Playing the 'What If?' Game: Hedo Turkoglu

Turkoglu Magic

Last week, the rebuilding Orlando Magic told an aging and expensive Hedo Turkoglu to stay home, a move that will no doubt lead to his release and a buyout. For most, this will pass as an expected and not particularly important event. Orlando projects to be a bottom-three team with or without Turkoglu.

Magic and Turkoglu fans, on the other hand, might get a little more sentimental. Turkoglu was a key player in many of Orlando’s most exciting moments since Shaq left town and represents some great 'if-onlys.'

Turkoglu signed with Orlando in 2004 after a productive year playing alongside Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Robert Horry, and the rest of San Antonio’s cagey vets. Turkoglu joined an Orlando team on the rise. Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson were rookies, and the team was just about ready to shed Grant Hill’s unfortunate contract. From 2004-2009, Turk played in 300 games, starting 225.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Turkoglu needed the minutes on a still below average team to improve, all the while developing the chemistry with Nelson and Howard that would make Orlando so dangerous in just a few years. By 2006, Turkoglu was Orlando’s full time starter at the 3, utilizing his unique blend of size (he’s 6'10'' in case you forgot), ball handling ability, and passing to give opposing teams matchup fits.

Consider the following comparison:

Player A: 21.7 PPG 5.8 APG 4.5 RPG at $13.4 million

Player B: 19.5 PPG 5.0 APG 5.7 RPG at $6.3 million

Player C: 20.9 PPG 2.8 APG 3.8 RPG at $12.2 million

Player D: 21.4 PPG 1.5 APG 10.2 RPG at $16.3 million

Who would you rather have? Maybe it isn’t obvious, but I think if we’re considering the real value of each player (that is, the value each player contributes to his team’s wins versus how much he’s costing that team), Player B deserves strong consideration given his cost to his team.

As you have probably guessed by now, Player B represents Hedo Turkoglu’s 2007-2008 line. Player A is Joe Johnson, Player C is Richard Jefferson, and Player D is Antawn Jamison. Turkoglu’s numbers don’t stack up the truly elite – Kobe or LeBron, or even Carmelo – but the point is to show that he was right there, right at the head of the pack of that next tier, and at a fraction of the cost.

Turkoglu’s numbers don’t stack up the truly elite but he was right there, right at the head of the pack of that next tier.

Let’s flash forward now to Orlando’s 2008-2009 title run. Dwight Howard was, without question, the most important piece of that puzzle, but Turkoglu was a close second. He again posted a solid 17/5/5 slash line and often took over primary ball handling duties for Orlando during crunch time. Orlando caught a big break that year as Kevin Garnett had to miss the entire playoff series, forcing Boston to over-rely on the likes of Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, and Glen Davis.

But it wasn’t all luck that catapulted Orlando to the top of the East that year. Otis Smith, for as much flak as he’s (deservedly) gotten toward the end of his tenure, assembled a roster that was deep, talented, complimentary, and a matchup nightmare for just about everyone else in the NBA. The team was led by Stan Van Gundy who was – and still is – an excellent head coach (seriously though, he’s a great coach. Why doesn’t he have a job yet?)

The idea was simple: surround Dwight Howard, at that time the third best player and the NBA and by far the most dominant inside presence, with a roster full of shooters and above average defenders (Smith was a little ahead of the curve on this – these guys are rarer than you think); Everyone else on the floor with Howard pulled defenders away from the paint to respect their 3-point prowess.

This is a year later and features Matt Barnes, but check out a typical picture to see what I mean. Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis presented the most frustrating matchups as Lewis lined up at the 4-spot, yet shot as well as anyone in the league, and Turkoglu took the 3, being taller than any other 3 in the league. Defenses had to choose: single cover Howard or open 3’s for Turk, Lewis, Pietrus, Reddick, Alston, Nelson, or Lee.

