Vaughn’s Coaching Identity Emerging

Jacque Vaughn has a calm demeanor at all times. He is the anti-Stan Van Gundy in that way. He doesn’t stomp his feet and gesticulate, yell or gyrate. He gives a stern stare and a calm word. He and his coaching staff discuss and plan what they are going to say.

There is strategy behind everything.

Take the decision to move Maurice Harkless into the starting lineup. It came as somewhat of a surprise to many as it was a closely guarded state secret. When I asked Vaughn the next game if Harkless would make a second start, his eyes widened and he feigned a shocked look and asked in a hurried tone whether he had missed the deadline to turn his lineup in.

It drew a chuckle from the experienced members of the media who knew Vaughn likes to keep those decisions close to the vest. The next game, for the record, another reporter asked the same question and just to keep the media members like me “on your toes.”

That approach though has worked for the Magic. Vaughn has preached, much like Rob Hennigan, a process of sorts. He is methodical in his decision making and patient and calm in his approach to players. He demands a lot, for sure. And his players have responded, playing extremely hard and fighting even with the apparent talent gap.

“I’m not sure about deep reflection, but you take a little glimpse at what’s been good for us offensively as a team, what’s been good for us defensively,” Jacque Vaughn said before Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta. “We’ve been able to stay defensively with some sound principles throughout the course of the year.”

Vaughn noted that the team has shown improvement in several areas as the year has gone on and the team has settled into the identity Vaughn wants to build.

Defensively, Orlando is tied for seventh in defensive rating with the Spurs at 99.1 points per 100 possessions. This is the biggest surprise from this Magic team, but perhaps the one that would make the most sense considering where Vaughn came from, what type of player he was and the type of team he wants to build.

Vaughn was a defensive-minded player who played with passion and calm throughout his career. His team has been that way too. And in that way, this team has become more like the Heart & Hustle team of 2000 that it has been compared to — and is now living up to — so much.

“There are some [comparisons to the 2000 team],” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before the Magic’s game against the Celtics in late November. “Obviously you lose what they lost in Dwight [Howard], people don’t think you’re going to do anything, you come in and you play hard every night. They do that extremely well. They probably have a couple more names – just a few, not many more – than we had the first year I was here.

“They are just as difficult. I think it was Reilly who told me the hardest thing about preparing for us was you can’t practice effort in practice. You keep telling the other team that they play hard but you can’t practice that. I find myself telling my guys that now. You can’t practice that, you have to mentally prepare for that. To me, when you watch them, that’s why they win games.”

Indeed that is pretty high praise. Probably the ultimate praise you can give a coach — that his team plays hard and that is as difficult to mentally prepare yourself for as the Xs and Os.

Rivers said that during his one year coaching Vaughn while he was in Orlando, and simply described him as a pro. He was someone as a player who “does his job” and doesn’t joke around, but in a good way.

So far, everyone observing the Magic seem to think Vaughn is doing the right things and moving the team in the right direction. An Eastern Conference scout told Marc Stein of ESPN.com a few weeks ago about the impressive job he has seen from Vaughn so far.

Again, high praise. There is nothing more you can ask for from outside observers.

Of course, what ultimately matters is the final result. The Magic are 11-13 and eyeing a .500 record and (unthinkably before the season) setting their sites squarely on a Playoff push. There is still much work to be done before that.

But Vaughn has accomplished a lot already.

“They’re very consistent with their effort, and that’s what they have to be,” Rivers said. “Their ball movement is spectacular. To get a team to buy into ball movement when there is no key guy to play through is hard to do because most of the guys think they are all the key guys when you are that way. They’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

The simple thing that Vaughn has gotten his team to do is to play hard and play together. The ball is moving well and the team is responding to Vaughn and playing hard for him. That is all a young coach can ask for.

This team’s identity is simply that: a strong defensive team that will play for 48 minutes.

Crash Course Begins For Magic Rookies

For the first time in a long time, the Magic are relying on rookies to carry a significant load early in the season.

DeQuan Jones became the first Magic rookie to start a game since Courtney Lee in 2009 (Daniel Orton was technically not a rookie last year although Basketball-Reference lists him as one). Of course, it took Lee 30 games before he cracked the starting lineup for the first time. Jones’ start in the second game of the year is the earliest a rookie has started for the Magic since Dwight Howard started on opening night in 2004.

“Life is good isn’t it?” coach Jacque Vaughn said about giving DeQuan Jones his first start Sunday. “Take advantage of the opportunity life puts in front of you. Relish those opportunities, and I think he will.”

Jones did that. He played a shade more than 16 minutes and scored two points on 1-for-3 shooting. He made hardly much of an impact — his role is to do more of the nitty-gritty intangible things that do not end up in a stat sheet. It was a quiet and solid debut.

The team’s other rookies too made quiet, subtle impacts in their first action in the NBA.

And while Maurice Harkless did not make his NBA debut this weekend in the first two games of the season, Jacque Vaughn anticipates bringing into a game soon.

Andrew Nicholson played 18 minutes in the two games this weekend, both at critical junctures in the third quarter where he got a taste of NBA life.

Kyle O’Quinn stepped in during the foruth quarters for five minutes in the two games.

Rookies are going to be an important part of the Magic’s future in 2013 and beyond. And the injuries are working to push them along a bit sooner than expected.

Jacque Vaughn said his goal with the rookies is to put them in positions where they can succeed. And so their progress may initially be a bit slow. But expect their minutes to slowly increase. Especially with the injuries hitting this roster. An opportunity to learn on the job and get game experience is presenting itself. It just depends on how Vaughn wants to bring them along and the situations he wants to put them in.

Vaughn said after Sunday’s game that he was happy to get Jones the 16 minutes he got and allow him slowly to regain his timing. Especially since Josh McRoberts was able to provide good minutes at small forward in Sunday’s win, it allowed Vaughn to make that slow transition for Jones and likely Harkless as they get back.

For these young players, there is a lot of learning by listening and a lot of work in practice to do and glean. Harkless said the veterans have told him to go out and play like you are not afraid to make mistakes. Harkless said the veterans advised him to play hard and play through everything when he finally gets out there.

Andrew Nicholson echoed similar advice from the Magic’s veterans. He said veterans advised him to play hard and stay focused on the reason he is in Orlando — to help the team win.

Undoubtedly having these veteran players showing them the ropes seems to have rubbed off on them already even before they get meaningful minutes.

It is a wealth of new experiences and perhaps Vaughn’s advice for his rookies entering their first opening night echoed what he said about DeQuan Jones’ first start Sunday:

“Enjoy the now. There is only one now. Enjoy it. It will never come again. Can’t simulate, can’t repeat it. We’re not in an era where we time capsule. Enjoy the now,” Jacque Vaughn said.

Magic Run Nuggets Out of Amway Center

Nobody knew quite what to expect from the Magic as they embarked on this new era. What would this team be? Who would be its leaders?

Inside the halls of Amway Center though, preparation was being done and the team was going about its business. There were no distractions from the prying eyes of media expectations, just a quiet resolve to play together and do what was necessary to win.

The things you would expect from a franchise hoping to re-taste championship glory and build a foundation after being destroyed and decimated.

