPG | 2.4 BPG
Howard continues to refine his offensive game to go with his sterling defensive work. Magic fans will likely spend the season fretting about the free-agent-to-be's future, though.
|J.J. Redick||6-4||190||G||After getting big extension, his 3-point pct. dropped off.|
|Ryan Anderson||6-10||240||F||Hit career highs in points and rebounds, but defense needs work.|
|Chris Duhon||6-1||190||G||Serviceable backup is good for 8-10 minutes, tops.|
ADDED: G DeAndre Liggins, F-C Justin Harper, G Larry Hughes, G Gabe Pruitt, F/C Glen Davis, G Von Wafer
LOST: F Brandon Bass, G Gilbert Arenas (amnesty)
OTIS SMITH, GENERAL MANAGER
General manager Otis Smith has made roughly a half-dozen moves in the last few years in an effort to win a title with Howard. Ironically, Orlando's first move was signing Rashard Lewis to a $119 million contract, which indirectly led to last season's acquisition of Arenas. But the Magic have nothing major to show for all those transactions except a loss to the Lakers in the Finals. Smith now must either convince ownership to trade Howard before the deadline, or why keeping him will result in re-signing him.
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