In Round 1, the Sixers were just over-matched. They hung tough in two close games as the Magic struggled to get their 3-point stroke going. Round 2 we’ve documented – it was a brutal and close series, and the Celtics didn’t have one of their Big 3.

Round 3 was interesting as Cleveland, in moves that many chalked up to attempts to counter Boston’s roster, had added Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, Mo Williams, and Wally Szczerbiak. These additions might have meant something against the Celts, but they were all the wrong guys to matchup with against Orlando. And just like that, with some savvy building, and a little bit of luck, Orlando was back in the Finals for the first time in over a decade, going through LeBron and the original “Big Three” to do it.

So what happened next? Why didn’t this deep team turn into a perennial contender? They were young, and more importantly, seemed to have a formula for getting by the East’s best. The answer has a lot to do with Hedo Turkoglu. As mentioned above, Turkoglu wasn’t getting his market value and decided to opt-out of his contract and test the open market.

Orlando had the resources to re-sign Turk, but decided instead that the team had maxed out as currently constructed and acquired Vince Carter to take Turkoglu’s place. When it was all said and done, Turkoglu agreed to only a modestly sized raise with Toronto Rapters. Also involved in the deal was forward Shawn Marion, who Dallas was able to acquire on the cheap. Orlando was never the same, and neither was Turkoglu.

The following year, Carter and the Magic made another playoff run, but weren’t nearly the same kind of team. Carter was supposed to give the Magic a “wing-threat” that could create his own shot – something they appeared to be lacking in the Finals against the Kobe-led Lakers. They sprinted through some easy matchups in the first two rounds of the playoffs (8-0, in fact) but were derailed by the Celtics in the Conference Finals.

Turkoglu Raptors

Turkoglu, meanwhile, was floundering in Toronto. He wasn't happy to be there, and Toronto wasn’t happy to have him. By the summer of 2010, Turkoglu was shipped out to Phoenix to play alongside Steve Nash (where he also never fit in as they foolishly tried to use him as a spot up shooter). Toronto was able to swing the deal, in part, because of a trade exception they acquired in the Chris Bosh sign-and-trade.

As you’ll note, Toronto was also trying to swing a deal for Tyson Chandler in a related move. So, Chandler stays put in basketball hell (Charlotte) and becomes available to, you guessed it again, Dallas the next season for the proverbial “pu-pu platter”.

Back in Orlando, after just 1 year of the Vince Carter experiment, Otis Smith and Orlando realize that they may have given up on something a little too soon by letting Turkoglu walk. But, in a classic “two wrongs to make a right” scenario, Orlando deals away the farm to re-acquire Turkoglu. Orlando traded most of its valuable trade assets: Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, and a 1st round pick in 2011 (and $3 million in cash to boot) for Turkoglu, a run-down Jason Richardson, and Earl Clark.

In a flash, Orlando’s depth – what made them so strong to begin with – was gone. And of course, they were now on the hook for the worst/least valuable part of the Turkoglu contact, as well as Jason Richardson’s deal.

The once deep and talented roster decimated around him, Dwight Howard demands out of Orlando. Otis Smith has been replaced, due in no small part to several of the events listed above, so new GM Rob Hennigan obliges by shipping Dwight to LA and Jason Richardson to Philly, while the Sixers land the perceived bigger prize, Andrew Bynum. Stan Van Gundy is out too, and the Magic are in “tank” mode for the foreseeable future.

We know Turkoglu’s movements had a lot to do with putting together the champion Mavericks, but we also can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Orlando had given it another go as they were constructed in 2008-2009. Turkoglu was comfortable and playing at his best. Miami wasn’t yet Miami, and they had just beaten Boston the year before.

Even further, could they have re-signed Turkoglu and added another piece, rather than just swap Turkoglu out for the more expensive Carter? I would have liked to see them try. Orlando knew their identity, were playoff tested, had recent success, and actually had some solid financial flexibility. They blew it all up in one summer, and the rest is history.

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