Maybe, though, Orlando was not quite so stupid. Maybe those expectations were wrong. Maybe hard work and teamwork count for something if everyone believes.

Jacque Vaughn thanked his players for the hard work they had put in the last month as the Magic prepared to step onto the court for the first time in this entirely new and unknown era. And the Magic played exactly how Vaughn would want them to — with effort, with grit and with energy throughout the 48 minutes.

There was hardly a moment Orlando let up in its season-opening 102-89 victory over Denver at Amway Center on Friday night. And that is exactly what Vaughn is likely to remember when he looks at the game ball Jameer Nelson presented to him afterward.

“It was a good feeling,” Jacque Vaughn said of earning his first win. “Before the game I thanked all the guys. There was no elaborate speech, no elaborate poem or elaborate quote. I thanked the guys for this month of being together with them, for allowing me to be their coach, for coming to practice, for mutual respect and mutual communication. At the end of the game, Jameer gave me the game ball and that’s the reciprocity we’re talking about. It goes both ways. I’ll give and tonight they gave as well.”

Indeed the Magic did give, early and often. Orlando broke down Denver’s defense by getting out on the run and making quick passes to open teammates. The unselfishness was what Vaughn wants this team to be defined by and they displayed that in their first game.

Orlando had 24 assists on its 42 field goal makes and survived a horrendous 2-for-9 shooting game from Jameer Nelson and 3-for-13 shooting night from Arron Afflalo. They made their contributions elsewhere with Nelson dishing out seven assists and Afflalo doing a good job defensively on Andre Iguodala, who shot only 3 for 10 on the evening.

Particularly since Hedo Turkoglu left the game with a broken left hand in the third quarter, Orlando was stretched very thin at small forward, using lineups that often featured Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, E’Twaun Moore or Arron Afflalo to keep the boat steady. Despite the Nuggets featuring a big and long lineup, Orlando forced turnovers and got out on the break — another hallmark of what Vaughn wants his teams to do.

They all did their jobs though. Moore came off the bench to score 13 points. J.J. Redick put in a strong first quarter when it seemed like Denver might put in a bid to control the tempo and pace of the game with 21 points off the bench and six assists. Glen Davis though proved to be the guy Orlando turned to.

“We don’t got All Stars. We’ve got to be able to share the ball,” Glen Davis said after his 29-point, 10-rebound performance as he became the focal point of the offense with 13 makes on 25 shots and a 53.3 percent true shooting percentage.

“All night, every night we’re supposed to have a high level of assists because we need each other. We’re going to make sure that we play together. Some nights you’ll have guys shooting the ball 25 times. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes it might be a defensive night. Tonight was a night like that.”

Orlando made this night about what many perceived to be the team’s weaknesses. The Magic played strong defense, crowding the paint and making it difficult for the Nuggets to get clean passes back out to the perimeter. Denver shot 38.1 percent in the game and 7 for 26 from beyond the arc. The only time the Nuggets made a serious run in the third quarter was because of the Magic’s fouling — the Magic conceded 14 free throws and committed eight fouls in that quarter.

Orlando also attacked the paint and largely took care of the glass. The team won the battle on the boards 46-45, getting six rebounds from Afflalo and seven energetic rebounds from Josh McRoberts. The Magic had 60 points in the paint, including 20 alone in the first quarter, and 15 fast break points. Orlando was quick to get rebounds and run the floor to get easy looks and put Denver on edge.

The Nuggets never quite found enough footing to make a serious run after the Magic took control for good in the first quarter. Orlando went on a 9-2 run to end the first quarter and take an 11-point lead to the second. The Nuggets got the lead under 10 points just twice more in this game, using a strong third-quarter push to sneak back in.

But Orlando showed resiliency. They opened the fourth quarter strong with an E’Twaun Moore steal and running jumper and then an Andrew Nicholson put back off a missed Moore 3-pointer. Orlando did not relent and did not withdraw when Denver made its run.

For one game, at least, the Magic had it all figured out. That is not enough though. There is still a team to build, goals to achieve and doubters to prove wrong.

“We’re just trying to get better every day, play as hard as we can every time we step on the court whether it’s practice or the game,” Jameer Nelson said. “We did that tonight. We made a lot of mistakes, but nobody could tell because we were playing hard. We played through the mistakes that we made. We showed great resolve and we showed that we’re going to play together.”

And that is who this Magic team hopes to be. The work is just beginning.

Orlando’s Roster Still Has Strong Leaders

One thing that is generally a staple for successful teams is the vocal leadership of players with tenure on that specific team. Senior leadership cannot be undervalued. In an 82-game season, senior leadership is invaluable, not only for their statistical contribution on the court but also for maintaining morale and unity off the court.

So who will be the senior leaders in the locker room and on the court for Orlando this year?

Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick and Hedo Turkoglu immediately come to mind when thinking tenure. Since being drafted by the Magic in 2004, Nelson has had seasons averaging 16.7 points, 14.6 points and 13.1 points respectively. Add to that an All-Star appearance in the 2009 season and it should be clear that he should be a leader on this young team.

Since the Magic drafted J.J. Redick in 2006, Redick has shown progressive improvement, averaging a career high 11.6 points, 2.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game last season. Hedo Turkoglu had arguably his best season as a professional with the Magic in 2008, averaging 19.5 points while shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range.

These veteran leaders will need to step up their game this season for the Magic to have any success at all, however limited.

Realistic expectations for a team consisting of no true “superstar” can vary. The Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship with a starting five consisting of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Granted, those are recognizable names, but none of the aforementioned players would be widely considered a “superstar.”

The Denver Nuggets have also experienced success without having a true star on their roster.

Since trading Carmelo Anthony in 2011 to the New York Knicks, the Nuggets have had a combined regular season record of 56-35. While the Knicks, who were the beneficiary of the “superstar” in that trade has a combined regular season record of 50-44.

Good chemistry in basketball can be just as important as having flashy names. And in a season full of questions, Magic fans may have to remind themselves of that.

Every team needs an identity, regardless of the sport. The Miami Heat has the big three. The Lakers have the Kobe system. The Celtics have the family atmosphere. The Bobcats have the hope of a deep draft class.

For Magic fans, the team’s identity will be based upon its ability to be unselfish, hustle and play for each other.

The Magic do have some solid pieces to build around however. And this is where the knowledge from players and potential leaders like Nelson, Redick and Turkoglu will really play a role.

Maurice Harkless averaged 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds in his one season at St. John’s. Arron Afflalo averaged 15.2 points and 2.4 assists per game with Denver last season while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. While Nikola Vucevic did not blow anyone away with his numbers in his rookie season in Philadelphia last year, he has been impressive in his preseason debut with Orlando. It would not be hard to see this young man turn into a double-double machine over time. Having a 16-point and 9-rebound performance against a front court consisting of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will draw that kind of praise.

Developing the young talent that Orlando possesses will be the key to the future of the organization. Jacque Vaughn was brought in largely for this purpose.

When it comes to the 2012-13 version of the Orlando Magic, there are multiple unanswered questions. Some ask “What are the realistic expectations in the win-loss column”? Others ask “Who will step up and be the vocal leader of the team”? Some might also wonder “Will there be any big time trades that Orlando will be involved in”?

