If you didn't think the Orlando Magic were title contenders earlier this season, last week may have given you reason to pause. Three convincing road wins over top teams like the San Antonio Spurs (105-98), the Los Angeles Lakers (109-103) and the Denver Nuggets (106-88) along with a complete and total annihilation of the Sacramento Kings (139-107) in the middle of their road trip, have really changed my perception of this Magic team. As Bradford Doolittle noted in yesterday's Prospectus Hoops List, the Magic is 17-5 on the road and enters the second half playing better than any NBA team.
The Magic are nominally led by All-Everything Superman center (and alleged MVP candidate), Dwight Howard, who is now the most dominant big man in the NBA. Virtually unstoppable near the rim, Howard has added a short face-up jumper to his arsenal. His foul shooting is still mediocre, but championship-caliber teams can overcome that deficiency (see the Shaquille O'Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers of a few years ago). While Howard's statistics are not quite where they were last season, he has really asserted himself on the defensive end. He is averaging a block per game more than he did last year (3.2 to 2.1) and he is doing so in fewer minutes than he has played in any year since his rookie season.
While Howard's contributions have gotten the most attention, it is the play of a less heralded player, guard Jameer Nelson, that really makes Orlando go. In the last 16 games in which Nelson has appeared (a stretch during which Orlando has gone 14-2), Nelson is averaging 18.3 points, 5.5 assists (against just 1.6 turnovers) and 3.7 rebounds per game. During that period, he is shooting almost 52% from the floor, including a whopping 53.8% on threes. In the two losses during that period, Nelson was mediocre, averaging 12 points on just 34.8% shooting and 1.5 assists per game.
Nelson is the perfect point guard for a team constructed like Orlando is. He is fantastic off the pick-and-roll because of his ability to shoot and his quickness getting into the lane. With the shooters the Magic place on the perimeter, it is virtually impossible to provide help when Nelson comes off the ball screen. In addition, because he is such a knockdown perimeter shooter himself, his defender cannot go underneath the screen or he will give up a long ball. Nelson has turned into Tony Parker with a jump shot, and that is really hard to guard.
While Nelson is the engine that makes the Magic go, and Howard is the All-Star center that gives them one of the top players in the league, it is a pair of bookend multi-purpose forwards that really sets Orlando apart. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are shooting guards in 6'10", 220-pound bodies. Their ability to shoot (a combined 38.8% from three) pulls opposing forwards away from the lane, giving room to both Howard inside and to Nelson's penetration. Since they can both handle the ball, they often convert defensive rebounds into fast breaks and transition baskets. They are particularly good early in the shot clock, when defenses are busy protecting the basket area, and on inside-out play.
The remainder of Orlando's roster is a host of solid-to-fair role players. Mickael Pietrus, Courtney Lee, Keith Bogans and J.J. Redick all share wing duties, and each brings different skills to the table: Pietrus is the athletic slasher, Lee the defender, Bogans the physical guard and Redick the shooter. Marcin Gortat spells Howard when the big man needs a breather and is actually their second-best rebounder after Howard (by rebounding rate). The other two role players are Orlando's biggest areas of weakness when it comes to personnel: Tony Battie as reserve four man and Anthony Johnson at the backup lead guard spot.
This has been the least productive season of Battie's 11-year NBA career. He has a tough time seeing the floor for the Magic because either Turkoglu or Lewis can man that power forward position. However, the Magic could really use Battie as an enforcer type, a physically rugged four-man who can serve as an enforcer. He would need to hit the boards, and work hand-to-hand combat with (and use fouls on) the other top contenders' fours such as Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol. Battie needs a little more of the Heat's Udonis Haslem in him, or at least some Kurt Thomas (Spurs).
Anthony Johnson is another 11-year pro who is experiencing his least productive season in the last few years. Johnson is a serviceable backup who is unable to provide the kind of change-up that is needed when Nelson needs a rest. While he was never quite accepted during his two-and-a-half year stint in Orlando, the Magic could use Carlos Arroyo right now.
Given the Magic's success, noting these two personnel weaknesses is relative nitpicking unless injuries bring the limitations to the forefront. In fact, statistically, this team looks very, very strong, ranked sixth in the league on offense and third in the league on defense based on points per 100 possessions. Orlando is third in the league in point differential and fourth on the Hoops List. John Hollinger still has the Cleveland Cavaliers in his #1 position, but Delonte West's injury will affect them over the next few games.
The Magic's central flaw is the team's lack of rebounding. The Magic are 16th in the league in rebounding differential, snaring just .05 more rebounds per game than their opponents. This can become problematic against bigger, more physical teams that hit the glass hard--the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cleveland come to mind--and Orlando does not make up for their poor rebounding with a defense that forces a lot of turnovers. Instead, the Magic are solid defensively and tend to force opponents into less than stellar shooting. They also create fewer defensive rebounding opportunities for their opponents, because their team shooting percentage is strong (eighth in the league at 46.1%, and second in the league from three with 40.8%).
The Magic have yet to prove themselves against the elite in the Eastern Conference. They have played Boston once, losing that game back in early December, and they have not yet played Cleveland. The best position for anyone in the East to be is the #1 seed, as it means that team will avoid the other two of the big three until the conference finals. This is the seed that Orlando covets; putting the Cavs and the Celtics into a conference semifinal matchup is exactly what the Magic want, and would give them their best chance to reach the NBA Finals. Previous to the last week, I was not convinced the Magic could beat both the Celtics and the Cavaliers if they had to. I'm still not completely certain they will do so--but now at least I think they can.
Ultimately, this Magic team is hard to trust. They don't do the things we normally associate with championship-caliber teams: they are not loaded with stars, they don't rebound overwhelmingly and they are not physically intense. However, they can shoot, they do defend and they have a mix of personnel that gives them a chance to beat any team on any given night. Can they pull it all together and win a few seven-game series against the league's best? With each passing game, the Orlando Magic is making a believer out of me.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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