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Dwight Howard's 2020 championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers must have been a relief, because back when Dwight was the Orlando Magic's superstar center, he watched a shot at a title crumble around him.

The 2009 Eastern Conference champion Magic were a bit lucky, and a bit of a surprise contender, but they clearly had something cooking. Stan Van Gundy's system surrounded Dwight with a record-setting bunch of shooters, and there was a clear path forward to keep that team intact. Instead, GM Otis Smith tinkered with his roster. When that team failed to match the prior season's success, the tinkering continued, and things only got worse. Howard got restless, the Magic overreacted with some all-out moves, and before you knew it, the kings of the East hit rock bottom.

This is the story of a team underrated for its revolutionary greatness, and how they lost their identity and their superstar just 4 years after a Finals appearance. This is the collapse that ended the first chapter of Dwight Howard's fascinating career.

Written and produced by Seth Rosenthal

Edited by Jiazhen Zhang

Motion graphics by Michael Das


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orlando magic, magic, dwight howard, stan van gundy, nba, collapse, secret base, sb nation, basketball, boston celtics, los angeles lakers, celtics, lakers, kobe bryant, lebron james, shaquille o'neal, shaq, gilbert arenas

How the Orlando Magic went from a Finals contender to the NBA's worst team in just 4 years - download from YouTube for free

How the Orlando Magic went from a Finals contender to the NBA's worst team in just 4 years - download from YouTube for free

(suspenseful music) - [Narrator] For years, fans of the Orlando Magic watched superstars come and go. Championship promise evaporated with each departure and flame-out. But in 2004, Orlando drafted high schooler Dwight Howard, then watched him grow into one of the most dominant two-way forces the league had ever seen. By 2009, the 23-year-old had become the NBA's foremost rim protector, a bouncy, heads-up shot block artist, leading the league's most efficient defense. And Orlando built an offense around Dwight's dunks and rebounds too. The supporting players GM Otis Smith assembled varied in age and talent, but had one thing in common. They could shoot.

So, coach Stan Van Gundy said, "S***, let's shoot." Near seven-footer Rashard Lewis attempted and made more threes than anyone league-wide. Hedo Turkoglu wasn't far behind, and added a point forward wrinkle to the four-out attack. Wings like Mickael Pietrus and rookie Courtney Lee contested opposing stars and shot threes. Point guard Jameer Nelson and his injury replacement Rafer Alston distributed the shots and hit plenty threes of their own. Young JJ Redick was just coming into his own as a guy who shoots threes. Dwight in, everyone else out, looked extreme in 2009, but it worked. In the playoffs, the Magic came back to beat the short-handed Celtics, then perfectly deployed their game plan for an astonishing upset of the Cavaliers. Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers marched into the 2009 finals expecting a Celtics rematch or a marquee matchup against LeBron and friends.

Instead they got Orlando. The Magic loss to the Lakers in five games, but it was closer than it looked. Fans will always wonder how things might have gone if Lee finished this buzzer-beating lob to steal Game 2 in LA. - [Announcer] Boy, you couldn't ask for a better shot opportunity. - [Narrator] Or what if the Magic didn't crumble and blow a late lead in Game 4, allowing the Lakers to force overtime and win? Either way, the Magic exited the '09 finals hoping to remain among the East elite.

To build a champion around a homegrown superstar who'd finally stick around for the long haul. Four years later, Orlando had no superstar and the worst record in the NBA. (suspenseful music) The Magic entered their post-Finals '09 off-season with a clear identity and a straightforward path to maintain it.

Turkoglu was the only core Magic player not locked into his contract. But Smith, the GM, chose a more aggressive approach. He dealt away the promising Lee, the useful Alston, and veteran big man Tony Battie in a trade centered around Nets star and Florida native Vince Carter. Carter was years removed from his all-star peak, accustomed to dominating the ball, and best fit for Turkoglu's small forward position. So Hedo didn't have much choice but to look elsewhere for a payday, joining the Raptors in a sign-and-trade that got Orlando basically nothing in return. That was three starters from a Finals squad gone. Besides Carter, Orlando added some bench help, plus more experienced replacements for Austin and Lee. After all those changes, the 2010 Magic were just as good as '09, perhaps better. And they were still themselves, chucking more threes than anyone else, making quite a few of them, and watching Dwight hoover up everything else.

