There is only one truly relevant question going into this season for the Orlando Magic, and that's whether or not Rashard Lewis can match the impact and output of both Grant Hill and Darko Milicic.
This is a not a question borne out of the notion that had he not been signed both of those players would have returned. Hill looked poised to leave Florida regardless of their free agent moves and Milicic is such an unpredictable character nothing is guaranteed when he is part of the equation. Nor does this have to do with Lewis' over-stuffed contract, which has been discussed and dissected to death all summer.
No, the question of Lewis' impact - and its importance to the Magic - stems purely from practicality since this team lost two important role players this summer while adding only one new one. This team did not have the depth or the resolve last season to overcome injuries that sent their season into a tailspin in the 2007 half and now they have one less player available to them to start the season. They narrowly qualified for the Playoffs last season and if they hope to repeat even that success they are going to need to find some hidden gems on their own roster.
After all, at this point one has a pretty assured idea of what to expect from their core. Lewis will give the team about 20 points per game and maybe seven rebounds. Point guard Jameer Nelson will, in all likelihood, look improved one night and regressed the next. Dwight Howard will be a beast on the glass but still a victim of good positional post defense and double-teams. Hedo Turkoglu will probably be an offensive force off of the bench. But then what? What else does this team have to intimidate opponents?
The reason why most people still have the Magic in the mix for the playoffs, however, is their new head coach; Stan Van Gundy. He surprised many as the head coach for a Miami Heat team that was lead by a rookie in Dwyane Wade and a career underachiever in Lamar Odom when he took them to the second round of the playoffs in 2003. He'll be in a similar situation now in Orlando, steering a team that looks incomplete at best and trying to not allow slippage from last year's success.
To do this he's going to design an offense that better showcases Dwight Howard. Rather than running post plays for a player with rudimentary post skills, he'd be better off employing more of a passing game that has a player finishing off the play with a post-pass to Howard for an open dunk. In other words, working out an offense that keeps Howard close to the basket without him having to battle double-teams on every possession. It's not his strength and team after team was able to exploit that in the second half of last season.
Another boon would be if J.J. Redick were ready to play in the NBA. He started to lose that deer-in-the-headlights look as last season wound down, but by that time there was no option in the offense to try and put him in places where he is most comfortable shooting from. On a team like this it is unlikely he'll ever have as much time with the ball in his hands as he did at Duke and he now has to find a way to be a useful player finishing off plays rather than creating them.
The last couple of playoffs spots in the East are going to be hard-won by whichever teams wind up with them. Orlando has the enviable presence of Howard to aid in their cause as well as one of the better young coaches to lead him, but the loss of a leader like Grant Hill and a big man like Darko Milicic will not be easily overcome. Will Rashard Lewis be enough to rise above last season's success? We'll find out in about eight months.