Although its easy to get wrapped up in what might happen next, it’s important to take a look at the current roster and be excited for what is already here.

Orlando has a good mix of tenured veterans and young talent. Youth and senior leadership are the keys to success.

Magic Remain Full Of Expectations

As every member of the Magic filed through media day — whether it be the media scrum or OrlandoMagic.com’s live broadcast of the media day — the same message continued to come up.

Yes, the Dwight Howard saga was a bit of a distraction last year. But there is no ill will among his former teammates. Just because Dwight Howard is gone, does not mean the Magic are destined for losing. The expectation for this Magic team to win and win now reamins even without the superstar center anchoring the paint.

The Magic are not in a “woe-is-me” mentality. That is not the culture Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn want to build. This is still an organization that expects the best from its players every night, expects them to play hard and expects them to win.

No one within the Magic locker room or organization wants to use the “R” word. That may very well be what the Magic are actually undertaking as a franchise. They are not going to let a loser’s mentality or a tanking mentality enter the locker room however (no matter how beneficial such a strategy might be). Rob Hennigan and Jacque Vaughn both echoed that their team will compete hard every night.

That is all you can ask for from a team like this.

Outside observers see a Magic team that will sink to the bottom. All the way to the bottom, even below the Bobcats. That is a very realistic possibility. Outside the flowery talk and message the Magic hoped to portray on Media Day, sits a team that does not have a star player or a player who can consistently create offense. Not to mention a team that is full of inconsistent defenders.

The Stan Van Gundy-era Magic these are not. Fifty wins would be a miracle it seems. Orlando is likely to lose more games than it will win.

That is the view from the outside. Inside the team, the machinations are much different. These are competitive people. Many of these players are veterans who have been around the block in the NBA. Many of these players have spent the majority of their careers competing for NBA titles. Accepting losses is not in their DNA.

The overall talent may not be there, but that desire to win and that expectation to win remain. And that is more than enough reason to believe this Magic team will overachieve. Competing for a Playoff spot might be a bit optimistic, but you cannot blame the team for believing it as a possibility. These are all players with something to prove and the experience to know what it takes to achieve in this league.

This does not sound like your typical bottom of the league team. This sounds increasingly like your middle of the conference, just outside the Playoffs team. Maybe that is where Orlando wants to be… maybe it is not.

Whatever Hennigan’s plan may be, the players that are on the Magic are expected to play hard and go out and compete regardless of their record. And the players, at least by their words on Media Day, are expecting the same things from themselves.

Afflalo Excited About Playing For Orlando

Arron Afflalo was in Barcelona for an NBA clinic last week when the phone call came. Well, phone call might be metaphorical. It was more like a crawl going across the screen or an update going up on ESPN. Afflalo was on the Internet when ESPN reported he had been traded to Orlando as part of the Dwight Howard deal. Before that, he had not even followed the Howard rumors and trade discussions.

To his surprise, he found himself in the middle of it all in the end. And now he finds himself with a new opportunity in Orlando.

“It’s exciting for me. It’s a change,” Afflalo said as he was introduced to the media Thursday. “Change always brings mystery, it always brings doubt. But at the same time, from a positive outlook, it brings a lot of opportunity and a lot of room for growth. And that is the light that I feel most of people in the organization are looking at it and that’s the way we’re going to move forward.”

It is kind of hard to call anyone the “centerpiece” of the Dwight Howard deal for the Magic. They were not going after a replacement star it seems and were looking to take a step back by bringing in hard-working, young players to move around in future deals or as potential secondary pieces once the rebuilding is complete. Afflalo seems to fit that mold perfectly, and his three-year $7.75 million salary seems palatable for this rebuilding team moving forward.

Last year, Afflalo averaged a career-best 15.2 points per game last season in an increased role with the post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets. His field goal percentage dropped only slightly with the increased field goal attempts as he shot 47.1 percent from the floor and shot a 53.4 percent effective field goal percentage. His PER last year was a career-best 14.7. This was on 12.1 field goal attempts per game, a number that is likely to increase this year with the Magic as Afflalo should quickly become one of the team’s best offensive options.

Opportunity has always been something Afflalo has had to grab when it was before him.

He was the 27th overall pick of the Pistons in 2007 and worked his way into their rotation as a rookie because of his defensive prowess. His role for that team was all about fitting into their defensive schemes and making shots when the opportunity presented itself. His offensive game grew slowly, but his defense kept him on the floor. He was traded to Denver in July 2009 and took advantage of that new opportunity, and an increased offensive role, playing alongside Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.

Afflalo said he really gained confidence in his abilities during that time playing alongside veterans like Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Kenyon Martin. When Anthony was traded, it was just another opportunity to expand his game and his role on the team.

It is safe to say that in his first full year without Anthony, Afflalo was able to do that.

Orlando Deals Howard To Los Angeles

Marc Stein of ESPN.com is reporting the Magic, Nuggets, Lakers and 76ers have agreed in principle on a deal that will send Dwight Howard out of Orlando. He reports sources tell him that a conference call has been scheduled for Friday morning to confirm the trade.

Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM also reports that sources are telling him the deal is done and several other outlets have confirmed these reports.

It finally feels like this deal is moving forward, beyond those “sources say” stage.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports broke the news Thursday afternoon that the Magic and Lakers were in talks for a trade involving, yes, Dwight Howard. We have been here before and we are going here again. Wojnarowski reports this rumor involves the Magic acquiring Pau Gasol and Arron Afflalo, the Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard and Al Harrington, the Nuggets acquiring Andre Iguodala and the 76ers acquiring Andrew Bynum.

Obviously, there are a lot of moving pieces since four teams are involved in this deal. The only reported parts of these talks are the major pieces and not everyone is certain whether Pau Gasol will end up included in the deal. Several reports Thursday night are suggesting that Gasol may not be included in these four-team discussions. There are also reports that Jason Richardson will end up in Philadelphia and rookie Moe Harkless will be in Orlando.

So break down what we know (for super sure, at least): The Lakers will receive Dwight Howard. Howard had pretty much told the world that he will only sign with the Nets or the Lakers after the 2013 season. That severely limited Orlando’s trade partners and what the team could do. Inevitably, the Lakers were going to be where Howard ended up. He has enough leverage left — and Dan Fegan is a superb agent — to get what he wants. So he will.

Orlando, for its part, has been holding out for a package of picks that resembles what Denver got for Carmelo Anthony. The Magic want young players and draft picks. They also want to part ways with several bad contracts — including Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon. Orlando is asking for a lot and it appears certain that it will not get everything it wants.

This four-team deal that is reported done is a compromise of some of those values, or at least a recognition that the Magic may have put the bar a little too high. Orlando is not getting a lot of that stuff.

The Magic are set to receive Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless and a first round pick from each of the three teams.

Afflalo is the “centerpiece” if you can call him that. He averaged 15.2 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting last year. He is owed $31.2 million over the next four years with a player option on the final year. This is not particularly horrible for a player of Afflalo’s caliber. He is about who he will be as a player. He is not an elite creator off the dribble, but he can score on his own and hit 3-pointers. Not the centerpiece for a new era, but not a bad player to have. The contract is reasonable and you can live with it.

