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In the perfect ironic twist in the narrative of the Orlando Magic’s tragic turn, Marcin Gortat said he wants to come back home.

“I would love to join the team for maybe two or three months, or maybe half a season at least,” Gortat told Josh Robbins, my Orlando Sentinel colleague, last week.

Oh, mercy. Is it too early yet to start drinking if you are a Magic fan?

Gortat’s absence is one of those connect-the-dots reasons the Magic are missing from this year’s playoff conversation, and have been since the 2012 season.

In case you are too squeamish to look, the Magic have 12 victories, second-worst in the NBA, and have lost seven in a row. They have no trade assets of great value, especially with Nikola Vucevic out indefinitely after surgery in his left hand, and are cruising down that potluck lottery road again.

Which takes us back to December 2010. For those in need of a quick history primer, the Magic — and former general manager Otis Smith, in particular — blew up the roster late that month.

It was a multi-layered implosion: Rashard Lewis went to the Washington Wizards for Gilbert Arenas. The Magic also sent Vince Carter, Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, a 2011 first-round pick and cash considerations to the Phoenix Suns in return for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.

The Magic were in full-on championship mode back then and also cognizant of keeping a certain player named Dwight Howard in town. So they blew up a good team in the hopes of making it a great one.

“We had to do something,” then Magic president and CEO Bob Vander Weide told me at the time.

It was something, all right. Something very bad.

The Magic got a nice run early on and tricked folks like me into thinking this was a cool deal. In retrospect, it was horrible, and the franchise has never recovered.

Turkoglu and Richardson weren’t very good, but the real hot mess was Arenas (aka “Agent Zero”). He showed flashes of his All-Star form, but that was a mirage.

Some folks called Arenas “mercurial.” That was just a nice way of saying he was a train wreck, including a 50-game suspension in March 2010 for waving a gun in front of Wizards teammate Javaris Crittenton. But Smith had a close relationship with Arenas and pushed for the deal because of the bromance.

Ravaged by knee injuries — hey, it would have been nice to kick the tires before making the trade! — Arenas averaged eight points per game with a 40.6 shooting percentage.

The Magic waived Arenas the following December, using the amnesty provision allowing a team a one-time option to waive a player’s remaining contract from the salary cap and luxury tax.

The team still owed Arenas roughly $62 million on the final three years of his contract. Arenas and the Magic agreed to stretch out the payments, and the free money kept coming until 2015.

On the flip-side, Gortat has turned into a hard-nosed grinder at center for Phoenix and now Washington. He is a stat-stuffer both in points and rebounds, averaging as high as 15.4 and 10.4 in those categories.

Had the Magic not had itchy fingers, they could have survived the eventual defection of Howard and plugged Gortat into a lineup with Carter, Lewis, Ryan Anderson, Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick.

That’s a solid playoff team with huge upside, and one that would have been stronger assuming the Magic still get Vucevic in the deal for Howard.

Oh, and coach Stan Van Gundy wouldn’t have been kicked to the curb either in all the dysfunctional chaos.

I know we’re all playing Monday Morning Point Guard here, or however you want to label it. But it remains a devastating twist in the depressing plot lines that have developed for this franchise since that time.

Gortat never wanted to leave. Even if he eventually comes back, it’s like chasing ghosts.

Things have been spooky around here since you left, Mr. Gortat. You’ve been warned.

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Miami Heat

Miami Heat

For all the chatter surrounding the Cavaliers, Celtics, Wizards and Raptors this season, few have mentioned the Heat as possible contenders in the Eastern Conference.

While the Heat may not have a lineup filled with superstars, they earned their fourth straight win Sunday by outlasting the Jazz 103-102 at home, vaulting to fifth in the East.

Miami had six players reach double-figure scoring in the win, led by Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson’s 16 points apiece. Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson added 14 points apiece, and Kelly Olynyk chipped in with 12 points.

The Heat (22-17) are void of any real weakness defensively, and have started putting up more explosive offensive numbers. Dragic remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the NBA, and James Johnson, a starter on most teams, came off the bench Sunday to score 13 points with 11 rebounds.

Sensational rookie Donovan Mitchell led Utah with a game-high 27 points, but the rest of the team struggled to convert. Point guard Ricky Rubio scored just four points on 0-for-6 shooting.

