Magic point guard Darrell Armstrong was meandering up the West
Coast in June, enjoying a scenic postseason road trip, when he
realized it was draft day. Scanning his car radio to find out
whom Orlando had selected, he instead learned that Horace Grant,
the Magic's starting power forward, had been traded to the
Sonics for forwards Dale Ellis, Don MacLean and Billy Owens and
the rights to the No. 13 pick, 19-year-old forward Corey
Maggette from Duke. "I was surprised," Armstrong says.
Five weeks later Armstrong was back in Orlando conducting drills
at his summer camp when a camper's parent tugged his arm. "He
said, 'You guys traded Nick Anderson,'" Armstrong says. "I said,
'We did?' I was shocked. We heard so much about Penny [Hardaway]
leaving, I wasn't even thinking about Nick." Indeed, 48 hours
after shipping Anderson to the Kings for guard Tariq
Abdul-Wahad, the Magic made its much-anticipated trade of the
disgruntled Hardaway, sending him to the Suns for forwards Pat
Garrity and Danny Manning and two first-round picks.
On Aug. 11 Armstrong was shaken awake by his houseguest, Old
Dominion coach Jeff Capel, who told him that Orlando had traded
center Ike Austin to the Wizards for forward-center Ben Wallace,
forward Terry Davis and guards Tim Legler and Jeff McInnis.
Suddenly Armstrong realized he was the last starter left from a
team that went 33-17 last season. "What can I say?" says
Armstrong when asked about Orlando's demolition act. "I'm just
going with the flow."
Just where, besides to the bottom of the Atlantic Division, is
the Magic heading? Here's an indication: Five of the players
Orlando acquired (Abdul-Wahad, Davis, Legler, McInnis and
Wallace) are in the last year of their contracts, and it has
stockpiled 10 first-round draft choices over the next five
years. Instead of trying to keep together a team that was good
enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win the
title, the Magic chose to take drastic measures--a wholesale
turning over that the Orlando brass likes to call a relaunching.
But is the Magic prepared to win 25 or fewer games next season?
First-year coach Doc Rivers sure wasn't. He'd turned down a
number of coaching opportunities the past three seasons because
he wanted to begin his career with a winner. "Did I know
something like this could happen? Yes," says Rivers. "Did I know
it would happen so fast? Absolutely not. Was this the right
decision? The answer to that is, probably yes."
Rivers's trepidation is understandable. Aside from the
31-year-old Armstrong, who won the Sixth Man of the Year Award
despite being a starter down the stretch last year, the keepers
on the roster--Garrity, Maggette, Wallace, forward-center
Michael Doleac, swingman Matt Harpring and forward Bo
Outlaw--average 22.6 years in age. That kind of youth won't
translate into wins anytime soon. So if he could do it over
again, would Rivers have come to Orlando? "I still think this
job is worth it," he says. "This organization is willing to take
risks. Winning is safe. But if you want to be the winner, it
means stepping out of that comfort zone."
In fact, Rivers nudged the Magic into motion by lobbying for the
trade of the 34-year-old Grant to Seattle--but only if Maggette
or point guard Andre Miller of Utah was available at No. 13.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if he had stayed in school
another year, Maggette would've been the Number 1 pick," says
Rivers. Once Anderson came to the Magic's front office
requesting a trade, there was no turning back. Now the Magic has
a trio of first-rounders in 2000: its own, the Warriors' and the
Nuggets'. All three could be in the top 10, giving Orlando the
flexibility to gamble on someone like 6'6" Gerald Wallace, a
gifted senior at Childersburg (Ala.) High who has committed to
Alabama but is a prime candidate to jump directly to the pros.
The key to Orlando's strategy is to land a star free agent. The
Magic has carved out at least $7.5 million in cap space for next
summer; by 2001 that figure could reach $12 million. Although
general manager John Gabriel can't comment on specific players
(tampering, you know), team and league sources say Orlando is
preparing to take aim at the grand prize: the Spurs' Tim Duncan,
whose contract is up next July. Duncan hasn't re-signed because
he wants to see whether a new arena is built in San Antonio,
ensuring that the Spurs will stay put. He must also assess the
play of David Robinson and point guard Avery Johnson. (Both will
be 35 next summer.) Duncan loves San Antonio, says his agent,
Lon Baby, "but if he has to think about moving on, Orlando would
certainly be a consideration."
Rivers, who befriended Duncan while he was broadcasting the
Spurs' games, dismisses the Duncan to Orlando scenario. "San
Antonio is going to build a new arena, and Tim is going to stay
right where he is," he says. "The end." Plans B and C for the
Magic could well be Grant Hill and Glen Rice, the other two top
free agents next summer. But what if Orlando comes away
empty-handed, without that superstar to tie it all together?
"Then we're in trouble, and I'm in trouble," Rivers says.
The relaunching plan is still evolving, which is why Armstrong
clicks on the TV each night before bedtime. It's also why, when
the time came for Gabriel's vacation last week, he dropped off
his wife and daughter and headed straight back to the office.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Gone Grant didn't fit into the relaunching plan.