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January 10, 2011
Trend Watch
Magic Sizzles, Cousins Surges, West Wins

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending team: Orlando Magic improved at both ends since trades

Magic president of basketball operations Otis Smith remade his team's roster with a pair of trades last month, adding Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu. Surely, Smith's goals for the deals related to May and June, not January, but so far they have served to invigorate Orlando--which won its ninth consecutive game on Saturday in Dallas. Over 11 games since the three key newcomers took the floor, the Magic's schedule-adjusted point differential of +9.9 points per game is better than any team has managed over the full season.

A look at Orlando's statistics before and after the trade shows the team making gains on both offense and defense, led primarily by the most important of the Four Factors: shooting, as measured by the team's effective field-goal percentage.

         Adj. Diff.   ORtg   eFG%    DRtg   OeFG%
Before      2.9      109.2   .519   103.5    .481
After       9.9      112.8   .547   101.9    .475

If the Magic's performance since the trade was maintained all season, it would put Orlando first in the league in effective field-goal percentage. The Magic has shot the lights out since the trades, averaging 11.0 three-pointers per game, up from an average of 8.3 early in the season. Last year's Orlando team set the NBA record by making 10.1 threes a game. This year's group might feature even more shooters around center Dwight Howard. As explained by Orlando Pinstriped Post, the trades have also given the team admirable balance on the offensive end.

The defensive uptick might be the more surprising aspect of the Magic's success given that Stan Van Gundy has had to integrate Arenas and Richardson into his defensive system on the fly. (Turkoglu faced no such adjustment since he played for Van Gundy as recently as two years ago.) Orlando has also improved defensively without a legitimate backup center, another testament to Van Gundy's defensive prowess.

Trending player: DeMarcus Cousins, F/C, Sacramento Kings

During his rookie season, Cousins has flashed the potential that made him a favorite of statistical analysts based on his performance at the University of Kentucky as well as the immaturity that made teams wary of drafting him. Starting with a 21-point, 16-rebound effort against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 28, Cousins appears to be turning the corner. In his last six games, Cousins has averaged 21.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

The biggest key for Cousins has been his ability to stay on the floor. After topping the 30-minute mark just four times in his first 28 games, Cousins has been above 30 three times in the last six--not counting the 29:56 he played in Thursday's win over the Denver Nuggets. Though he has yet to overcome it, Cousins has been able to limit the impact of the foul trouble that has plagued him throughout the season (he's the only player in the league averaging more than four fouls per game) and has played well enough to convince Paul Westphal to trust him out there for extended stretches.

Beyond the minutes, the biggest change in Cousins' game has been the improvement in his accuracy from the field. Inexplicably, the 6-foot-11 post had been making just 41.3 percent of his two-point attempts. The problem, as pointed out by a href="http://hoopdata.com/player.aspx?name=DeMarcus%20Cousins" target="new">Hoopdata.com's shot-location numbers, has been Cousins' tendency to shoot too often from long range. His shot selection has improved only slightly, but Cousins has made shots from 16 to 23 feet at a respectable 47.1 percent clip lately, justifying taking them. That number figures to fall, as Cousins has hit just 35.0 percent of such shots over the course of the season.

Some of Cousins' other gains are more likely to be sustained. He is turning the ball over less frequently while also displaying an ability to create plays from the high post as a passer. Cousins has also increased his usage rate from 26.2 percent of the Kings' possessions to 28.6 percent. That Cousins has the talent to play like this has never been in question. What he will have to prove, instead, is that he can manage to sustain it over the remainder of the season.

League trend: West continues to dominate East

Most of last summer's big moves were made by teams from the Eastern Conference. Of the 11 free agents who signed new contracts averaging $10 million or more, eight of them landed in the East--including, of course, the Miami Heat's trio of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. While the Heat has lived up to the advance billing since the end of November, the moves have not translated into greater parity between the conferences. In fact, the West's dominance in inter-conference matchups (a .553 winning percentage, 113-91 record) has in fact grown from last season (246-204, .547), keeping with the history of Western superiority that dates back to the 1999-00 season.

Season      W      L     Win%
-----------------------------
1999-00    227    193    .540
2000-01    259    161    .617
2001-02    232    188    .552
2002-03    250    170    .595
2003-04    266    154    .633
2004-05    256    194    .569
2005-06    252    198    .560
2006-07    257    193    .571
2007-08    258    192    .573
2008-09    219    231    .487
2009-10    246    204    .547
2010-11    113     91    .553

The East briefly managed to claim the upper hand in the battle between the conferences in 2008-09, but just as quickly the series edge went back to the West a year ago. So why did last summer fail to change things? First, East teams were frequently taking from each other in free agency. When James and Bosh went to Miami, they weakened their former teams in Cleveland and Toronto.

Just two big-name free agents went from West to East: Carlos Boozer and Amar'e Stoudemire. While Friday's blowout win by the Knicks in the Valley of the Sun showed how much Stoudemire's move affected both teams, the Utah Jazz is a good example of how the West's top teams quietly held their own or even improved without making a big splash. The Jazz was able to move Paul Millsap into the starting lineup to replace much of Boozer's production, while also adding Al Jefferson to the mix. The Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs merely brought in role players during the offseason, but newcomers like Tyson Chandler and Gary Neal have helped vault Dallas and San Antonio back among the league's elite teams.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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