Harrington is a long-time NBA veteran who is a stretch-4. He does not have nearly the athleticism he used to have, but is still valuable off the bench as a 3-point shooter, if not anything else. He also can post up smaller players. Last year, he averaged 14.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season, posting a very strong 15.3 PER. You just do not know if Harrington still has much more in him. His last few years have been inconsistent, but he has averaged more than 10.0 points per game every year since 2002. So he can score. But that is his big thing.

Harrington might be on a reasonable contract if he continues to produce at his current levels. He is owed $21.4 million the next three years, but the final two years of his deal are only partially guaranteed. Orlando, it seems, maintains some flexibility when it comes to Harrington’s future.

The Magic also reportedly will get Moe Harkless. I wrote a profile of Harkless back at draft time. He has a lot of potential as a small forward or shooting guard and was a big-time scorer at St. John’s as a freshman. He just needs a little bit more seasoning. He is on a rookie contract.

Ken Berger of CBS Sports also reports the Magic may receive Nikola Vucevic.

So let’s break down what we know by team a bit further:

Orlando receives: Afflalo ($7.75M), Harrington ($6.69M), Harkless ($1.73M), Vucevic ($1.72M) = $17.89M
Orlando sends out: Howard ($19.54), Richardson ($5.4M) = $24.94M

Lakers receive: Howard ($19.54M) = $19.54M
Lakers send out: Bynum ($16.1M) = $16.1M

76ers receive: Bynum ($16.1M), Richardson ($5.4M) = $21.5M
76ers send out: Iguodala ($14.72M), Harkless ($1.73M), Vucevic ($1.72M) = $18.17M

Nuggets receive: Iguodala ($14.72M) = $14.72M
Nuggets send out: Afflalo ($7.75M), Harrington ($6.69M) = $14.44

Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Magic will also send Chris Duhon and Earl Clark to the Lakers as part of the deal, sending out another $4.49 million from the Magic to the Lakers. The Lakers would receive $24.03 million in salary and so likely will have to send another player out as part of the deal.

Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld reports the Magic will receive Christian Eyenga in the deal. It would not surprise me if Steve Blake or Darius Morris becomes involved in this deal somehow to make salaries work.

That is the way the deal is rumored to set up. There are several problems. First, as many express in their disappointment over the deal, the Magic do not get a “star.” I would argue that is not the point.

The Magic want cap relief and to begin clearing the decks. Getting rid of the final three years of Jason Richardson’s is a good step in that direction. Turkoglu can be bought out after next season. Duhon is also unguaranteed partially for 2014, too. So maybe it is not an awful thing that they are still around. They will be gone soon enough, it seems. The way this trade goes down determines how long the Magic will have to rebuild.

It seems Orlando is putting its eggs in really beginning the rebuilding process in 2014. Next season is a wash. The Magic look like they want high draft picks in 2013 and 2014 to build the team around. Orlando wants to be a good development and drafting team. This deal seems to suggest this is primarily how the Magic will build.

So sorry to say, the Magic are in for some rough years.

What makes it really rough is the Magic committed three years to Jameer Nelson, still have three years for Glen Davis. Orlando also now has 14 players under contract for next season.

What is Orlando thinking in this deal? The team is indeed bottoming out.

The Magic’s draft picks the next two years will be incredibly valuable. When Orlando appears ready to start contending again, it may have the flexibility to do so with Nelson and Davis as expiring contracts.

And, who knows, the Magic may catch fire with another Heart & Hustle-style team in the short term. The long term? It is going to be banking on good drafting, cap flexibility in (at least) two years and some patience.

Orlando’s Leap Of Faith With Vaughn

The storylines are written pretty clearly as the Magic hired Jacque Vaughn to be the franchise’s new head coach. Shaquille O’Neal may have made sure of that when he expressed the feeling of a lot of observers when news came down the Magic were considering Jacque Vaughn, the inexperience, recently retired assistant coach for the Spurs. If there was any hope of keeping Dwight Howard, such an unproven guy could not be the man to lead the Magic.

Maybe it was a sign that Dwight Howard would no longer be part of the team — a shadow that still hung over the franchise even as it introduced its new head coach Monday.

Vaughn though is not concerned with that storyline. He was very on message in expressing what he envisioned for the future of the Orlando Magic. The one thing everyone will have to get over is that lack of experience. Clearly he had done enough already to convince general manager Rob Hennigan, CEO Alex Martins and owner representative Dan DeVos, who all took the stage with Vaughn on Monday at Amway Center.

“Sometimes, life, it’s about timing, it is about luck, but sometimes you have to stick your neck out a little bit and take a leap of faith, create your own destiny,” Vaughn said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. The DeVos family is doing that today taking a leap of faith in my ability to relate to guys, to communicate with individuals, to get a group of men to gather together for a common goal, to have resolve, to compete. I am proud to be a part of that.

“Today, the destiny starts. And I am thankful to be the head coach of the Orlando Magic.”

It is a seeming recognition from Vaughn of the unlikely road he has taken to the lead seat on an NBA bench. After all, it was just three years ago Vaughn was playing and just two years ago that he began coaching for the first time. Coaching seemed to be in his future though. Doc Rivers saw it and Gregg Popovich saw it as they coached him themselves. And Vaughn has played for some great coaches, helping him develop into a veteran point guard in the league.

Vaughn credited Roy Williams, Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich for teaching him to relate with players, teaching him competitiveness and consistency and giving him the chance to be a coach. Popovich offered only rave reviews for him even after just two years as a coach. Hennigan and Martins spoke highly of these influences and continued to say this hire was along with their process and vision for the future of the Magic.

That immediate future is not so clear right now. Dwight Howard questions were asked and danced around (we can address those answers later) and it is not going to go away for the moment. It still exists and everyone acknowledged it.

Vaughn’s job seems to be more about right now is the future and player development, helping bring along the players who will be playing for Orlando in the near future.

It is not clear what kind of style the Magic will be playing. The roster is not quite set and so the playing style is not quite set. We, of course, do not know what kind of coach Vaughn is — that pesky inexperience again.

The immediate future is not so important, as has been made abundantly clear. This is about creating a sustainable culture and franchise for the future.

“I talked to someone earlier, and I told them: ‘Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape,'” Vaughn said. “I believe in Rob and his ability to get good people around me, get good players. I want people who want to be coached, who want to compete, who want to be great. I’m pretty easy.”

This is very much in line with the strategic, process-driven approach Hennigan has been preaching since he was hired. Remember, Popovich, for all his hard-driving mannerisms, has been incredibly flexible with his approach. He has always emphasized defense first, but his offense has always featured what best suits his roster. He has not insisted on force-feeding Duncan while Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili entered their primes. He has now told Parker to take over the team completely and has urged him to up the pace. Vaughn was coaching the Spurs when they were no longer playing at a glacial pace.

Vaughn is a guy who was brought in on his ability to relate to players. He emphasized that he has sat in the same place that his players have sat in. That is what Hennigan and Alex Martins wanted to bring in.

Playing style will be completely roster dependent at the moment. The long-term future is more important than the short-term future for now. That is clear simply in hiring Vaughn.

