posted on Jun, 20 2003 @ 11:19 AM
While the Orlando Magic have come to the frustrating conclusion that Grant Hill should sit out next season and fully rehabilitate his surgically
repaired left ankle, there does finally appear to be a glimmer of hope for the franchise.
Grant Hill has spent most of his tenure with the Magic on the bench due to his perpetually injured ankle.
By Peter Cosgrove, AP
Magic General Manager John Gabriel told the Orlando Sentinel it was "likely" that Hill "will never play this coming season."
But ownership has approved an aggressive offseason plan to pursue several high-profile free agents or trades even though it will assuredly result in
the Magic paying the NBA's dreaded luxury tax next summer. That, in itself, is a major organizational turnaround from the cost-conscious ways of the
past two seasons.
It's been known since March — when Hill had a complicated fourth surgery in which his heel was broken and realigned with his ankle — that he wouldn't
be ready for the start of next season and that the Magic intended to apply to the NBA for an injury exception. Such a salary exception would give the
Magic $4.8 million in salary cap space to spend on a free agent or take back in a trade.
But doing so will put the Magic over the NBA's luxury tax threshold and trigger a penalty that could cost them approximately $10-12 million. Teams
over the threshold not only have to pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty but also aren't eligible to receive a refund from the teams paying the tax. Just
four franchises — Portland, New York, Dallas and Sacramento — exceeded the luxury tax last season.
The Magic expect to receive $8 million in refund money this summer by being under the tax threshold this past season. Ownership demanded that the team
not be a tax-paying franchise each of the past two seasons, even to the point that it wouldn't allow the free-agent signings of center Keon Clark and
point guard Travis Best at the 11th hour last July.
But if the Magic can convince a difference-maker of a free agent to sign with them this July, owner Rich DeVos has agreed to pay the steep price of
"That's huge for me and our organization and I'm so excited about it," Magic head coach Doc Rivers said. "It made my summer when they gave me that
information. Now, we have to do something with it and find the right guy that fits our team."
Orlando, which hasn't won a playoff series since 1996 and squandered a 3-1 lead against Detroit in May, now has some major weapons with which to
address the holes in its roster. The Magic will pick 15th in the NBA Draft next Thursday. And when the free-agent negotiating period opens on July 1,
the Magic will have $4.8 million and $4.6 million salary slots at their disposal. That might be enough money to snare two free agents in a
star-studded class that includes Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Elton Brand, Brad Miller, P.J. Brown, Juwan Howard, Scottie Pippen and Alonzo Mourning.
"We don't live with the mindset that we absolutely have to be under the tax," Magic chief operation officer John Weisbrod said. "We have a family that
is willing to go into the tax if it makes sense. If going into the tax means that we can win and compete and have a significantly better team than we
would have had, then our ownership would be relatively comfortable with that. We just don't want to go into the tax for the sake of going into it if
we don't have the answers or the players that will make us better.
"It's got to make sense," Weisbrod said. "The equation for making it make sense means you win more games, go further in the playoffs and reap those
rewards. If you go into the tax, again barely make it (to the playoffs) and get bounced in the first round, obviously that would prove to not make a
lot of sense."
Hill's injury, a stress fracture on the inside of his left ankle, hasn't made much sense to the organization for three years now. Since signing a
seven-year, $92.88 million in August of 2000, Hill has played in just 47 of a possible 246 games. Hill, 30, has started the past three seasons in the
starting lineup only to have his ankle break down again and again. He made it through 29 games this past season before being forced to the sidelines
Hill has undergone four surgeries by three different doctors. The latest procedure — by far the most invasive one yet — was performed in March by Dr.
James Nunley at the Duke University Medical Center. Then, an infection sent Hill back to the hospital and set back his recovery time by six weeks,
Rivers said. Hill, who hasn't spoken to the media since March, is still on crutches and is just now beginning light range-of-motion drills.
"It will be very difficult for Grant to play this season," admitted Rivers, who is contemplating major back surgery himself. "You figure it's a year
from the surgery before he can run because it's been 11 months the other two times he's had surgery. He had surgery in March so we're talking about
March of next year before he can start playing.
"It's just unrealistic. You know Grant's going to do everything he can to make it back, but it really is unrealistic for him to play next year. And
that's really too bad."
Weisbrod said that the organization and medical consultants are strongly in favor of Hill sitting out the season in hopes that his troublesome ankle
can finally heal completely. He also wants to relieve Hill and the other Magic players of the constant questioning about a timetable for his healthy
"Rather than him living in that glass bowl of people always asking him how it feels and when he's going to be back … if it's out there that he's not
coming back then the media and the fans will have the same expectations that we've taken," Weisbrod said.
"Grant sees it both ways. He welcomes not having the constant pressure, attention and questioning. There's a relieving aspect to that and he can come
back on his own timeframe and not be dealing with it every day. The other side to that is he's a competitive guy, an athlete and he's champing at the
bit to play and nobody likes to think about going through a whole cycle without playing. He'll rehab the best he can, put himself in the best possible
position to play and appreciate the relief and privacy that comes from people's expectations being lowered."
Much of the $32.2 million that Hill has earned since signing with the Magic has been paid by insurance. He is scheduled to make $13.279 million for
the 2003-04 season — 80% of which will be paid by an insurance policy.
Insurance or not, those dollars have still counted against the Magic's salary cap and crippled the team's chances of making major improvements. Hill's
$12.072 million salary last season accounted for almost one-fourth of the Magic's $51.898 million payroll.
Hill has no intentions of retiring, something that was reinforced by his willingness to undergo the latest surgical procedure. Even if he did retire
now, his salary wouldn't come off the Magic's cap until he had missed two years completely. But another ankle injury would certainly mean the end of
Hill's career. That's why the Magic want him to take the entire season off.
"From the medical side of it, everyone wants to be cautious and conservative," Weisbrod said. "Everybody realizes after the number of surgeries he's
had that this might be his last kick at the can, so to speak. You can only repair the same spot so many times. That being the case, the doctors and
Grant would be most comfortable with a very conservative outlook."
The Magic considered applying for an injury exception last season, but didn't feel the free-agent pool was deep enough with talent. Miami was awarded
an injury exception in 2000 when Mourning was felled by a kidney disorder, but had to settle for journeyman forward Cedric Ceballos. New York (Antonio
McDyess) and Houston (Maurice Taylor) received similar injury exceptions the past two seasons, but failed to use them and allowed them to expire.
Orlando is likely to apply to the league for the injury exception in the next week. The team hopes to have that $4.8 million salary to offer up when
the free-agent period opens July 1. Free-agent contracts can't officially be signed until July 16.
"This is absolutely the year to have it," Rivers said. "We have a chance to be really good and make a huge jump. Drew (Gooden) and Gordie (Giricek)
are young and Tracy (McGrady) is still pretty young, but we have a chance to really make a big jump by adding good guys around them."