Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Orlando Magic

Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Last Season: 59-23, Lost in NBA Finals
Key Additions: Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson (Trade, New Jersey Nets), Brandon Bass (Free Agent, Dallas), Matt Barnes (FA, Phoenix), Jason Williams (FA)
Key Losses: Hedo Turkoglu (Free Agent, sign-and-trade to Toronto), Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie (Trade, Nets)

Offseason: I already covered the Magic’s offseason extensively over here, but to sum it up, this is a team coming off a surprising Finals defeat, looking to take it to the next level. They started off by smartly declining overpaying an aging, overrated Hedo Turkoglu. This isn’t to slight Hedo, who is a very good player, but the Magic were on national TV so much, that people were focusing on what he can do (pass, handle the ball, score in the clutch) on not on the fact that he isn’t a good defender, at that at age 30, he is what he is, and not for a very long time. Instead, the Magic swung a great deal with the Nets, bringing in a better player, defender, scorer in Vince Carter. Obviously, Vince is also no kid either (33 in January), but he is still an all-star caliber player (undeservedly excluded from last year’s squad due to Devin Harris’ emergence, and the coaches’ tendency not to award bad teams with two all-stars), and his contract (16 million this season, 17 million next) is much more manageable than the 5 years, 50 million Hedo got from Toronto. Specifically, Vince is a better shot creator than Hedo, a much better defender, and as good a passer, despite the rep Hedo has gained from last season’s playoffs. With first team NBA center Dwight Howard, together with Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson, the Magic can now trot up a lineup consisting almost only of all-stars. Not many teams can say that.

The incredible thing about the Carter deal was how little the Magic had to give up. Losing Courtney Lee hurts, after he gave the Magic quality minutes as a rookie, showing that he is fully capable of taking big shots and guarding top perimeter players in the playoffs. However, with the Magic in win-now mode, giving Lee up for all-star talent is more than a solid bargain. Tony Battie and Rafer Alston were included in the trade because of their expiring contracts – Battie won’t be much of a loss, giving only scarce minutes behind Dwight Howard, and Alston is expandable with Jameer Nelson returning from shoulder injury. And if that trade wasn’t great enough for Orlando, they also got Ryan Anderson from the Nets – a hustling, rebounding, 3 point shooting power forward that fits this team like a glove. Anderson showed a lot of potential with the Nets during his rookie campaign, and at the tender age of 21, was a huge long term pickup.

The Magic also struck gold with free agency. Matt Barnes is another player of the Rashard Lewis mold, that tall, athletic small forward that can play at the 4 and knock down shots. In addition, Barnes is a great defender, fitting in well with the Magic, who led the league in defensive efficiency last season. Brandon Bass is another underrated signing – he enables the Magic to play a more traditional line up with him at the 4, providing great defense, hustle, and a very underrated mid-range jumper. Resigning Marcin Gortat, coming off a breakthrough campaign, was probably done mainly to keep him as an asset for a future trade, since he costs a lot of money for a backup center (5 years, 34 million), but as long as he’s on the team, he’ll be one of the best backup centers in the league. Jason Williams was brought on to replace Alston as a backup point guard, though he might compete with Anthony Johnson for the job. All in all, a fantastic offseason – the Magic now go two deep at every position, have assembled plenty of talent that fits with their style of play, can go both small and big, and have the reigning Defensive Player Of The Year. Way to build on a successful playoff.

- Vince Carter: Vince has superstar ability, but throughout his career, has never really showed willingness to carry a team. Then again, he was never on a truly great team. Most of his teams were second round material at best, and they rarely underachieved. So which Vince is Orlando getting? The one who jacks up bad shots, disrupts his team, then fakes injury when things go south? Or the durable Vince from the past few seasons? Vinsanity, or Half Man, Half Ice Pack? If Vince fits in with this team, offensively and defensively, then watch out. If not, Dwight may get very jealous of Toronto’s Turkish community.

- Dwight Howards’s offense: Dwight took it up a notch defensively last season, upgrading from a top-notch rebounder and shot blocker, into a dominant, all around defender. However, he doesn’t really have a lot of offensive moves. Most of his points come of putbacks, offensive rebounds, dunks, and poorly shot free throws. If he can find a way to consistently score in the post and knock down free throws, Orlando’s offense will have so many weapons that it will be impossible to contain, and Dwight might get himself an MVP or two.

- Jameer Nelson’s shoulder: After years of solid, yet unspectacular play, Jameer Nelson finally fulfilled his potential, blowing up for almost 17 points on 50% shooting, 5.4 assists, and an all-star spot. However, in early February, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder, effectively ending his season. Jameer shockingly returned for the Finals, way ahead of schedule, but was clearly not fully healthy, and was ineffective. After trading Alston, who was brought at the last trading deadline as Nelson’s replacement, the Magic will have a huge hole at point guard if Jameer is not at full strength. And with the other title contenders stacking up as well during the offseason, the Magic just can’t afford that.

- Clutch: Last season Hedo was the Magic’s clutch player, whether he took the big shots, or created them for others. Now he’s north of the border, and that clutch player role is empty. Jameer Nelson filled it for the Magic in the past, but he is returning from injury. Vince and Rashard haven’t exactly failed in the clutch in their career, but haven’t given reasons to trust them in those situations either. And Dwight, as mentioned, still isn’t a trustworthy option when points are needed. In the playoffs, when games are tight, the Magic will need someone to step up, or they will lose – they have the whole regular season to find out who that person will be, but it has to happen.

Prediction: The Magic had a wonderful offseason, and the clearly improved their squad. They might start the season slowly, taking time to adjust to the new roster, and because of Rashard Lewis’ 10 game suspension after failing a drug test. Still, the Magic are a clear-cut top 3 in the East, and top 5 in the league. With the other contenders making significant offseason moves themselves, it will be tough to know which one is better until they actually meet in may, but in my eyes, what the Magic have now puts them at 59-23, 2nd in East, and a shade under Cleveland as far as their chances for a repeat Finals appearance.

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