The Heat might just fly under the radar all the way to a deep postseason run.

Stud of the Night

Playing without Damian Lillard, a late scratch before Sunday’s clash with a calf injury, Portland found a balanced scoring attack to beat the Spurs 111-110 at home. Maurice Harkless was a huge contributor off the bench, scoring 19 points off 7-of-10 shooting in just 24 minutes of action. Harkless also added five rebounds and two key blocks.

Duds of the Night

Russell Westbrook’s supporting cast: The reigning league MVP recorded his 14th triple-double of the season, scoring 26 points with 11 assists and 10 rebounds. However, the Thunder still lost 114-100 to the lowly Suns. Carmelo Anthony and Paul George shot a combined 11 of 28 from the field, and the bench managed just 21 points.

Speaking of bad bench play:

Highlight

Lakers forward Brandon Ingram gets it done on both ends of the court:

Ingram scored 20 points to help the Lakers defeat the Hawks.

Cavaliers (26-13) at Timberwolves (25-16) 8:00 p.m. ET — Minnesota, winners in eight of its last 11 games, host the Cavaliers, who have lost four of their last six games. Cleveland has endured a roller-coaster season, but things are starting to fall into place. The young Timberwolves are starting to gel on both ends of the court, making them potential playoff sleepers as they continue to mesh.

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Welcome to Buzz City Beat, a daily roundup of the best articles from around the internet surrounding the Charlotte Hornets.

Despite dealing with a dislocated finger, Dwight Howard had one of his best games of the season and led his side to victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. In this edition of Buzz City Beat, we look at what the next step is for the Charlotte Hornets, how Kemba Walker continues to excel with a non-contender and the Greensboro Swarm losing to the Lakeland Magic.
What is the Charlotte Hornets’ next step? (HoopsRumors.com)

Still, it’s not clear what Plan B in Charlotte is. Unlike fellow 11-win teams like the Kings, Suns, and Lakers, the Hornets don’t have a plethora of promising young players they can focus on developing with things going south.

It’s unclear what the best move is for Charlotte going forward. They will have to choose between either re-tooling or completely rebuilding by tanking. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that changes are needed as what they are doing now isn’t working. With Rich Cho in the final year of his deal, the Hornets will probably look to re-tool by improving their current squad in an attempt to make a playoff push int he second half of the season.

Although, if they continue to struggle for long enough, tanking might look more appealing and a rebuild may be their only option. If Charlotte is still near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, their best bet is to cut salary and acquire draft picks/young talent. We’ll have to wait and see what the Hornets’ plan of attack is for the remainder of the season because right now, they don’t have a clear Plan B. What do you think the team should do?
Kemba continues to excel in relative obscurity (UPROXX.com)

Walker isn’t the first, nor the last, legitimate NBA star to languish in anonymity, which comes with the territory when dealing with a sub-.500 team in a market that does not generate national interest on its own. Still, it has to be emphasized, that Walker isn’t the problem in Charlotte, nor is there any real optimism for a future without him should he choose to leave in free agency at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season.

No matter how bad the Hornets have been over the past few years, Walker has always been a constant positive for the team. Despite all of his individual success, the all-star point guard has yet to win a playoff series in his two trips to the postseason. Kemba’s 3-8 record in only 11 playoff games can largely be attributed to the teams around him rather than his individual play.

If Walker played on a team that was consistently in the playoffs or at least was in a bigger market, he would not only get more recognition but also be one of the more popular players in the league. Whether it be in Charlotte or not, hopefully, Kemba can play on a contender one day. In order to increase their chances of keeping Walker long-term, the Hornets will need to prove that they can build a winning team around him over the next couple years.
Greensboro falls to Lakeland despite 31 points from Goodwin (Gleague.NBA.com)

The Greensboro Swarm (7-12) and Lakeland Magic (13-5) went back-and-forth but it was the Magic’s 8-0 run to close the game that sealed a, 106-102, Swarm defeat. Lakeland has won seven straight games.

Just when it looked like the Swarm were about to turn their season around, they are only 2-3 in their last five. Greensboro still has three games left before the new year and if they can win all three, they could move into the top-8 in the Eastern Conference. If Archie Goodwin continues to play well, this team could be in line for more wins going forward.