The Magic believe Vaughn is the person to get Orlando through the next phase of their process. Vaughn very much believes in what Hennigan wants to build. He talked a lot about the process Hennigan is trying to build. And they seem to be in line. That is no surprise, obviously. It is just something different for a Magic franchise that has never really had an overarching goal or culture to build.

Orlando is looking clearly toward its future. Vaughn is here to develop that.

He may not have the bench experience many wanted in the next Magic coach. But he fits the plan Hennigan has in mind. They ask the Magic fans take the leap of faith with them and believe in this young new coach.

It might not even be that much of a leap.

“In Jacque, you have a player who has been a student of the game under some of the greatest coaches that have coached this game,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “Through this interview process, he made it clear to us that this was not a passive relationship. He was taking notes from the days he was playing for Coach Williams at Kansas because I really believe Jacque felt he would be sitting in this seat someday. He has been preparing himself, as he alluded to, for 14 years, not two.

“I don’t think we’re sticking our neck out at all. He is a high character individual who is going to work as hard or harder than anybody else. He is going to put great people around him. His teams will work hard every single night, I’m convinced of it. I think he is clearly prepared for this opportunity. I don’t think we have taken a risk or stuck our neck out at all. He is the right coach for this organization at this point in our history.”

Vaughn Named Orlando’s New Head Coach

The Orlando Magic hired Jacque Vaughn to be the team’s new head coach John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com and Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel report. It ends an exhaustive search for Magic general manager Rob Hennigan and completes two of the three major franchise-shaping decisions the team had to make coming out of the 2012 season.

Vaughn has spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach with the Spurs. Both of those seasons, San Antonio finished with the best record in the Western Conference, reaching the Western Conference Finals last year. Vaughn also played 12 years in the NBA, including winning a championship with San Antonio in 2007.

Vaughn played the 2002-03 season with Orlando averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 assists per game backing up Darrell Armstrong.

“We are beyond excited to name Jacque Vaughn as our head coach,” Hennigan said in a release. “As we navigated through our coaching search, we quickly saw that Jacque’s spirit and leadership strengths made him the clear choice. We are confident that his diligence, attention to detail and communication style will help establish the bedrock of our culture moving forward. His commitment and passion to building a sustainable program will help steer our organization for years to come.”

Vaughn is an inexperienced head coach, but the hope from the Magic is that his recent experience in the NBA will help him relate to his players and develop them. Orlando is heading toward a rebuild and so those relationships appeared to be at the forefront of the Magic’s coaching search.

The other finalists were Philadelphia associate head coach Michael Curry, a former player and a one-year head coach in Detroit, and Phoenix director of player development Lindsey Hunter, a long-time point guard for Detroit but a guy with no coaching experience.

From those finalists alone, Orlando clearly wanted someone who will grow with the team and help establish the program Hennigan wants to build.

As Robbins put in his report, Vaughn took a similar career path as Avery Johnson, now the head coach for the Nets. Vaughn had a long playing career and then became a head coach under Gregg Popovich’s tutelage. Like Johnson, Vaughn quickly rose the ranks and Vaughn split the assistant coaching duties with San Antonio’s three other assistant coaches.

Vaughn was the Spurs head coach for Summer League and, as you can see from this reported from Jeff McDonald of Spurs Nation, Vaughn took that job seriously even if he was just wearing shorts. Kawhi leonard certainly seemed to be excited about Vaughn’s work as the summer league team’s head coach.

Vaughn will officially be introduced Monday at 2 p.m.

Howard, Orlando On Different Wavelengths

Dwight Howard will not be a member of the Orlando Magic past the 2013 season. That ship sailed a long time ago and is not coming back to port, despite Rob Hennigan’s meeting with Howard to try and rebuild any kind of relationship with Howard. Howard wants out and all the factors that were in play before still remain.

So, Rob Hennigan and the Magic are in a stalemate with Dwight Howard. Hennigan informed Dwight Howard during their meeting that the Magic had not received any acceptable offers and that they would continue to try and trade him.

It seems more and more likely as the days pass that Howard may still be on the roster when the season starts and might not get moved until December or, even, the trade deadline. It was not clear from the reports from the meeting what Howard would do if he is still on the Magic when the season opens. The suggestions from several reports is that he may just sit out (which he could only do with the Magic’s permission… and they may grant it to be rid of the headache and the cloud over the franchise).

From reports coming out of the meeting it became increasingly clear that the Magic and Dwight Howard have two different views of their future right now.

Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM reported Hennigan hoped to persuade Dwight to back off his trade demand and give the Magic some time to build a championship team again. This expectation may have led Howard to believe that Hennigan was going to lay out a concrete plan that would return the Magic to championship contention immediately.

That is a much trickier process because of all the uncertainty surrounding Howard’s future and because of the lack of assets Orlando has to offer other teams. Orlando is on the downslope and both Hennigan and Howard know it.

It is how they want to move forward that the two diverge.

Howard believed Hennigan was coming to sell him on how the Magic would get back to the top. Hennigan had much longer-term plans on his mind, reportedly hoping to build a relationship with Howard and rebuild trust. At an earlier point, that might have been fine but Howard has run out of patience. He wants to win now and has the leverage to demand his team do so or to leave.

Howard right now is not interested in Hennigan’s long-term vision for the franchise or his process or anything else. He knows how close he was to a title in 2009 and 2010 and knows he is entering his prime playing years. It is time for Howard to strike while the iron is hot.

Both sides appear to recognize that Orlando is going in a different direction than the win-now mode it was in for the last four years. Howard wants to remain in that win-now mode and it is clear Orlando cannot make the moves to appease that.

Rudolph reported Howard told Hennigan that there are three options for Orlando — a trade to Los Angeles before the season begins, a trade to Brooklyn in January or a loss of a free agent Howard in July (where Dallas becomes his most likely landing spot).

Things are not that simple, though.

Howard may not quite understand it as he still seems to be a superstar expecting the team to cater to him but Hennigan has been absolutely clear that Orlando will only do a deal that serves the franchise. If no deal comes along, they may very well let Howard walk as a free agent. While Howard may feel Orlando passed on acceptable deals, Hennigan does not. And this is ultimately Hennigan’s decision.

What the meeting Wednesday confirmed was what many understood for a while. Howard has made his decision and wants out of Orlando. What needs to change from Howard, is his (at least public) insistence on landing in one of two places. That is keeping the Magic from making the deal they want for him.

A Denver-like haul is probably not in the cards. But that is the kind of return Hennigan is seeking for Howard, who is still one of the top five players in the league. The Magic’s patience in waiting out the right deal is frustrating Howard. But it is safe to say Orlando is trying to make a trade. The franchise just wants to make the right one.

Howard’s short-term view on things and Hennigan’s long-term view are certainly butting heads. While the relationship seems amicable, it is pretty clear to sense the frustration from Howard’s camp that Howard has not been moved.

Uncovering The Process In Orlando

Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel reports the Magic are entering their next stage of interviews for a head coach with Magic CEO Alex Martins.

