When asked if he had learned anything about himself as a general manager in a season that can only be described as trying and tumultuous, Orlando’s Otis Smith smiled as if he had no words to describe his emotions over the past few months.
Smith’s organization was held hostage in free agency by its franchise center, who then changed his mind and decided to stay for at least one more season. Then the center began experiencing back problems that required surgery. In between, he was called out by his coach for asking management to fire the coach. All parties - except the coach - denied the center made that request.
This is life in Disney World, where the Magic will enter the playoffs as a team that can’t wait for this nightmarish season to conclude.
It is almost guaranteed that there will be wholesale changes in the front office and coaching staff, while Dwight Howard recovers from surgery to repair a herniated disk and prepares for what may be his final season in Orlando.
Next fall, the speculation will start all over again, with Howard likely submitting a list of teams to which he would prefer to be traded. Coach Stan Van Gundy will likely be gone because the drama is too thick for even his self-deprecating sense of humor. And Smith’s status is unclear.
It’s difficult to fathom that just three years ago the Magic reached the NBA Finals and were a team on the rise, an Eastern Conference power led by Howard ready to unseat the Celtics and LeBron James’s Cavaliers. Now they are a leaguewide cautionary tale for coddling superstars.
With a summer’s worth of change likely ahead, the Magic still have to play a postseason series, possibly against the red-hot Pacers. Howard is out for months, and Hedo Turkoglu may miss the playoffs with a facial fracture sustained in a collision with . . . Howard.
Still, Smith has remained steadfast through a season that would overwhelm most.
“Your goals are your goals, your visions are your visions, and you have to stay on task with that,’’ Smith said. “We are in professional sports, and the mere fact you are interviewing four or five times a day and the mere fact that you got Twitter and everything else, you can’t control what guys are going to say or what’s going to be reported, unfortunately. We just respond to it and deal with it as we have to.’’
So what to do? The Magic will have to take the court for a playoff series with Ryan Anderson as their most established offensive weapon and rebounder. Jameer Nelson, dogged by Howard because of his preference to play with Deron Williams, is having a career-worst season, while players such as Jason Richardson, Quentin Richardson, and J.J. Redick are hardly intimidating to opposing defenses.
“We’re playing, but the fact of matter is, the biggest part of our team is out,’’ Smith said. “It’s kind of hard to get comfortable when you’re built around a center that’s not playing, and a small forward is not playing that we put a lot of stock in.
“So the guys are playing hard, they’re competing, they’re looking like a team, but when you don’t have that biggest piece in the middle, you miss that piece.’’
After Howard put the team through misery with a trade demand that he eventually rescinded, the implosion continued on the morning of April 5 when Van Gundy - one of the league’s more brutally honest coaches - said matter-of-factly that Howard requested he be fired. Moments later, unaware of that bombshell, Howard joined his coach on the podium for one of the more awkward on-camera moments in recent memory.
Since then, it has been a bizarre atmosphere in Orlando, with Howard denying he made the request, Van Gundy almost asking to be fired, and Smith trying to keep his business-as-usual attitude through the chaos.
“We’re all trying to compete for the same goal, we’re all trying to put our team together, we’re all trying to compete for the NBA ring,’’ said Smith, “so with that being said, you have to build your team how you see fit.
“I’m not any more patient or impatient, I am the same as I have always been. I understand the job, and my No. 1 priority is to continue to build a team and protect the franchise and organization, so I don’t think I’ve learned any more than I already knew.’’
Smith said he maintains a solid relationship with Howard, whose maturity and leadership have been questioned throughout this ordeal. Smith has taken some chances with questionable characters before and tried to surround Howard with aging talent, hoping for a resurgence.
But that approach has failed miserably the past few years, and the one cornerstone he relied upon to remain in Orlando for the next decade appears to change his mind daily about his desire to stay.
“It ain’t always going to be nice,’’ Smith said of his relationships with players such as Howard. “And it may not be what you want to hear, but it’s straight and real. That’s all you can do.
