Were the Magic an illusion last season?
After seeing what many people think about this team after last season, illusion seems to fit. But that was the problem last year, too. Few believed they would accomplish what they did.
Some say the Orlando Magic are absolutely for real. But there is a strong core of doubters. Legit title contender or not? They were over matched against the Lakers for the title. Would a healthy Jameer Nelson have made a difference? With added role players this year, can they get there again?
Overachievers or disrepected? Van Gundy’s team last season certainly cast a spell on every opponent, save their last one, and made a number of new fans. Were the new fans hypnotized into imagining that a team was there…that wasn’t?
Stan Van Gundy, the "master of panic," according to a large center that now plays for Cleveland, had a team that didn’t panic throughout a strong playoff run.
After losing to L.A. four games to one, the Magic are suffering a bit of the same skepticism that the Cavaliers did the year they were ousted 4-0 by the Spurs. Is this really a potential title team? In keeping with my contenders theme…what are the team weaknesses?
Two competing theories…
1) They are absolutely legit. They just rose to unexpected heady heights and couldn’t quite finish against a team that was more determined. That was even with Rafer Alston—not Jameer Nelson—running the show. This year, they will be more prepared mentally to go all the way. They have a stronger overall roster this season.
2) They are pretenders to the throne. Paul Pierce tweeted that they were poodles in the Finals. The Celtics being without Leon Powe and Kevin Garnett are the only reason they made it that far. Vince Carter is not better for this team than Hedo Turkoglu.
Basketball-Reference rated them No. 1 with their defensive rating (101.9). That defensive rating was the team’s best since the '99-'00 season when some guy who supposedly doesn’t know anything about defense was the team's coach (Doc Rivers). It was the third-best in team history.
Comparatively, they finished sixth in points allowed (94.4), a big leap from the '99 points per game of the year before.
For a team that boasts the league’s best rebounder, they were only the ninth-best (+1.2) rebounding team in differential (how much they out rebounded their opponent). They moved up a bit to seventh-best on the critical defensive rebound list (+1.7).
Their inside-outside offense has been criticized by a few. Their lack of a strong, rebounding, classic power forward was noted.
Gone: Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie, and Tyronn Lue.
Added: Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, Linton Johnson, and Morris Almond.
They lost two of their starting five with "Mr. Versatile," Hedo Turkoglu, and a young, talented guard in Courtney Lee departing.
But they have strengthened their role players. This team should be a team to reckon with again. Others may wonder, but it looks to me like they got stronger.
Thirty-two-year-old, 6’6” Vince Carter is the key acquisition. They gave up the future for the present. He can create his own shot at any time, will draw double teams, and isn’t afraid to take the big fourth quarter shots.
He gives them a dangerous offensive player they didn’t have before, and I don’t even like VC. How they use him in the fourth quarter will help determine how much better this team got. He will get teammates open. Will he pass to them? Can they make big shots?
Brandon Bass (6'8") helps Howard with rebounding and around the hoop and gives the team a more physical dimension.
Ryan Anderson (6'10") is a sleeper throw in. He has talent and had some solid moments, though I have to see how they handle him here. I'm not sure where he gets his minutes with Lewis and Bass playing the same position. Anderson is more offensively inclined than defensively so, but is another defense stretcher with the long ball.
Matt Barnes (6'7") gets thrown into the mix with Mickael Pietrus for SF minutes. In addition to being a nice hustle player, the Magic have doubled the fouls to throw at Kobe, LeBron, and Paul Pierce. Little known fact about Barnes: He led the Suns in technical fouls last season with 10.
Jason Williams, at 6'1" (34 years old in November and retired for a year) is a question mark at this point, while 35-year-old Anthony Johnson is the backup for Jameer Nelson. Backup point guard is a concern for the Magic if Nelson goes down.
Otherwise, this team has solid depth at every other position. Even Marcin Gortat can do well for a short period if Howard goes out.
It's funny to say this, but Dwight Howard’s weaknesses got exposed in the playoffs. His lack of a go-to move and fairly raw offensive game hurt the team and his growth.
Push him a few feet out and he is rendered rather ineffective. Whatever Clifford Ray did for him hasn’t progressed as much since Ray left for "greener" pastures.
Howard is a force of nature on defense, but he is more athleticism than smarts. Defensively, certain teams like the Lakers (and Celtics) have figured out to neutralize him just enough to minimize his fantastic natural ability.
Carter will replace Hedo’s shot making, but what about ball movement, defense, and chemistry? Will Van Gundy get a "Vinsanity" that has bought in to his system?
Can a team have too many good-but-not-great players? Will everyone be kept happy with their minutes?
While Jameer Nelson finally looked like the leader he had been saying he was, his injury kept him out too long. We still don’t know how he will respond to leading his team in the playoffs (though he did come back to attempt to play in the Finals).
Though Dwight Howard will only be 24 in December and Jameer Nelson is only 27, they went for VC and experience to go all in now after coming so close last season.
Other teams' power forwards will still hate to guard Rashard Lewis at the three-point line, and they have other long ballers. Carter can penetrate or drill it long. As Ray Allen did, he will have to learn to dribble less and make quicker decisions with the ball.
They still have a bevy of shooters. Pietrus proved to be remarkably clutch as well as a good defender, and Howard is starting to hit free throws. If Nelson and Lewis can become cold blooded shot makers in the fourth quarter and Vince Carter will pass to them, this team is right there.
My feeling is that they are not quite there, but…
If Van Gundy can get the additions to fit in a smart way, the difference will be measured in inches, not feet. We will certainly see how much or little Turkoglu is missed.