Jacque Vaughn was excused from coaching San Antonio’s Summer League team in Las Vegas on Friday and was expected to interview with Martins while he was in Las Vegas for the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting. Robbins reports one or two finalists will then meet with owner Rich DeVos in his Grand Rapids, Mich., home.

This is the same process the Magic used in hiring Rob Hennigan as the team’s general manager.

It begs an important question. If Hennigan is the head of basketball operations, why does it seem like the Magic’s upper management is so involved in this selection process? Undoubtedly, Rich DeVos and Alex Martins should have some say in who is going to end up coaching their team. You would think it would be more of an approval with the basketball operations making the final decisions.

An interview process this involved though suggests that part of the process Hennigan talks about will include some input from the higher management.

It is not odd to see major decisions get the stamp of approval from ownership. After all, it is their money the general manager is spending. It feels like, however, that a process this involved is something different.

There is no doubt that there was something of a disconnect between management and ownership last year. Reports had Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith ready to move on from Dwight Howard when he requested his trade last December. It was ownership, represented in Alex Martins, who put the breaks to that believing they could convince Howard to stay.

It may have worked until the Stan Van Gundy press conference in early April and the aftermath of Howard’s injury. Or it may not have. Really only Dwight knows.

The Magic were a dysfunctional franchise last season because management and ownership were not on the same page. Perhaps they have not been for the last few years. An over-involvement of ownership in the basketball operations may have placed the Magic in the quagmire they are in now trying to trade Howard … and finding few offers that meet their satisfaction.

It appears something ownership wanted was to bring someone in with basketball knowledge that would get everyone on the same page. Whether that means involving them in every minute decision the team makes or not will remain to be seen. It is clear that major decisions — like selecting a head coach or trading Dwight Howard — they will have input in for now.

As I suggested earlier, it appears from the finalists the Magic have selected for their head coaching position, the franchise is looking for someone who will not rock the boat and will buy in to what the team is trying to do. They are trying desperately to get everyone on the same page and move forward with a new identity for the franchise.

That identity includes players who want to be in Orlando and will buy into whatever program the new coach and Hennigan want to build.

The equation forgotten here is finding the player to be the centerpiece of that rebuilding project.

It may not come in the Dwight Howard trade. But it is becoming clear from the way the Heat did business and the way Dwight Howard wanted to do business that the star player has to have a say in the way the team is built.

It was widely reported and continues to be reported that one of Howard’s complaints with the franchise was that he felt like he was constantly ignored. He felt the team was not bringing in the players he had requested and that the team had backed itself into a corner by ignoring his requests for teammates and making moves they thought would appease Howard (or something to that effect, who knows what the actual story is at this point).

There is no telling now whether acquiring Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Monta Ellis would have done the trick and gotten Howard to commit long term. It is widely believed (at least on ESPN) that acquiring an elite point guard like Nash or Paul would have done it.

To build a dynasty, the team has to be a partnership between ownership, management and top player.

That is the golden package in San Antonio between Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and Tim Duncan. That is the package that persuaded LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley and Micky Arison in Miami. And that is what Carmelo Anthony is allegedly trying to build in New York as Henry Abbott of ESPN.com related a few days ago.

It is yet to be seen who the Magic will turn to be the foundation of their new basketball family. It seems with Hennigan and his “process” and a young coach who will not rattle the cage like Van Gundy did at times, Orlando is looking for ownership and management to have a bit more control.

Maybe that will create an atmosphere that attracts the next crop of superstar free agents to Orlando. Maybe it will not.

The Magic have gone the way of the “primadonna superstar.” Dwight Howard may not have been one of those when he was drafted or as he matured. But he became one with the way he handled his impending free agency and trade requests. The constant back and forth has turned off fans and left everyone ready to move on.

In other words, Orlando was not a family anymore. It was a bickering, squabbling mess full of internal strife. The exact thing Abbott believes the elite players are trying to avoid as they empower themselves in new ways.

It is not far-fetched to think that the Magic are looking for a bit more control and a bit more peace in the next iteration of this team. Perhaps they are looking to establish the program for when that next star comes so they can explain the process to the next star and include him in that process. Or, perhaps, the Magic are trying to establish a franchise or a process that gives the management the power to control the franchise’s future, wresting it away from the player-driven trend emerging around the NBA.

The process for the Magic is still developing. It is going to take much longer than this summer to do so. Winning a championship will take finding that partner in a star to build around — one that believes in what Hennigan is building — and then the patience from all sides to let the process work, so to speak.

Right now, management and ownership are heavily involved. They are working together to make sure they get this decision right and are on the same page moving out of the Dwight Howard era. Whether such a close partnership will attract the next star to come through Orlando, only time will tell us that as Hennigan’s process develops and evolves.

Magic Re-Sign Nelson For Three Years

One of Orlando’s co-captains will remain in a Magic uniform.

Jameer Nelson tweeted, confirming what he told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, that he has come to an agreement with the Magic and will remain in Orlando. Nelson would not disclose the length or amount of his deal, but Robbins reports it is a three-year deal.

“I was prepared to go where I needed to go to continue my career, and I think I kind of expressed that to the organization,” Nelson said to Robbins. “But I also told them that I would love to come back. Genuinely, I love the city. I love the organization. I’ve learned a lot from the people in the organization. The DeVos family means a lot to myself and my family and it means a lot to me that they always put out a winning product.”

It was pretty much understood by all sides that Nelson wanted to remain in Orlando and Orlando wanted to retain Nelson. It was just a matter of dollars and cents.

Nelson opted out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him around $8 million, so he could seek more long-term security. With the Magic certain to trade Dwight Howard, Nelson did not want to become simply a tradeable expiring contract.

Also, at 30 years old, this appears to be Nelson’s last opportunity to get a long-term deal.

The three-year deal should give him some stability and long-term security.

The amount the contract is worth has not been revealed and the Magic cannot discuss the signing until the league’s moratorium is lifted July 11 (per team policy, they usually do not release contract information).

David Pingalore of ClickOrlando.com reports the contract is worth $19.7 million and the third year will have some option attached to it. This means, over the life of the contract, Nelson took a pay cut from what he would have made if he played the final year of his previous contract for a few years of stability in Orlando.

That was clearly important to Nelson as mentioned earlier. Nelson has played all eight years in his career in Orlando.

Exploring Trade Options For Howard

The Dwight Howard sweepstakes are as on as they have ever been. The Magic took a half-hearted approach to trading Howard back in December when he originally issued his trade demand. It appears from all the reports coming out of the Amway Center and the Magic offices that the franchise is determined to end the Dwightmare, the drama and everything else.

The team is moving Howard.

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan confirmed he met with Howard in Southern California last weekend and that Howard re-affirmed his trade request. Then, of course, Howard told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that there is only one team on his list that he will sign a long-term extension with.

Many believe that mystery team to be the Brooklyn Nets.

But Monday’s developments may have put a wrench in that plan. The Nets on Monday acquired Joe Johnson from the Hawks (along with his contract worth $89.3 million the next five years) for Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams and DeShawn Stevenson. All but Stevenson are expiring contracts, depleting the Nets assets and ability to make a trade with Orlando.

No deal is official until next week, however.