Howard won yet another defensive player of the year award, and Orlando wrecked their first two playoff opponents to set up a Conference Final against the Celtics, this time featuring a healthy Kevin Garnett. With a fully staffed and defensively stout front court, Boston needn't overreact to Howard in the middle the way other teams did. They trusted Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, or wily Rasheed Wallace to hold their own against Howard in single coverage.

And without Dwight drawing much help, the perimeter-dwelling Magic had to pull tougher contested shots. Lewis and Carter, in particular, shot horribly. Orlando fell behind 3-O in the series, and mounted too little of a comeback too late to repeat as Eastern Champions. While the Celtics advanced to fight the Lakers in the 2010 Finals, attention turned toward the Magic star. Howard had an on-court reputation for lacking the one-on-one creativity that could have foiled the LA and Boston defenses the last two postseasons. He still had an off-court reputation for lacking maturity, or professionalism, or whatever. Plenty of people espoused a literal interpretation of this '09 Sports Illustrated cover. So while Otis Smith had a quiet 2010 off-season, mostly focused on retaining Redick, Dwight got to work. He spent time training with Hakeem Olajuwon.

He spoke about being more serious, about being a leader during this championship window for the contending Magic. Whatever Dwight took away from that summer, it paid off. He played a more dynamic game, and registered the highest scoring season of his career, scarcely sacrificing efficiency.

Meanwhile, the organization heard Dwight's concerns about missing a championship window. Those kinds of public statements pricked up their ears a bit, knowing Howard's contract had an early termination option in the summer of 2012. Smith didn't wanna lose him. And the Magic had just witnessed what could happen if you didn't do enough to satisfy the superstar you drafted. So when Orlando lost a bunch of games in early December of 2010, Smith immediately hit the phones to make moves. First Orlando kinda undid the Hedo Turkoglu deal, dumping Carter, Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, and a first round pick for a bunch of Phoenix Suns, headlined by Hedo. Nevermind that his production had slipped dramatically in his absence from Orlando. As such, Smith expressed that he still didn't regret breaking up that Finals team. But on that note, mere hours after that trade, another one emerged.

Out went Lewis, one of the biggest free agent signings in Magic history, but someone whose own play had dipped of late. In came Gilbert Arenas, the Washington Wizards' erstwhile superstar point guard, more recently known for knee issues and, um, bringing a bunch of guns to work. These deals, which included a pretty heavy contractual obligation for Arenas, were clearly meant to convince Dwight that to keep him happy, the Magic would neither delay nor skimp.

Win now moves. The thing is, despite Dwight's continued excellence, not just scoring progress, but a third straight defensive award. The Magic didn't win now. 52 wins is nothing to sneeze at, and you shouldn't sneeze at things, but it was a big departure from back-to-back years of 59 wins. So too was an early 2011 playoff defeat against the Hawks. Howard single-handedly dragged the series to a sixth game, but Redick and Jason Richardson both blew chances to send that one to overtime and maybe force a Game 7 at home. Orlando went down in the first round. Howard's series numbers look absurd against those of his teammates. While he dominated Atlanta, all of his sidekicks struggled, most notably, the guys acquired back in December.

The Magic went all-in on 2011, yet took a significant step backward. So that's not good. That's the kind of thing that gets reporters asking again about Howard's option to terminate his contract the following summer.

As the Magic post-season ended prematurely, Otis Smith insisted Dwight wanted to remain Orlando's franchise cornerstone, and that he would under no circumstance trade the star. People insisted Dwight wouldn't make like LeBron, or Shaq for that matter, and flee. He wouldn't pull a Carmelo and use his looming free agency as leverage to demand a trade. Cool. Van Gundy, meanwhile, risked taking the blame for Orlando's disappointing finish. He didn't quite pass that blame to the front office, but a comment like this one about his own failure to establish a perimeter rotation could certainly read as criticism of the front office. Meanwhile, Dwight tried to soothe fans, at least early on. In May, 2011, he hosted a barbecue in part to reassure the fans that he didn't plan to leave the team. In doing so, he invoked Shaq's name, re-igniting some beef between them.

All that said, Dwight's desire to forge a path in Orlando did include a reminder that he needed the right teammates. He wanted the team to get the city behind him. But Howard's manager was very clear that Dwight did not want to leave.

