The Orlando Magic appears to be sacrificing the season--and the first year of Doc Rivers's coaching career--for a gamble. By filling its roster with young players making, by NBA standards, menial money and faceless veteran players with one year left on their contracts, Orlando likely will go from playoff team to draft lottery, which management would not mind.
The Magic, which has 10 new players, plans on unloading much of its roster after the season to clear salary-cap room to land a preeminent free agent or two; Tim Duncan and Grant Hill are the two marquee players who will be on the open market at the end of the season. The Chicago Bulls have done the same thing, except this will be the second year of their tortuous process.
The plan is risky. Neither team may end up landing the franchise player of choice, then would face a lengthy rebuilding process.
"I understand every situation is different but me, personally, I would never be able to do that," Philadelphia 76ers Coach Larry Brown said. "As a coach, it's tough to sit there and wait and rebuild. You've got to be realistic and know what your chances are, and that's hard.
"I think the most important thing is the kids you have playing for you. I want them to know that we're getting better, and it's not just a one-year deal."
At least in Orlando's case, Rivers must coach players who know they are not part of the team's long-range plans. Players also could try to bolster their statistics at the expense of team play so they could argue for bigger contracts the following year.
Both types will find themselves languishing on the bench, Rivers said.
"Some players understand that if they perform well, teamwise, that things will get taken are of," Rivers said. "If there are guys out there trying to get numbers, that's my job. In that case, if that's hurting the team, that guy can't play. If a guy is doing his job and playing above what he can because it's his contract year, I have no problem with that."
One player in the last year of his contract whom Orlando wants to retain is former Washington Wizards forward Ben Wallace, who was part of the trade for center Ike Austin.
"Ben is awesome," Rivers said. "He's a guy we went after for keeps, not just salary-cap room. It would be a big surprise if he's not back with us next year."
The three other players Washington sent to Orlando were waived. Jeff McInnis and Tim Legler were released before training camp; Legler signed with Golden State. Forward Terry Davis was cut last week.
The Magic will face the Wizards on Saturday at MCI Center.
Time on Their Hands
Along with enforcing four new rules changes, the three officials at every NBA game have this adjustment: They wear a hefty piece of hardware on their hips, devices that resemble oversized beepers.
The mechanisms are precision-time devices that stop the game clock when an official blows his whistle. The game clock is restarted manually when the referee touches a button on the device. The clock operator at the scorer's table also keeps time as a backup measure.
The reason for the new devices is to keep time more precisely, said Rod Thorn, NBA vice president of basketball operations. In the past, a few tenths of a second could pass between the time the ref blew his whistle and the clock operator stopped or started the clock. That occasionally affected the game's outcome, Thorn said.
"There was the human element where the ref blew his whistle and time ticked off," he said. "Now you don't have to worry if when the clock reads 2.5 seconds when the ref blows the whistle and eight-tenths of a second expires. This is a more efficient way of keeping time."
Look, Don't Touch
Of the new rules changes, the one that eliminates contact by defensive players above the foul line and away from the ball will alter the game the most, several players and coaches have said. The Miami Heat could be one of the teams most affected by the easing of physical play.
After assembling a team of defense-first players who have established a punishing style, Heat Coach Pat Riley must open up his offense.
Riley has devised a more open offensive style--called the "Go Game"--instead of the grinding, low-post, half-court game that took advantage of center Alonzo Mourning's inside presence. In its opener, the Heat scored 128 points in an overtime victory over Detroit, but was held to 86 points last night in losing to Toronto.
Riley also adjusted his roster. In a painful move, Riley cut one of his favorite players, small forward Keith Askins. Askins, a defensive specialist, lasted nine years with Miami.
Breaking from tradition, Riley also retained four rookies, all of whom are offense-minded.
"We have developed a style of play that was borne out of our defense the last four years, and that has created a real identity," Riley said. "For the most part, the players' minds are defensive instead of offensive. We're trying to change the mentality. We are working very hard at trying to make adjustments.
"Other teams are not going to be able to manhandle some of our key guys. Tim Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Alonzo Mourning took a pretty good beating in the past. They're going to have a little more freedom to operate."
CAPTION: With a minimum-wage team to coach, Orlando's Doc Rivers might not have much to cheer about.