As we prepare to face the Magic today here are some thoughts from Ben at sister-site ThirdQuarterCollapse.com about the similarities--or lack thereof--between the Blazers and Magic.
Even with Oden's absence, there are similarities between these two teams. They currently lead their respective divisions, they're both fairly young (although the Blazers are decidedly moreso), and both their futures are tied to franchise-caliber centers. But there's a key difference between these two teams, which is why I think one is on the rise and the other is not:
I'm not an expert on the Trail Blazers, but I know that Brandon Roy and Martell Webster have been instrumental to the team's recent success. Both those players were drafted by Portland. Jarrett Jack wasn't originally a Portland draft choice, but he was obtained in a draft-night trade, so he might as well have been. Throw in a few savvy veterans obtained via free-agency (Steve Blake, Joel Pryzbilla) and you have a young, athletic, promising team that should expect to be in title contention for -- no kidding -- the next decade.
Contrast that draft-night and free-agency success with that of the Magic. Drafting Dwight Howard was a no-brainer for a team with an unhappy superstar in his prime (Tracy McGrady) coming off a 21-win season. He's younger than Emeka Okafor and we know now he's a much better player, which is no slight to Okafor. The team also obtained another key piece, Jameer Nelson, via a draft-night trade. But look at the other players the Magic have drafted recently:
o Anderson Varejao (later traded to Cleveland for Tony Battie)
o Fran Vazquez (famously and unexpectedly declined to join the NBA; won't play in the US until 2010 at the earliest.)
o Travis Diener (played sparingly in two seasons; left via free-agency in the summer of 2006)
o J.J. Redick (still can't crack the rotation)
o James Augustine (good hustle player who picks up minutes here and there, but probably belongs in the D-League; drafted ahead of Paul Millsap)
As far as free-agency goes, the Magic have had mixed luck. Keyon Dooling and Keith Bogans were brought in, but they're more role-players than anything else. And before this summer's signing of Rashard Lewis, the Magic's best wing scorer was Hedo Turkoglu, also a free-agent pickup. Lewis, supposedly the best player available last summer, has not impressed so far.
I suppose the point I'm trying to make is the following: Portland has shown patience with Roy, Webster, and Travis Outlaw. They've also looked to add veterans like Blake, Pryzbilla, and James Jones when possible. They're more realistic about their stars' timeline, but at the same time realize that veterans can help with the learning curve. And when Oden comes back next year, Portland is going to be damn tough to beat. The Magic, meanwhile, are built to win now. They have Howard, yes, and he's arguably the best center in the game (unless you count Tim Duncan as a center, anyway). They have Rashard Lewis, who hasn't lived up to his reputation as a big-time scorer. They traded for Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo in 2005, hoping they would put the team on the fast-track to success. They traded Trevor Ariza (a promising, athletic, energetic defender) to the Lakers in November for veterans Brian Cook and Maurice Evans, hoping that small adjustment would do the trick. It hasn't. And it probably won't ever. Until this team decides on an identity -- win now or win later? -- it can't expect to get beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Interesting thoughts, I'm sure you'll agree. Thanks for the perspective Ben!