Ryan Anderson played his last game with the Magic seven months ago. When he returns to Orlando on Wednesday, it might seem more like seven years ago.
Management has changed. The coaching staff is completely different. Only two Magic players are expected to get minutes who had been teammates with Anderson last May.
“It’s going to be different, obviously,’’ said Anderson, a forward who was traded to New Orleans last July, said of his first visit back with the Hornets. “It’s a completely different team and staff. But going back to that arena will be exciting. I was part of the team that started off that arena, with the fans and the great atmosphere.’’
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When the sparkling Amway Center opened in the fall of 2010, it was supposed to be the House that Dwight Built. But we all know what happened with that.
After playing two years in the new place, center Dwight Howard, who had asked to be traded, was shipped to the Lakers last August, leaving the Magic to start over. But that process already was under way a month earlier when Orlando parted with Anderson.
Anderson had just won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, and it would seem what teams would want are improving players. But the Magic, knowing rebuilding would begin whenever Howard was out the door, didn’t want to pay Anderson what he could command as a restricted free agent.
With Anderson ready to sign a four-year, $34 million offer sheet with New Orleans, which the Magic would have had five days to match, a trade was arranged for Orlando to send Anderson to the Hornets for center Gustavo Ayon, who is making only $1.5 million this season.
The deal was done July 11, when the Magic didn’t have a coach after having fired Stan Van Gundy on May 21. General manager Rob Hennigan was in his third week; Otis Smith having been let go from that job the same day as Van Gundy.
“Obviously, they were going to go in a different direction that I wasn’t really too much aware of then,’’ said Anderson, 24. “I found out afterward what their plan is. They want to build their nucleus with young talent.’’
Anderson had wanted at the end of last season to re-sign with Orlando and would have loved to have continued to team with Howard. But Anderson didn’t hear much from the Magic when free agency started, and his agent, Jeff Austin, went looking for an offer sheet. An impressive one came from the Hornets.
“[The Magic] were waiting to see what they were going to do with Dwight and a few other pieces. And for me it was a situation that was just so different because, obviously, I didn’t have a relationship with Rob Hennigan,’’ said Anderson, who was coming off a season in which he had averaged 16.1 points while shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range. “They didn’t even have a coaching staff at that point. For me, I was just kind of in the wind. I was playing it by ear and whatever happens, happens.
“I’m incredibly blessed to be [with the Hornets] and to have the deal that I got, and I’m very happy. But as for Orlando, I didn’t hear much from the Orlando side (during free agency) because it was just so many new people. I’m sure it would have been different as far as communication-wise if Otis and Stan were still around.’’
Hennigan did not return a message. According to a Magic publicist, he was unavailable for comment.
Once Anderson was gone, other Orlando players followed. Howard was shipped out in a four-team deal that included Jason Richardson, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon. Quentin Richardson was waived at the end of training camp.
“[Howard] was in a situation where he wanted to go somewhere else, so it was kind of like, ‘Let’s figure out and plan and a strategy for with him not being around,’ ” Anderson said of the Magic’s mindset last summer. “And Orlando kind of focused in on getting a lot of new players and new talent and not spending a ton of money.’’
There was plenty of talk Howard might be sent to the Brooklyn, where he apparently had wanted to go. But Anderson’s belief was Howard always wanted to end up with the Lakers.
“From Dwight’s perspective, it didn’t seem like he wanted that to happen too much,’’ Anderson said of Howard joining the Nets. “From my understanding, that’s what it seemed like from everybody’s perspective (that Howard wanted to to the Lakers).’’
When all had finally settled, only five players remain with the Magic from last season’s 37-29 team. Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis are injured, leaving Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick as Anderson’s only former teammates likely to play Wednesday. While holdover Ish Smith is expected to be active, he hasn’t played in the past four games and 10 of the past 12.
Anderson isn’t sure what kind of reception he’ll get. But Redick has no doubt.
“He’ll be received well,’’ Redick said. “He had three good years here. Last year, he endeared himself to a lot of fans and he had a great year. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t get a nice reception.’’
Anderson was acquired from the Nets as a throw-in when the Magic agreed to take Vince Carter and his big salary in the summer of 2009. After having averaged 7.4 points as a Nets rookie in 2008-09, Anderson ended up becoming a more desirable player than Carter, who was dealt to Phoenix in December 2010.
After seasons with the Magic of averaging 7.7 and 10.6 points, the 6-foot-10 Anderson really broke through last year. Known as a stretch four due to his outside shooting, he led the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted.
“He’ll be a little emotional,’’ Nelson predicted about Anderson’s return. “Not to where he’s crying or anything like that. But this is a place where he grew and developed, and I do believe in his heart he wanted to be here. But that wasn’t in the plan.’’
Anderson said he “kind of had the mentality at the end of’’ last season he would return to Orlando but then figured “something else was going to happen’’ once Smith and Van Gundy were let go. That something else is Anderson joining a team that actually is much younger than the retooling Magic.
Anderson leads the Hornets in scoring with a 17.8 per-game average, ahead of No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis, who is averaging 14.6 while having missed 13 games because of injury. Another heralded New Orleans rookie, guard Austin Rivers, believes Anderson is playing well enough to be an All-Star.
That will be tough considering the Hornets are a meager 5-22 and have lost 11 straight games. But the future looks to be encouraging, and coach Monty Williams said it will help having Anderson provide direction.
“He has been a godsend,’’ Williams said of Anderson, who is averaging 6.9 rebounds and has raised his 3-point shooting percentage to 40.4 even though he doesn’t have the dominant Howard on his side for defenses to worry about. “He is a rock-solid individual. He can rebound better than he gets credit for. He can do more than just shoot the ball. He has been an anchor for us and to be so young.’’
Meanwhile, the Magic haven’t gotten much from Ayon, who averaged 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds and showed promise last season as a New Orleans rookie. Ayon, 27, is averaging just 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds, but at least Orlando was able to get something for Anderson rather than him bolting to New Orleans for nothing.
Anderson will show up in Orlando having had an up-and-down past few weeks. He averaged 24.7 points in three straight games before averaging only 8.3 in his past three.
But Anderson might find the rims to his liking at the Amway Center. After all, he enjoyed plenty about Orlando.
“I had three great years there,’’ Anderson said. “I had some great relationships with (his) church and I was very connected there. I have no idea what to imagine (at the game), but it’s going to be good to see some faces I haven’t seen in a while.’’
Anderson also will see a lot of faces on the Magic he might barely recognize.