Then came reports that Deron Williams agreed to a five-year deal worth nearly $90 million. To say the least, if the cap comes in at around $58 million, the Nets have already committed somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million of it (nearly $20 million to Johnson this year alone and approximately $15 million to Williams). That does not even include the four-year, $40 million deal the Nets agreed to with Gerald Wallace.

That does not bode well for Howard if he truly wants to join the Nets. The only way the Nets can secure Howard at this point is through a trade and then through a very hefty luxury tax bill.

That does not mean Brooklyn is not working to get a deal done. The latest report has a deal with a framework of Howard going to Brooklyn with Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks and three future first round picks heading to Orlando plus a third team getting involved sending something Orlando’s way for Kris Humphries and possibly Hedo Turkoglu.

It is a flimsy framework for a deal because it does not give Orlando any of the things it wants — valuable first round picks, young players on reasonable contracts, or expiring deals. The Magic are in no hurry to deal Howard to the Nets if this is what is being offered. And free agents like Humphries, Lopez and Wallace (if he is involved) would have to agree to the destinations they are sent to.

Unless the Nets find a way to sweeten the pot a lot more, it does not seem likely Howard will get his wish and play for Brooklyn.

So what about the other places Howard could land? What kind of deals are the Magic looking at from them?

First it is important to recognize what kind of players the Magic want in return for Howard. Many believe that Hennigan’s “strategic” plan to building the Magic includes acquiring a package of players for Howard that are young or on short or expiring contracts. Orlando does not want to wrap itself in the long-term, bloated contracts that put the team in the hole. The players the Magic acquire in this deal are likely here to hold the boat steady, not necessarily to build around.

Also remember that Orlando does not want to get stuck with an underperforming former star like the team did with Steve Francis after the Tracy McGrady trade. This is more of a two-year stop gap to set up the next era than a quick reload… that is unless a team is willing to offer a genuine star.

Orlando has been reported to have conversations with several teams already. There are the aforementioned Nets (although that seems to be a product solely of Howard’s interest in them more than something that could actually happen). Then there are the Lakers, Hawks, Rockets and 76ers whom the Magic have reportedly had conversations with.

Out of those teams, it seems the Lakers and Hawks are the only teams that could offer bona fide All-Stars you can build around.

The Magic continue to insist the Lakers include Andrew Bynum in any deal involving Howard. And the Lakers are desperate to remain championship contenders. Whether the Lakers are finally ready to put Bynum on the trade table is another question. Lakers owner Jim Buss has a strange infatuation with Bynum and does not seem to want to let him go, even for Howard. Either way Los Angeles would much rather get rid of Pau Gasol than Bynum at this point. Bynum has more upside because of his youth and a friendlier deal expiring at the end of 2013 rather than Gasol’s deal which expires in 2014.

Likely though, Orlando and Los Angeles would swap some bad contracts, too. Out goes Hedo Turkoglu or Jason Richardson, in comes Metta World Peace (nearly $15 million during the next two years) or Steve Blake ($8 million during the next two years). Neither of those players exactly solve any of the Magic’s contract problems.

For sure, Orlando needs to free up some cap space for itself when the team trades Dwight Howard. The Lakers may be able to give the Magic the best player possible out of this deal, but they do not have much else to offer.

It has long been rumored that the Rockets are a team that wants Howard even for a full-season rental. A deal with the Rockets seems to be the most likely because of this. Houston has some interesting players to offer. After all, Houston has barely missed the playoffs the last few years in the Western Conference. The Magic, if this is what they want, could stay relatively competitive with a group coming from the Rockets.

A deal where the Magic rid themselves of a bad contract (like Jason Richardson) along with Howard for Kevin Martin (who will become a free agent after this upcoming season) and Luis Scola (who has three years remaining with the 2015 season partially guaranteed) would keep Orlando competitive. Again, this may not be exactly what the Magic would want. But Martin is a skilled scorer and Scola is very solid in the post. This would not be a killer deal and the Magic could move on relatively quickly.

This exercise is about bringing in players that are either young and can be developed or are on short contracts and will not commit the Magic to any long-term deals. A deal with the Rockets might be short on both of those. But it would keep the team competitive. Again, that is great if that is what the franchise wants. There might be better deals out there.

The best deal, the consensus seems to believe, is from Atlanta. The Hawks are seemingly positioning themselves to go after Dwight Howard in free agency and potentially build a roster around Josh Smith, Howard and (possibly) Chris Paul. Atlanta might be willing to take the risk and bring in Howard if it guarantees them two pieces of that puzzle.

Howard, after all, is high school friends with Smith and is from Atlanta. The Hawks might believe they can sell him on staying.

It might be tough to get the salaries to match exactly, and it does not exactly help Orlando clear cap, but acquiring Al Horford and Jeff Teague from the Hawks for Howard might do the trick. It gives Orlando an All-Star center to begin rebuilding around and a young point guard on his rookie contract that could develop into a solid player. Both players are on manageable deals.

The real question is whether they would do this.

The other two potential landing spots for Howard appear to be Dallas or Philadelphia.

Howard has placed Dallas on his list. But the Mavericks lack the assets the Magic want. Dallas has no young players and no short-term contracts to offer Orlando. You can almost eliminate them right out.

Philadelphia has many of the young players Orlando might want. The main piece to the deal would likely be Andre Iguodala and the Magic might ask for Evan Turner in the deal. The 76ers might insist then on giving up the final year of Elton Brand’s deal. And the Magic might be willing to take it on and let him walk at the end, hoping to score a high draft pick in a bad season and nearly $20 million in cap room. Securing Iguodala and Turner plus the cap room that comes with Brand’s free agency, might be a path worth exploring.

Then finally, there is the one path that is unlikely: Howard stays.

I broached this over at Crossover Chronicles and find it very unlikely. But would it be so strange to see Howard try and mend the bridge and come back now that his path to Brooklyn appears blocked? Would the Magic as an organization accept that? Somehow, I don’t think so. It would take Howard firing Dan Fegan, so he can place the full blame on him (something he should have done in March if he were truly “loyal”).

But has anything else made sense?

Again, the Magic are nearing an end to this deal and are exploring these trade options plus many more.

Orlando Took Dwight Howard For Granted

The Dwight Howard saga appears nearing an end. The Magic franchise appears ready to part ways with their superstar center and are exploring their trade options to get some type of value in return for him. That was always something Orlando was determined to do, but the hope of having Howard sign an extension has waned.

The reports this weekend appear to have put a nail in that coffin. A divorce seems inevitable.

Why did this have to happen? What went so wrong in Orlando for Howard that he had to engineer his exit in such an embittered, secretive and senseless way? What brought the frustration level with the franchise so high that this was the way Howard had to go?

These are complex questions that do not have easy answers. Far from them.

In each of Howard’s statements he professes a love for the city of Orlando and a request fans stay patient with him and believe in him. But at the same time, he has avoided the truth that seems undeniable at this point: he does not want to play in Orlando anymore. His relationship with the Magic franchise has soured beyond the point of repair and he is trying (emphasis on trying) to secure an exit while maximizing his earning potential.

It has created an ugly divorce with the fans stuck in the middle.