The barbecue proved that. Howard could have put his money where his mouth was, but Orlando's offer of a contract extension sat unsigned. And in June, Dwight said it would remain that way. He wanted to stay in Orlando, but he wasn't gonna extend his contract. He intended to become a 2012 free agent, and wanted to see the Magic improve the rest of the roster. Smith was like, "Yeah, cool, totally. I expected this, no problem. It's a bit less reassuring than the barbecue, but okay." All of this added some tension, tension that carried through an off-season extended by a lockout, tension stoked by stuff like this coming out of Dwight's mouth. By November, Smith sounded at least a little open to the idea of trading Howard.

And soon enough, rumors emerged, like that of Dwight wanting a trade to the very bad Brooklyn Nets. And right after the lockout ended, the Magic gave Howard's agent permission to speak with other teams about committing long-term after a potential trade. But just days after that, Orlando stopped entertaining trade offers.

They were gonna keep Dwight. After all, they'd honored his request and improved the roster by using their amnesty clause on their biggest recent acquisition, and trading for Glen "Big Baby" Davis. When Davis was asked about convincing Howard to stick around, he was like, "Ha, yeah, sure, man, we'll have tea and crumpets." Anyway, time for a super awkward season. The Magic, as you might expect from a team that hadn't done much to augment the roster, continued to slip in the standings. This despite Ryan Anderson, a throw-in from the Vince Carter trade, having a breakout year as Howard's sharpshooting front court sidekick. Hardly anyone cared about the games though. The Magic played under a cloud of rumors, nicknamed Dwightmare. It was a lot like Carmelo Anthony's torturous last season in Denver, except it actually lasted the whole season. All-Star Weekend 2012 just happened to be in Orlando, and it was all Dwight questions.

As March's post-lockout trade deadline approached and Dwight maintained his intention to become a free agent, the rumors got truly oppressive. But then, another twist. The deadline passed without a deal.

Howard changed his mind. He agreed to waive his early termination option, guaranteeing he'd still be under contract entering next season. Time to go back to playing basketball, back to some peace. Just kidding! Word came out that Magic executives were disgusted with Howard's continued public comments about their private conversations. In April, rumors surfaced that Howard wanted the Magic to get rid of Coach Van Gundy, that any future extension might depend on that. This led to some horribly uncomfortable media availability. Van Gundy, asked about the rumors, delivered a remarkably bullshit-free response. - [Reporter] How do you know it's true?

- I was told it was true by people in our management. - [Narrator] And then Dwight wandered into the frame having no idea his boss had just confirmed the rumors about his backdoor dealing, wrapping his arm around the guy everyone knew he wanted gone. This is terrible.

Dwight's reaction when reporters tell him what Van Gundy just said is embarrassing for everyone involved. - I didn't hear anything. - Okay. - I'm just telling you- - And I'm just telling you. - [Narrator] Soon after, Howard's agent revealed the back injury that had been bothering Dwight for awhile would require season-ending surgery. His teammates barely put up a fight in a first round loss to the Pacers. As soon as that ended, the Magic did what everyone expected, and what Dwight apparently wanted, goodbye Stan. And for good measure, out went Otis Smith too. So Dwight, happy now?

No, he wants a trade. Orlando hired a new GM, Rob Hennigan, who met with Howard and yeah, still wants a trade. A new head coach, Jacque Vaughn, didn't change that.

And thus, it was done, just weeks into Hennigan's Magic tenure. Howard went to the Lakers in a convoluted four-team deal that worked out pretty well for the Magic, if you don't look too closely. Howard, like some of his original Finals teammates, declined in his post Orlando years. Nikola Vukovic, meanwhile, became an All-Star for the Magic. That's cool, it's just that he's the only one Orlando had the rest of the decade. The remainder of Hennigan's tenure was defined by restless shuffling. Swapping coaches, squandering accumulated draft picks, and dealing players with star promise. Oh, and losing, a whole lot of losing. Orlando instantly became the league's worst team in 2013, and soon jettisoned all relics of their recent excellence.

That first post-Dwight season began the most miserable, most anonymous period in the brief history of a team and fan base accustomed to contending with big name stars. This team, with Dwight in his overpowering prime and a game plan fit for abundant shooters, nearly earned the Magic their first title. Even after falling short, Dwight looked like he might sustain the pursuit, becoming the first face of the Magic to stick around.

But if the '09 Magic were built to last, we never got to find out. And as far as Dwight goes, yeah. (gentle music) (block clunking) (organ notes trilling)