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Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic are just good enough to be bad.

They are mediocrity’s children, sprinkled with a touch of misery. At 11-17, they are a playoff tease, an aspiring eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, cluttered with lousy teams. Only eight of the 15 teams in the conference have winning records, making the playoffs a very attainable goal for the Magic.

We have enough of a sample-size at 28 games. A little more than a third of the season is complete, and the Magic now show equal signs of competence and futility. It is who they are. Magic management has cobbled together a good enough team that can win on any given night. Magic management has cobbled together a bad enough team that can lose to anybody.

They could easily have beaten the 6-19 Hawks on Saturday night in Atlanta only to have a meltdown in the closing minutes. As they are prone to do, it was rather epic.

With the score tied at 110, Kent Bazemore picked off a cross-court pass from Jonathon Simmons and dunked with 36 seconds left. Shelvin Mack’s 3-pointer from the corner was tipped and came up short. Bazemore then got the rebound with 21.6 seconds left and was fouled by Nikola Vucevic, After making two free throws, Bazemore then stole the ensuing inbounds pass from Elfrid Payton.

Game over, but the up-and-down drama continues for a while.

Orlando’s predicament goes back to the opening premise. Mediocrity in the NBA is No-Man’s Abyss. The goal for bad teams is to sink low enough to rise up with viable lottery picks. The Magic have tried that with very little success. The bounce of the ping-pong balls have not gone their way. It is the main reason — other than someone named Dwight Howard — that the Magic have not made the playoffs since 2012.

They got the right guy in Victor Oladipo in 2013, only to send him away in a misguided trade last season (see Ibaka, Serge). They got the wrong guy in Mario Hezonja in 2015, the fifth-overall selection and just one pick after the New York Knicks snagged Kristaps Porzingis.

He would have been a difference-maker for this team. Hezonja will become an unrestricted free agent next season, Orlando’s call and a signal that things have gone bust.

The good news is that the Magic seem to be on the right side of history now. They do have a nice batch of players, even if there is no superstar, the final arbiter of success and failure in the NBA.

The problem is that a bunch of them are currently unavailable. Aaron Gordon (18.3 ppg.), Evan Fournier (18.3 ppg.), Terrence Ross (9.0 ppg.) and Jonathan Isaac (6.1 ppg.) all missed the game against Atlanta with various injuries.

In a brutal two-way gut punch, the Magic lost Fournier to an ankle sprain and Gordon to a concussion with the span of a few days. They both are on the TBD timetable. Neither injury looks serious, but the Magic are not in position to dawdle.

That dark abyss looks like the likely scenario for the 2017-18 season: A one-and-done appearance in the playoffs, or a lottery pick that comes too late on Draft Night to make a significant impact, at least short-term.

At least the fan base isn’t screaming, most likely because people named Jacque Vaughn and Rob Hennigan have left the building.

The Magic will not lose games by design any more. They will lose simply because they don’t have enough talent to compete consistently every night.

At one point, things will flip. But if you are marking 2018 as the year that the Magic find their way back to relevance, you may want to find an eraser, as well as more patience.

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The Charlotte Hornets’ top draft pick was benched in favor of Michael Carter-Williams after the team lost six straight games.

Steve Clifford chose to bench his star rookie because he needed more defense. After losing six straight games, he chose not to play Malik Monk a single minute against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Charlotte Hornets‘ head coach said that “It’s not Malik’s fault, it’s just his position; [Michael Carter-Williams is] a difference-maker defensively.” (CharlotteObserver.com)

This was the first time this year that the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft didn’t play in a game for Charlotte. He saw at least nine minutes in the Hornets’ first 14 games of the season. In a surprising turn of events, Monk has fallen out of the team’s rotation while second-round pick Dwayne Bacon is still getting important minutes off of the bench.

The Kentucky product saw 19.8 minutes per game was averaging 8.8 points, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds. He’s been struggling to find his shot shooting only 34.6% from the field and 33.3% from the three-point line. His lack of offensive production hasn’t been enough to overshadow his poor defensive play.