“My relationship with Dwight is fine. I don’t have any issues with him, and the only thing he had an issue with me, he got into what he got into, so we just keep moving. That’s all we can do.’’
Lack of leader hurts Sixers
It has been an eye-opening season for 76ers coach Doug Collins, who truly believed he had his club on the fast track to being an Eastern Conference contender. That train has been derailed, and the 76ers are likely to be a first-round victim of the Bulls.
Collins is expected to return next season as he continues to tutor the team’s younger core. But it’s obvious that Philadelphia lacks star power and leadership.
When the 76ers signed Elton Brand to a five-year, $90 million contract, they envisioned a cornerstone who could put up All-Star numbers. Although Brand is effective, he is on the decline. And Andre Iguodala is a spectacular athlete but not a front-line small forward.
So Collins is trying to build a contender with solid but not sparkling players, and in a league where star power rules, that is difficult.
When the 76ers win, it’s generally a blowout. Cases in point: Their two victories over the Celtics by a combined 45 points. Philadelphia is 3-18 in games decided by 7 points or fewer, and Collins has a theory for those late-game struggles.
“Everybody changes over the course of a year, and we’ve had some guys change,’’ he said. “And I mean their play. So it’s changed our team, and I still think we’re adjusting very much to that, and that’s what I am trying to get my hands on, to make that better.
“We’re still a very young group, and with a very young group, there’s still a lot of ups and downs. The one beauty of coaching a veteran team is guys have seen a lot and they have been around a lot of coaches, and so there’s a different perspective.’’
Collins said having a slew of youngsters - such as Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and even Lou Williams - has stunted the team development.
“I was talking to Doc [Rivers] after he got KG [Kevin Garnett] and Ray Allen, and I remember the graphic we used to throw up was what Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett gave up to come and be part of a championship team, and he said to me, they might have not been able to do that five years ago,’’ Collins said. “But they were ready to do that.
“Younger players are still carving their own niche, finding out who they are. And as a coach, piecing that together is a very delicate thing. And the one thing about players today is that they are very sensitive and very fragile. They didn’t grow up with tough coaches.
“I had my [butt] kicked since I was 6. It’s a different time, so I treat this team very much with kid gloves.
“It’s terrible. It’s hard. I find myself during games looking at coaches and asking during timeouts, ‘Did I hurt anybody’s feelings?’
“So I try to be everybody’s friend. That’s the sensitivity, and the younger the guys, the more sensitive [you have to be]. That’s what you’re wrestling with.’’
The 76ers have had scoring balance, with no player averaging more than Williams’s 14.9 points per game. But the lack of a go-to guy has been damaging.
“We don’t have, on a night-to-night basis, that guy that’s going to get you 20 points,’’ Collins said. “That’s not a knock on any of those guys. And we struggle in close games.
“I’ve got quiet guys, I really do. That teaching setting has been lost this year [because of the lockout], and a lot of our younger players have really been hurt by that.’’
Woodson sorts out his lineup
Mike Woodson is working wonders with the Knicks as an interim coach as they head for a seventh seed in the East and a potential first-round showdown with the Heat. Woodson has posted a 15-6 mark, mostly without Amar’e Stoudemire, who missed 13 games with a bulging disk in his lower back before returning Friday night.
Woodson inserted Stoudemire back into the starting lineup at power forward, moving Carmelo Anthony back to small forward, and Landry Fields to the bench. Woodson was faced with the question of whether to bring Stoudemire off the bench and stick with the same starting five that thrived in his absence.
The question is what effect Stoudemire’s presence will have on Anthony, who has been playing sparkling basketball (he had his second career triple-double Tuesday against the Celtics). In eight April games before Friday’s loss to the Cavaliers, Anthony averaged 32.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists while shooting 51 percent.
Earlier in the season, Anthony was accused of being a ball-stopper because his game necessitated gathering the ball in the post and working one-on-one. During the past three weeks, Anthony has played more free-style ball.
