NBA Finals Preview: Should the Magic Play Jameer Nelson?

Adam RossenContributor IJune 3, 2009

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 16:  Jameer Nelson #14 of the Orlando Magic makes a move to the basket against Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers during their NBA game on January 16, 2009 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Magic won 109-103.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On the eve of the 2009 NBA Finals, Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson is working his way back into the lineup for the first time since tearing the labrum in his right shoulder in February.

This has sparked a great debate—whether he would be doing more harm than good by returning to the Magic for the NBA Finals.

Nelson, a fifth year player out of St. Joseph’s, was finally hitting his stride this season and playing at an all-star level before he was injured. During the regular season, the Magic were 36-11 with Nelson in the lineup and only 23-12 without him.

Conventional wisdom might be against playing Nelson given the fact that the Magic have made the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995.

They appear to be peaking at just the right time, having beaten the defending champion Boston Celtics in a hard fought series, and handily defeating the Cleveland Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Magic are the most complete team in the NBA since the San Antonio Spurs of the early 2000’s, with their blend of outside shooting, dominant low post presence, a lock-down defender, and good supporting cast.

Magic general manager Otis Smith wisely traded for point guard Rafer Alston after Nelson’s injury and it has paid dividends. Although Alston is not the all-star caliber point guard that Nelson is, he has played well, and filled a supporting role while Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis have taken over the scoring load.   

So the question remains—why change the lineup that got the Magic to the Finals? After struggling for two months adjusting to life without Nelson, and the Magic are finally peaking, the question remains whether Nelson should be started or not.

If Nelson is truly healthy and close to 100 percent, then the Magic must play him. The Magic were 2-0 against the Lakers during the regular season with Nelson as the leading scorer in both games.

He is clearly the best point guard in the series, and the Lakers have no answer for his blend of quickness, athleticism, and long range shooting. The savvy veteran Derek Fischer is no match for Nelson, and his lack of athleticism has been exploited this season by the NBA’s quickest point guards.   

Some will argue that playing Nelson will detract from the team chemistry that the Magic have built up with Rafer Alston at the point. I disagree for a few main reasons.

First, the Magic are the clear underdogs and have virtually no NBA Finals experience. The Magic need their best players on the court. Nobody expected them to make it this far, so they have nothing to lose.

The Lakers are the veteran team after having lost in the Finals last year to the Celtics. Under the guidance of the zen-master, they have been preparing for this moment for over 12 months.

Secondly, the Magic could use the depth provided by having both Alston and Nelson at the point. They will rarely play on the court together, so chemistry should not be an issue. Nelson will provide critical depth to counter the Lakers’ three-point guards in Fischer, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown.

The next issue to be decided is to determine the proper role for Jameer Nelson in the Finals. I believe Nelson should come off the bench for game one. Doing so will allow him some time to re-adjust to the speed of the game without having the pressure of playing against the Lakers' starting unit.   

He will spark the Magic’s reserves against the deeper bench of the Lakers. Even at only 80 percent, he is a far superior player than journeyman Anthony Johnson. I don’t think it matters if Nelson starts or not, as long as he plays.

If he plays well during the game, then he will be in there at crunch time in the fourth quarter. If he doesn’t play well, then Coach Stan Van Gundy will go with Rafer Alston during the fourth quarter.

Despite having the most complete team in the NBA, the Orlando Magic are the decided underdogs.

They have nothing to lose by giving Jameer Nelson a chance to play. It could be the key to giving the Orlando Magic their first ever NBA Championship.



Adam Rossen is the Head Basketball Coach of the Broward Big Cats 17U travel basketball team []; Assistant Varsity Basketball Coach for Coconut Creek High School in Coconut Creek, FL; and a partner in the Law Firm of BarnerRossen P.A. [] handling all Criminal, DUI and Immigration Law cases.