Nearly three weeks ago, the Orlando Magic owned a 15-4 record, tied with the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. By last week, they had dropped five of their last six games to dip to 16-9, so Otis Smith, the team's President of Basketball Operations, shook the team up with two blockbuster trades. The bold GM acquired Gilbert Arenas from the Washington Wizards, as well as the trio of Earl Clark, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu from the Phoenix Suns, hoping to bolster his team's flagging offense and keep pace with the league's championship contenders.
And keeping pace for Orlando has been a chore lately. It's lost all three games since the trade, putting it squarely in third place in the Southeast Division. Meanwhile, the league's elite teams continue to pile up the victories.
First, here's a look at how the Magic stacked up against the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat, and San Antonio Spurs as of Dec. 3, before their season started to go down the tubes. I've used point differential instead of winning percentage, as numerous studies have shown differential bests win-loss record as a predictive tool for future success. The Lakers and Heat led the field, but Orlando was holding its own with the Spurs and Celtics. Note, too, where Dallas stands: though it hadn't been beating the heck out of anyone, it had won eight straight games and was charging hard.
A stomach bug hit Orlando hard, causing rotation cogs Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Mickael Pietrus, and J.J. Redick to miss at least one game each. Though they recovered reasonably well, given the ailment, their respective absences hurt the Magic by limiting coach Stan Van Gundy's rotation and forcing bit players like Jason Williams and Malik Allen to play more minutes than they ought to in ideal circumstances.
But those players' returns weren't enough to right what went wrong for Orlando, which continued its slide. The Magic's only win since December 3rd came against the L.A. Clippers, one of the league's worst teams, and even then the Magic had to hold on after submitting a 10-point third quarter. Using the same method as before, here's a look at how the same six elite squads have fared since Dec. 3:
Clearly, the Magic's malaise could scarcely come at a worse time, given how thoroughly its opponents in the battle for NBA supremacy were devastating their competition. As it stands, San Antonio and Boston haven't lost since that date, Miami and Dallas have dropped one game each, and the Lakers have suffered two defeats.
The Magic's record will worsen before it improves. They host the Spurs tonight and the Celtics on Christmas Day and have only held one practice to go with two walkthroughs since their Saturday trades. The five other elites, as well as the second-tier teams such as Chicago, Atlanta and Utah, figure to keep distancing themselves from Orlando as the season wears on. But if the team manages to make gradual improvements, it's likely to "peak at the right time," as analysts and fans love to say, heading into the playoffs. In that regard, the risky deals may prove worthwhile for the Magic, who weren't headed anywhere fast with the group they had prior to the trades.