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Daily Babble: Time the Best Medicine In Orlando?

A team starts the season hot.  It cools off.  Fans and media decide the team needs to get back to its original level of play immediately.  Trade speculation commences.  You have heard this one before, or so it appears.

After a 40-42 campaign and subsequent first-round playoff exit in 2006-07, the Orlando Magic flew off to a 16-4 start to open this season, largely on the strength of repeated superhuman performances by the man who could terrorize this league unchecked for the next decade and a half, Dwight Howard.  Since the hot start, the Magic have gone just 8-12, to fall to a somewhat more modest 24-16 mark, still good enough to keep the Magic winning at a .600 clip and to keep the Atlanta Hawks four games back in the Southeast Division.

Nonetheless, the speculation has begun.  Perhaps the Magic should sign one of the two prominent free agent power forwards out there in Chris Webber and P.J. Brown.  Or maybe they should make a deal for a point guard.  Or depth on the bench.

Or maybe, as General Manager Otis Smith has intimated will be the case, the Orlando Magic should do nothing on the trade front for now.

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The fact of the matter is that most teams aren't going to do what the Celtics are doing this year regarding single-season turnarounds.  It takes time, and it takes gradual steps in order for an organization to go from being a doormat to becoming a power.  In 2004, the team won 21 games and won the lottery.  After consecutive 36-win seasons, the Magic returned to the playoffs with a 40-win campaign last season, only to be run out by the top-seeded Pistons.

A season ago, they improved primarily by letting their young players grow together.  In particular, the Magic saw better play from youngsters Howard and Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Turkoglu took on a greater role than ever before.  This past summer, the Magic went out and spent big money (too much in the eyes of some, although after 40 games, it seems fairest to say that the jury remains out on that particular issue) on free agent swingman Rashard Lewis to bolster the lineup.

Certainly, the contributions made by the newcomer have played a role in the Magic's improvement early on.  But 'role in' is not synonymous with 'entirety of.'  A far greater reason for the upswing in Orlando is the continued growth of many of the team's incumbents.  Howard has picked his game up another level, averaging an absurd 22.4 points, 15.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game to go with his 59.7 percent shooting from the field.  Just entering his prime at age 28, Hedo Turkoglu is having a career year, averaging 18.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.  Even occasionally maligned fourth-year point guard Jameer Nelson's numbers have improved overall.  Although his scoring average is down, Nelson is taking nearly two field goal attempts per game less than he did last season, shooting a better percentage (45.8 percent compared to 43.0 percent a year ago) and dishing out more assists (6.0 to 4.3 per game).

The great part is that there is no reason to believe that the core players on this Orlando team have submitted what will one day be looked upon as their best work.  Howard's numbers have drastically improved every year, and he has already gained a reputation as a hard off-season worker determined to continue making his game better.  The man-child is averaging 22-plus points per night, and in the eyes of many, he still has yet to develop a truly strong offensive game.  He does most of his work on put-backs and dunks, and while Howard has done some work with a hook shot, he still has a ways to go with developing it as well as his away from the basket game.  Given the work that he has put in to improve his rebounding, defense and offense at the professional level thus far, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect the 22-year-old Howard to keep increasing his offensive arsenal.  When the man can consistently make teams pay for sending him to the foul line with abandon, and when he has just a semblance of a way to put the ball in the basket from 8 to 12 feet, he will be inordinately dangerous.  While there is a well-documented overvaluing of upside and potential that goes in sports culture today, again, all one need to do is take a look at the progression of Howard's stats thus far, and the possibility that he could ultimately become a 28-18 threat in this league becomes legitimate.  It is by no means a cinch, but it is a very real possibility.

Similarly, while the progress hasn't been to the same otherworldly extent as that of Howard, Jameer Nelson has developed over his first three and a half seasons in the league, and at 25 years old, he has a long way to go as well.  Long faced with questions about his size, the diminutive Nelson has proved to be a gritty player thus far into his pro career.  He is compactly built, finishes very well around the rim (especially with contact) for a small player, fears no one and is willing to kill himself to win on a nightly basis.  Nelson is a heady player who played in a winning program at St. Joseph's and has the capability to keep growing.  Whether or not he will ever become a franchise point guard remains a major question mark.  But the man is playing on his first truly good team during his tenure in the Association, and he deserves the time to keep making progress individually.

Similarly, Turkoglu has been asked to play a bigger role than ever in the offense this season, and he has stepped up admirably.  The 6-foot-10 Lewis has played well, but the Magic haven't seen his best yet either.  In time as these players progress together, both 'Shard's scoring and rebounding figures should rise noticeably.  Beyond Turkoglu and Lewis, both 28, the cast remains mostly very young.  Keith Bogans has once again played well when given opportunities.  J.J. Redick has been largely unproductive so far, but he still excels at one skill area, and his outside shooting will only be more valuable to Orlando as Howard becomes more of a threat.  As the rest of the offense develops, a player like Redick will be useful in that he will help stretch the floor for the other options.

The fact of the matter is that when all is said and done, the Magic almost certainly aren't an NBA title team right now.  The Pistons and Celtics are both clearly better in the East, and several Western Conference foes have the edge over Orlando.  Further, this a balanced Magic team for which there isn't one fix-all solution that would take care of all concerns immediately.  The Magic play well on both ends of the floor (8th in offensive efficiency, 10th on defense), and Stan Van Gundy is one of the game's brightest young coaches.   The team isn't tied up in long-term commitments, as Howard, Nelson and Lewis are the only players on the roster signed beyond 2010.  There will be plenty of time in the off-season and next year to make adjustments and tinker with the roster as the team's identity becomes more clearly defined.

But as of right now, this Orlando Magic team remains a very promising young group with the possibility of developing into a great squad a very real one.

So indeed, sitting back and giving that promising group time to grow into its own new identity might be just the remedy for the suits in Orlando right now.

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