The NBA's 'Zamboni' cleans house, clears air

ORLANDO – Call GM John Weisbrod's Magic "Extreme Makeover: Hockey Style".

Weisbrod took over the Magic last March, hellbent on blowing up the team. A number of NBA GMs snickered when Weisbrod, whose only real experience to date had been running a minor-league hockey franchise, was given the task of bringing the franchise back from the dead.

What does a hockey guy know about the NBA, they all whispered?

"It's unbelievable in my observation how much people fear having original thought," Weisbrod said. "When things are that bad, it's not a difficult decision to rip things up and try something new."

Those whispers turned to cackles this summer when word leaked that Weisbrod was willing to trade his only star, Tracy McGrady, to the highest bidder.

When word leaked that the deal the Magic were most seriously contemplating, a swap of McGrady, Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato, just about everyone in the league shook their head and said, off the record, of course, "I told you so."

Now it might be Weisbrod who is having the last laugh.

Weisbrod brought in a whopping 11 new players over the course of the summer and, against almost insurmountable odds, appears to have righted the most wayward ship in the NBA last season.

How did he do it? Like most outsiders, he approached building an NBA team from a fresh perspective.

"Our plan was to change the culture," Weisbrod says with a stern conviction that would make the most-seasoned trial lawyer proud.

"Regardless of the faces that came in, we had developed a pattern of softness and complacency and that obviously came to a boil last year."

"Our objective was not to bring in a single player that wasn't a sore loser. We wanted guys who would compete. Obviously people tease me because I come from a hockey background – the all-for-one, one-for – all mentality. I've been told you can't accomplish that type of culture in the NBA, but I don't believe that. The NBA has been in the business of prima donna development as a league and I wanted to get out of that."

Weisbrod believed that change had to start at the top. While it was widely believed that McGrady asked to be traded from Orlando, Weisbrod saw things a little differently.

"It would be fair to say it was a mutual decision," Weisbrod confessed. "I would be lying to say I was anxious to have Tracy back.

"Basketball is a team game and he had developed an attitude of the organization eating out of his hand. It was tough to imagine that, no matter what pieces we changed around him, that we were going to be able to change the culture of this team with him on the team."

Weisbrod claims that he believes McGrady might be the most physically-gifted player in the league; however, his work ethic, a lack of a competitive drive and his unwillingness to take personal responsibility for the team drove the hockey guy nuts.

"One of the things we had last year and one of the reason we lost so often was because people left the building feeling fine with themselves," Weisbrod said.

"Tracy would say, you know, 'I had my 35, what else did you want me to do?' The other guys would say 'Hey, I'm just a role player, this is Tracy's team.'

"So everyone's putting the head on the pillow at night and no one feels responsible. You're not going to break down many walls with that type of attitude."

Once Weisbrod decided it was time for Tracy to go, the rest was easy.

He quickly identified a group of players that had under-performed for whatever reason. He especially wanted players with an innate killer instinct. Once the ball was tipped, he wanted guys who would run through walls to win the basketball game.

Francis, Mobley and Cato were the core of that new group. He also traded away Drew Gooden for a more veteran, hard-nosed center in Tony Battie. He signed Hedo Turkoglu, a tough, albeit inconsistent, swingman from the Spurs.

And he drafted two polar opposites in the draft – high school phenom Dwight Howard and college player of the year Jameer Nelson.

Nelson was an obvious fit – a grizzled, hardcore warrior who played fiercely for four years at St. Joseph's.

Howard, the No. 1 pick in the draft, was more puzzling. Weisbrod seemed to be going against his own mantra when he selected the inexperienced prep over Emeka Okafor, a guy who embodies what Weisbrod claims he loves in a basketball player.

"My original thought was all things being equal you go for the most NBA-ready player," Weisbrod said.

"And when we scheduled the visits for both players, I'd be lying if I didn't say that Emeka was the guy on my mind. The day that Dwight came here, I went out to dinner with him and put him through my usual set of questions. I just became convinced that this kid was such a solid kid.

"You know you worry about taking such a young kid because of the money and the travel and the women and the lifestyle, it's very easy for these guys to get off track and never reach the levels that they should reach. But I became so convinced that based on the family he came from and his attitude that there was nothing that was going to take this kid off track."

"I think he's on a mission to become a great basketball player. He's been working so relentlessly everyday. When you see that kind of character and become convicted that this kid will reach his potential you start to ask yourself which guy will become the better player.

"I think Emeka is a solid character guy and a guy who could play in the league for a long time, a guy that any team would want. But I see Dwight Howard as a multiple All-Star type player. Your responsibility when you have the first pick in the draft is to find the best player. I think by taking Dwight, we did it right."

After a summer of second guessing, the fruits of Weisbrod's labors are starting to show up on the court. While it's going to take a while, once the NBA season starts for real, for chemistry to form, the early returns look promising.

Howard looks nothing like the skinny, raw 18-year-old we watched work out in Chicago before the draft.

He's grown nearly an inch and added 22 pounds of muscle in summer workouts. On the court, he's already worked himself into the starting line-up, recorded two double doubles and did a great job guarding Dirk Nowitzki during a pre-season game on Sunday.

Francis has looked fantastic in the preseason.

After averaging a career low in points, assists and shooting percentage under coach Jeff Van Gundy, he seems determined to prove to the world that the Magic, not the Rockets, got the best end of the McGrady trade. Most importantly, he seems to be buying into Weisbrod's all-for-one, one-for-all mentality.

"We're a bunch of guys who have been written off," Francis said.

"Grant, myself, Cuttino, Pat Garrity, Jameer, who should have been in the lottery. People are pretty much expecting us to be back where we were last year, in the lottery.

"We've got chips on our shoulders … We have a team full of underdogs and the last time I was on a team full of underdogs when I was on Maryland and we came through and had a great season. Hopefully we can do the same thing here."

Howard and Francis are the two potential stars on this team, but it looks like the Magic are going to get some unexpected help from the one guy that epitomized the bad luck of the Magic.

After four years of on-again, off-again comebacks, Grant Hill looks healthy and ready to contribute to the Magic cause. While Hill will never regain the brilliant game he once had, his maturity and versatility could be the factors that elevate the Magic from the worst team in the league into the playoffs this season.

"Everybody's worked hard," said Hill, alluding to many of the problems the Magic experienced last season.

"That's all you can ask. We're committed to competing. We want to be a team that's – irrespective of the shots that go in or not, going to play hard. Those are the hard teams to beat. That can sustain us as we grow and change."

That grit, combined with the most talent and depth the Magic have enjoyed this decade, could make Orlando the sleeper team in the East this year.

"I look at our personnel and our depth chart and compare them to the teams in our division and I think man …, " Weisbrod begins. "You feel pretty good looking at our conference and especially our division you think you should really be able to make some noise."

"My expectation is that we'll probably start a little slowly and get better as guys gel together. I think we have enough of a high character that we'll fight through it."

If the Magic do turn it around, the hockey guy label might stick, but it will be a moniker of respect, not derision, from his peers. Either way, Weisbrod claims he doesn't care.

"Ultimately we're in a bottom-line business. You either win or you lose. The media and fans can say you're a hero in the summer and if you lose, you're gone. They can say you're a horses' ass in the summer and if you win, they get on board.

"There's a scoreboard in every arena and there's standings in the paper everyday. It's very clear whether you're good or bad at what you do. That's the only test."

It's a test the Magic might be able to pass this year.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.