Asked if this was his best stretch as a Knick, Anthony said, “I can say that. Especially with Amar’e and [Jeremy] Lin being out and having to step up in every aspect of the game - passing, scoring, rebounding, just doing it all. My teammates look at me and expect that out of me every night.
“We just want Amar’e to get healthy. I don’t think there’s anything about transition or adjustments or anything like that. I’m pretty sure he’ll fit right in.
“Our biggest thing is just to get healthy because we’re going to need him down the stretch, especially in the playoffs.’’
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked whether he would prefer to face the Knicks with Anthony in his current role or with Stoudemire also demanding the ball. He didn’t take long to decide.
“When they’re both on the floor, it’s a bigger challenge,’’ Rivers said. “Because they both can score.
“It’s funny, the last time we played them, they were both on the floor and they hurt us in a lot of ways. You load up on Carmelo and you don’t have time to shift your defense to the other side of the floor.
“And I think Woody will do a great job as far as figuring out who gets the ball.’’
Anthony still has to prove he can be a front-line player on an elite team.
His skills and athletic ability are unquestioned, but the next few weeks may prove whether or not he is a cornerstone for the Knicks.
“Carmelo can make shots with good defense - that’s what separates him,’’ Rivers said. “He’s a great player. Clearly, he is one of the best scorers in our league. And when he’s playing right, you would put him, [Kevin] Durant, and Dirk [Nowitzki] maybe by themselves, because of their size.’’
Mayo is still on the radar
The Celtics tried to acquire O.J. Mayo in March for Ray Allen and are again targeting the shooting guard, who is a restricted free agent this summer. There had been speculation that Mayo would not come to Boston, but NBA sources said that is not true. Mayo has felt unwanted in Memphis since the Grizzles re-signed Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, and passed on an extension for him. The Celtics will have to outbid the Grizzlies for his services but will have the salary cap space to make a generous offer.
McMillan may fit Bobcats
The confrontation between coach Paul Silas and forward Tyrus Thomas after Charlotte’s 94-82 loss to the Celtics likely marks the end of Silas’s tenure. The Bobcats are on a 19-game losing streak and actually had a promotion in which a fan who answered three trivia questions correctly could win an iPad or get tickets for everyone who attended that game to the next home game. The fan chose the tickets for the 8,000-plus fans. A coaching target for owner Michael Jordan could be Nate McMillan, who was fired last month by the Trail Blazers. McMillan will be one of the hottest coaching candidates of the offseason because the failures in Portland - a team besieged by injuries over the past few seasons - were not considered his sole responsibility. McMillan played his college basketball at nearby North Carolina State and his high school basketball in Raleigh.
There was a touching moment in the Celtics locker room after their win over the Nets when Kevin Garnett shared some kind words and encouragement for Gerald Green, who brought his infant son into the room to speak with former teammate Paul Pierce. Garnett was not happy that Green complained about the Celtics giving his No. 5 to Garnett after the multiplayer deal with the Timberwolves - a deal that sent Green to Minnesota. While every Celtic who ever wore a particular uniform number is listed in that locker, Green’s name has been crossed out in Garnett’s locker with a black pen . . . Two players stood out at last week’s Portsmouth Invitational, which is a showcase tournament for seniors before the draft. Alabama’s JaMychal Green, a 6-foot-8-inch, 228-pounder, showed the skills of a small forward, and Fairfield’s Rakim Sanders, a Boston College transfer, likely played himself into the second round. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor struggled from the field, going 13 for 37. Arizona’s Kyle Fogg also struggled. Pittsburgh’s Ashton Gibbs, who endured a disappointing season for the Panthers, led the tournament in scoring at 19.7 points per game . . . Expect more college prospects to declare for the draft, though NBA teams won’t get the official list of early entries until early May and won’t begin scheduling official workouts until the list is official. The new deadline date of April 29 prevents players from working out for teams to determine their draft status and then returning to school. There are several players who returned to school only after NBA teams informed them their draft stock could rise with another college season.