FAULT LINES 


After a miserable 2003-2004 season that saw the Orlando Magic win 21 games out of 82, something had to give. Fan support was at an all-time low, the team's high-maintenance superstar wanted out, and other than laying claim to the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA draft, there was little hope in sight. General manager John Weisbrod promised fans a "total team effort" and quickly set about decimating last year's squad while building a new one.

Tracy "Me-Mac" McGrady was shipped to Houston along with a few substandard role-players in exchange for perennial problem child Steve Francis, Steve's best friend Cuttino Mobley and underachieving big man Kelvin Cato. The Magic spent big bucks in the free-agent market, and before you could say "security deposit," Mobley was traded to Sacramento for defensive specialist and model husband Doug Christie. With the resurrection of Grant Hill and the promise of rookie Dwight Howard, the Magic looked to be fielding a team that could dominate (or at least compete in) the NBA's anemic Eastern Conference.

So, what happened? The Magic is barely treading water around the .500 mark, and the team's chemistry is starting to look a lot like it did last year. Steve Francis (who eschewed the nickname "Franchise" in favor of the laughable "Steve-O"; look for him to staple his scrotum to his thigh as Johnny Knoxville cheers him on) may indeed be the No. 1 option in the league when a game is on the line, but otherwise, he's about as inconsistent as a breakfast at a greasy spoon. The Magic ended the first half of the season on a high note, beating the L.A. Clippers, then planned to replenish and retool during the All-Star break. Instead, they came out flatter than Milla Jovovich's chest. Francis missed the first practice after the break due to "personal reasons" (his birthday just happened to be that day), and instead of starting a strong push toward the playoffs, the team sleepwalked its way through a game against Indiana that it lost by more than 20 points.

Now, the NBA trading deadline has passed and the Magic has chosen to stick with the current assembly of players. Second-year coach Johnny Davis is starting to feel the flames burning underneath his folding chair, whether deservedly or not. Fewer and fewer fans are showing up at the TD Waterhouse Centre, and our ersatz mascot The Fat Guy looks like he's shedding weight. What the hell's going on here? Let's find out by looking at the contestants in this year's Blame Game.

JOHN WEISBROD

It has to start at the top, right? There are those who claim a hockey guy doesn't know enough about the inner workings of the NBA to put together a winning team. I say that's crap. Weisbrod had the good sense to boot T-Mac's sorry ass out of town, and this year's Magic is collectively more talented than last. The general manager's job is to put together a team that can compete, and that's exactly what Weisbrod has done. Hockey, basketball, lawn darts, whatever … this guy can spot a warrior from a mile away, and he stocked the team with guys who absolutely hate to lose. Percentage of blame: less than 5 percent.

JOHNNY DAVIS

As coach, Davis has a daunting task ahead of him. He has to stroke egos, yet discipline the guys sufficiently and run a tight ship. Push a sensitive superstar like Francis too far, and "Steve-O" will just alienate himself from the team. Davis has to find quality minutes for everyone on the team as well, while managing to make key decisions late in games. Davis was appointed head coach when Doc Rivers took the fall for last year's ineptitude, but it looks like he has little to no command over the team this year. When the players look listless, unmotivated and confused, it's the coach who finds himself in hot water. It may not be boiling yet, but it's getting there. Percentage of blame: at least 25 percent.

THE PLAYERS

These guys are supposed to take care of the fundamentals, like playing defense, not turning the ball over and, you know, winning games. Sure, the coach has to implement a game plan, but the players have to go into the game with the proper mind-set and confidence. With a strong leader like Hill, one of the NBA's elite point guards (Francis) and an energetic player like Howard, there's no reason the Magic shouldn't be one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. Percentage of blame: 25 to 50 percent.

THE FANS

Yeah, you. When you wear the opposing team's jersey to a Magic game, arrive late, leave early and let your tickets go unused, you let the team and the city down. Remember the Magic's heyday of Shaq and Penny, when the team sold out over 200 straight games? Now the Magic are third-to-last in attendance in the league. Go to the TD Waterhouse Centre for a Predators game and compare that to the less-than-rowdy Magic audience. Still, a raucous and passionate crowd can only do so much. Percentage of blame: 5 to 10 percent.

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL

Why'd you leave us, big fella? I know, the lure of the bright lights of Tinseltown was tough to resist. It also didn't help that you felt underappreciated here, and playing with Hardaway was growing old. Still, when the Lakers chose Kobe over you, why didn't you make more of a pitch to come back here? You still have a castle in Isleworth, and you could have owned this city again. What does Miami have that we don't … besides culture, night life, fellow celebrities, beaches and a big-city attitude? Percentage of blame: zero.

So there you have it, another list of the usual suspects, and we're still no closer to an answer. Can the Magic right the ship and make a run at home-court advantage for the NBA playoffs? Will Johnny Davis keep his job for the entire season? Does Orlando even care?

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