Those same fans who have followed Dwight Howard the past eight years know this is not who Dwight Howard is. That is why hope that he would ultimately re-sign in Orlando remained — and why some fans I have talked to still believe Howard will stay if the team can gather the right pieces (bless those optimists, seriously).

Howard is a fun-loving, smiling center who plays hard and works hard. There is not a single reason to hate Dwight Howard the player. This is why fans attached to him and these Magic teams so much, creating a buzz around the team that was felt only once before in the franchise history (with a similarly gregarious center).

The Dwight Howard the Magic and Magic fans saw in 2012 did not seem to enjoy the game as much. He was serious and guarded, with every word carefully measured for some ulterior motive. Not the Howard that Magic fans grew to love in seven years.

This marriage did not seem destined for divorce. Not after the 2009 Finals trip. Not even after the Magic fell in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. The fate may have been sealed in December 2010 when the Magic boxed themselves in with two horrific trades.

And then with the landscape completely changed from one of hope and promise to one of mediocrity in the matter of a year and a half, the Magic began to ask the question of Howard — how long do you want to commit to this franchise? It is easy to see from that lens why you might hesitate to say yes and exert your leverage and power a little bit more.

Getting up to 2009 was a painstaking process of clearing some bad contracts — most notably, Steve Francis and Grant Hill’s expiring deal — and creating an atmosphere where the team could succeed. Stan Van Gundy pulled the right strings in getting Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu to play their best basketball surrounding Howard.

But after 2009, Orlando succumbed to short-sighted moves to fling the window open, hoping it would not come crashing down on the franchise.

A lot of the moves made in the summer of 2009 proved to be the correct ones for the 2010 season alone. Vince Carter replaced Turkoglu’s production (although he did not improve on it) and Orlando had a deep and versatile bench to call on for the Playoffs.

But there was one underlying assumption in how that summer-long rebuild was executed — Dwight Howard would fix everything.

It is a testament both to Van Gundy’s schemes and Howard’s excellence that the 2010 team tied for the top defensive rating in the league. After all, no one considers Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis elite perimeter defenders. Howard’s shadow cast all over the paint and he put together impressive defensive performances all by himself.

So when Otis Smith saw the wheels coming off his team in December 2010, this assumption still rested in the back of his mind. A quick fix could work because Dwight Howard can fix a whole bunch of holes.

And for a good chunk of the 2011 season, he did. Howard posted a career-best 26.0 PER and 7.7 defensive win shares. He was an absolute monster and carried his team to become third in the league in defensive rating. This was a team, mind you, that featured Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu as defenders in front of Howard.

The chance for a title was slipping though. Orlando struggled when teams could single cover Howard and no one else on the perimeter seemed able to step up in a six-game, first-round exit to the Hawks.

If you look at things through this prism, it is easy to see why Howard was frustrated by his waning voice within the franchise and his lack of help on it. Howard had to do everything. And moves and transactions were seemingly made with the assumption that Dwight Howard can make everything work on his own. He is so gifted and talented that, for a long time, he did make it all work by himself.

But that is not how he is going to win championships. That is not how you build a championship team.

And so, with his ability to exercise his leverage at its maximum, Howard asked out. Orlando had run out of time to build him a championship team and boxed itself in, unable to get him help. The Magic as a franchise, simply took Howard’s good nature and talent for granted, souring him away from the team’s plans.

This does not in any way excuse the bungled way Howard has handled his exit. It has been ugly and confusing. A fan base that appreciates and supports a superstar the way Orlando did with Howard deserves a straight answer from the player himself — the December 2011 press conference he held would have been fine if he let it stay at that. They certainly do not deserve the winding road and drama the franchise has endured.

The way Howard continually professes his love for Orlando makes you believe things really could have worked out if the Magic remained perpetual contenders and he had no reason to be discontent. But it is clear from the way things were run, Howard had plenty of reasons to be off put by the Magic’s next attempt to placate him.

It all started with the franchise and its personnel not living up to its potential and bungling move after move at a time when it could not. Howard played the good teammate and did everything he could. The problem was, too many mistakes around him were made. It seems like it made him feel like he was taken for granted and ignored.

Howard was no longer a good soldier. He wanted a larger say if he was going to expend the effort and energy to (literally) carry a team through the postseason. Orlando did not give it to him.

And so here we are, ready to divorce much more bitterly than it had to be. A relationship broken that did not have to be.

Jameer Nelson Will Opt Out

Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel reports Jameer Nelson will opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, leaving Orlando searching for a point guard and hoping to re-sign the eight-year Magic player.

This move is not a surprise. Nelson is thought to want a long-term deal and was afraid that by picking up the final year of his contract he would be traded out of Orlando. Undoubtedly, his expiring contract worth about $8 million would have been enticing to a team looking to dump some salary.

And undoubtedly, Nelson by opting out is sending a subtle signal that he wants long-term security and to be sure of where he is going to be playing for the foreseeable future. And it might be a subtle signal that Nelson wants to remain in Orlando long term.

Nelson has spent the entirety of his eight-year career in Orlando and has firmly put his roots down in the City Beautiful. It does not seem like he wants to uproot those. In the run up to this decision Nelson said he wanted to stay in Orlando, and Rob Hennigan has repeatedly said he wants to see Jameer Nelson in a Magic uniform for a long time.

Now it will come down to business and trying to get a deal done that both sides will agree to. This does not seem incredibly far-fetched. Many believe Nelson would be willing to take less money — he made $7.8 million last season and was set to make $8 million next year — for that long-term stability. Nelson might be in line for the four-year, $24 million deal that Jason Richardson or Glen Davis got… or something completely different.

There will be decisions that need to be made. But signing Jameer Nelson has to be a major priority in the offseason when free agency opens up. Orlando is not particularly deep at point guard right now.

Nelson has been a source of criticism and a lightning rod among Magic fans for plenty of seasons, particularly when the team was contending for a championship. The struggles at point guard have been particularly blatant with the failure of the Chris Duhon signing. Nelson did not have a good year last year, averaging 11.9 points per game and 5.7 assists per game while shooting 42.7 percent. His scoring and field goal percentage were two of the lowest marks of his career.

The problem with Nelson these last few years has been the high bar he set in 2009 before his shoulder injury. He has been chasing that Nelson ever since and has not been able to duplicate that incredible 42-game run. Orlando has only seen flashes of his 16.7 points per game, 50.3 percent field goal shooting and 45.3 percent 3-point shooting from that season. The most notable flash was in the 2010 Playoffs when he torched Raymond Felton and Mike Bibby and then saved Orlando in Game Four against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Again, Nelson opting out does not mean he and the Magic are parting ways. This was a business move for Nelson to ensure his long-term future. It is now just about getting a deal done that both sides will like. We will likely learn about Rob Hennigan the negotiator in this case if both sides truly want to get a deal done.

In the other free agent news, the Magic formally offered their qualifying offer to Ryan Anderson, making him a restricted free agent. Orlando can match any offer for Anderson. Whether they will or not is still an open question especially considering the fact Orlando used its first round pick on Andrew Nicholson. Anderson might be priced out of what the Magic want to pay. But we will see what kind of market Anderson gets.

It seems that Orlando is determined to have both Nelson and Anderson back on the team next year.