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The Magic didn't need a lot of time to appreciate its more potent lineup. Within a week of making a pair of bold trades for guards Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and forward Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando launched a five-game winning streak, beginning with victories over championship contenders San Antonio and Boston. But unless other moves are made, don't expect the Magic to reach its second Finals in three years.
Orlando was a lackluster 16--9 with a single impressive win—at home against Miami on Thanksgiving eve, before the Heat hit its stride—when team president Otis Smith packaged guard Vince Carter, center Marcin Gortat, swingman Mickael Pietrus, $3 million in cash and a first-round pick to the Suns for Richardson, Turkoglu and forward Earl Clark. Then he sent forward Rashard Lewis to the Wizards for the troublesome and expensive Arenas ($63 million over the next three years), underlining 84-year-old owner Rich DeVos's all-or-nothing approach both to winning a championship and to remaining attractive to Dwight Howard, who can become a free agent as early as 2012.
The new Magic features more talent around the 25-year-old Howard, the reigning two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Underperforming stars Lewis (12.2 points per game before the trade) and Carter (15.1) were replaced by the more athletic pairing of 29-year-olds Richardson (19.3) and Arenas (17.3), who appears healthy for the first time since 2007, when he made his third consecutive All-NBA team. "We are still an inside-out team," says Smith, insisting that he won't alter the dynamic that took Orlando to the 2009 Finals. "We have a few more guys who can put the ball in the basket, and they can all create shots for themselves and for other people. But at the end of the day Dwight still has to stay out of foul trouble, and then we have to make shots on the perimeter—that's the formula we've always had, and it hasn't changed."
Since the trades, Orlando is scoring more easily in transition and, with Arenas backing up point guard Jameer Nelson, more often off the bench. The return of the 6'10" Turkoglu, whose playmaking and deep shooting were crucial to Orlando's 2009 postseason upset of LeBron James's Cavaliers, also gives the team more ball handling and matchup options. But—and it's a crucial but—without big men Lewis and Gortat, the Magic will struggle to compete with the behemoth front lines of the Celtics and the Lakers.
Smith is now backing away from his initial promise to acquire more size in the hope that coach Stan Van Gundy can make do at backup center with 6'8" starting power forward Brandon Bass and 6'10" Ryan Anderson—a poor man's version of Lewis from the three-point line. "It's not something we have to run out and do," says Smith of a frontcourt trade. "You need the extra big guy for four or five teams in this league; other than that we can play small if we need to." And even if Smith wanted to make a deal, acquiring someone such as Portland's Marcus Camby, who would be an ideal fit, would not be easy. Smith already dealt his 2011 first-round pick, leaving him with little to offer except Bass, Anderson and possibly guard J.J. Redick. (Richardson's expiring contract is an asset, but Smith is unlikely to move the guard.)
Arenas's notorious unpredictability—injuries and suspensions sidelined him for 199 games over the previous three seasons—is less worrisome than questions about Orlando's size and defense: None of the newcomers is a stopper. The Magic wasn't going to win a championship without last month's overhaul, but when the pace slows during the postseason, Howard is going to need more help scoring down low and protecting the paint.
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