Monk’s defense was a big question mark coming out of college. His size is making him a bit of a liability on that end of the floor. To try and cover up his defensive woes, Coach Clifford was playing Malik at point guard so that he wouldn’t be forced to cover bigger shooting guards. That worked while Michael Carter-Williams was out rehabbing from offseason knee procedures but now that MCW is back, it looks like the rookie has fallen out of the rotation.

Even though the 19-year old is struggling, it isn’t out of the norm for a rookie to have a rough start at the professional level. Even Lonzo Ball, who was the second overall pick, is having his fair share of problems in the NBA. It takes time for most first-year players to adjust to the speed and style of the league.

It will be interesting to see if this trend continues going forward. If the hamstring injury that Jeremy Lamb suffered against the Clippers keeps him sidelined, it could mean a return to the rotation for Monk. At some point, you’d have to think that Malik will earn his minutes back.

It’s far too early to completely give up on such a promising rookie but for the time being, the Hornets need win games and Steve Clifford is electing to go with defense over offense. So until Malik improves his play on that end of the court or Charlotte’s defense as a whole gets better, it’s unlikely that he will see significant minutes anytime soon.

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Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors

DALLAS – A week ago, it seemed nothing could stop the Warriors. Their depth appeared so overwhelming that NBA teams pondered if any weaknesses existed. The Warriors’ discipline appeared so consistent it suggested they could run on autopilot.

Instead the Warriors have lost two of their first three games, matching their worst three-game start since 2009-10 under Don Nelson, the season they finished 26-56.

It’s absurd to think the Warriors could crash to those depths. They remain the heavy favorite to win their third NBA title in four years. There is no sign of panic.

“If you ask anybody in this locker room, nobody was expecting us to be playing at the level we left last year,” Warriors center Zaza Pachulia said after the 111-101 loss in Memphis on Saturday night. “That’s normal. Maybe it’s even good. That way we work harder and prepare ourselves for April, May and June.”

The Warriors have coughed up double-digit leads in losses to Houston and Memphis, and nearly squandered their cushion in their win over New Orleans. After vowing to finish in the top-five in defensive efficiency for the fourth consecutive season, the Warriors have allowed 117.7 points per game. Opponents are shooting 47.1%. And turnovers; despite a training-camp emphasis on passing, the Warriors have made 52 turnovers in three games.

Defending NBA champions are vulnerable to complacency. NBA coaches, Larry Bird once said, tend to lose their influence on players after three years. That led Warriors coach Steve Kerr to crack: “I’m in year four, aren’t I? I’m on the clock.”

Turning serious, Kerr said: “I was really lucky coming into this organization at the right time when players were really entering their primes. The thing I try to do is keep it light and fresh and let the assistants do the talking and hopefully my voice doesn’t get too old on them too quickly.”

The Warriors have suggested their problems lay elsewhere.

After having reduced practice time due to a compressed preseason schedule and a week-long trip in China, the Warriors have admitted feeling behind both with their conditioning and rhythm. The Warriors suggested those issues have contributed toward their struggles to defend without fouling.

Kerr called that a “major problem… Our habits are really bad. A lot of reaches, a lot of silly ones late in the shot clock.”

Stephen Curry has been the biggest offender. He was called for four fouls in Houston and five in Memphis. That wreaked havoc on Kerr’s substitution rotation. Saturday night in Memphis, he kept Curry in the game after he was called for his third foul in the second quarter. Moments later, Curry picked up his fourth foul.

Curry knows what he must do.

“You can still play aggressive defense and not reach,” Curry said. “I’ve done it my entire career just being conscious of where my hands are and where my body is. You play physical, the ticky-tack stuff and you’re literally reaching in and trying to get a steal and overzealous. That’s the stuff that can get you come back and bite you.”

While Curry accepts responsibility for the Warriors’ foul trouble, Durant takes the blame for the team’s turnover problem. Of the 52, Durant has 19.

“I’m just rushing,” Durant said. “I need to calm and settle down and I guess that will ignite the whole team. If I turn the ball over, it’s contagious.”

Still, a win Monday night at Dallas — the Mavericks are 0-3 — would give them a 2-1 trip.

“If we go 2-1, I’m happy with that,” Klay Thompson said. “2-1 on the road trip, that’s a good outcome.”