The Orlando Magic's lineup has changed substantially since last season, inviting questions about whether they can reach the Finals again—and win. Recent play has disproven skeptics, however.
Many basketball analysts lamented the offseason signing of Vince Carter, who some criticized as being too old and selfish to work properly in Stan Van Gundy's system of quick ball movement and outside shooting.
Add that to fans' and analysts' dissatisfaction with the trade of Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto, eliminating one of Orlando's key offensive pieces in last season's Finals run, and it becomes surprising that Orlando currently sits in the No. 2 position in the East (in fact, NBA Senior Writer for ESPN.com, Marc Stein, currently has the Magic as No. 1 in his Power Rankings).
For the majority of the season, the Lakers have stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league—apart from Cleveland—according to many analysts. Stein recently consulted a Western Conference advance scout—a position that demands studying up to four or five games a night, and then breaking them down in extreme detail. The scout, under the condition of anonymity, gave his impressions about the Lakers' chances:
“They're favorites, but I wouldn't say 'heavy' favorites. I see some holes in them. Kobe's not 100 percent. Their bench hasn't been great. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar are up-and-down. I don't think they're clear-cut better than everybody.”
This bodes very well for Orlando, who are hitting their strides as they reach the “quarter pole,” meaning about twenty games remain in the regular season. Apart from being declared the No. 1 team in terms of Power Rankings, they have also amassed some impressive—real—stats over the second half of the season.
The most impressive stat? They've gone 18-5.
The second most impressive? Who they've beaten during that stretch.
According to ABC26 News, “They've beaten the Boston Celtics (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers.” Those are the heavy-hitters of the league, but now, with the Magic's hot streak still ongoing, they must be inserted into that aforementioned mix.
After the Lakers' defeat, their legendary coach, Phil Jackson, gave his thoughts on Orlando, specifically how they compare to last season: "I think they're as good, maybe better, a little better than they were last year.”
Orlando's New Pieces
Part of that improvement can be attributed to Matt Barnes, who took on Kobe Bryant with a tenacity that limited the Finals MVP to a dismal 12-of-30 shooting performance. Van Gundy is quoted after the game, saying, “The thing with Matt is you know he’s going to battle, he’s going to get up and try.”
Vince Carter, although he performed poorly in January (shooting a measly 28 percent), has come back to form in recent months. George Diaz, writer for the Orlando Sentinel, claims, “Vince Carter resembled the dynamic playmaker the Magic traded for last June.”
About a month ago, he scored 48 against New Orleans. If he retains that form, he'll be a powerful component for Orlando.
Although the Magic lost a few ancillary pieces from last season (notably Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee), they have brought more support in the form of trades.
Brandon Bass came from Dallas to give some more support down low. In the initial few games, Bass was troubled by inadequate playing time, but his minutes have increased significantly, averaging nearly 14 the last five games.
Ryan Anderson, picked from the hopeless New Jersey Nets, is averaging about 15 minutes per game and racking up 7.7 points and 3.3 rebounds—about two more points and one more rebound than Bass (5.6 and 2.4, respectively).
While those stats don't jump off the page, Anderson and Bass are nevertheless valuable players. After a Magic-Warriors game on Mar. 3, Van Gundy said Bass was “A lot more active, I thought made some real hustle plays, got on the boards, that’s the element he can bring to us.”
Van Gundy went on to Anderson, saying, “We know what Ryan can bring, so I think we need to have them both ready heading into the playoffs because depending on what the matchups are, either one of them could be the guy in a playoff series.”
Orlando still has most of the players that made them such a force last year, such as All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson. He was hampered last season after enduring a severe shoulder and knee injuries. In June, he reappeared as a lesser version of himself.
He's fine this season, though, and he'll be vital in the playoffs, especially against a team like the Lakers, who have trouble defending the small, agile guards with the ability to score.
Stan Van Gundy is quoted by John Denton, an analyst at the Magic's official NBA site, saying "No way we win that [Lakers] game without the plays that (Nelson) was making...He was phenomenal. He’s the smallest guy out there and he gets nine rebounds. Unbelievable.”
Denton writes, “Nelson is showing once again why he was an NBA All-Star last season and seems to have regained that elite form this season following shoulder and knee surgeries.”
Dwight Howard has always been one of the most formidable, feared defensive presences in the league, and he received Defensive Player of the Year last year on his way to leading the Magic to the Finals.
This year, he has continued the trend. While his numbers are slightly below last season's, he's still a high priority for all opposing teams.
Unlike earlier in his career, Howard now has a rather adept post game, complete with baby-hooks and mid-range jumpers. Those two moves are still not as polished as he'd like, but they're far superior to his early form.
His huge presence also creates opportunity for other scorers, namely J.J. Redick, who is receiving greater playing time this season to make up for the departure of three-point specialist, Courtney Lee. Redick's points are up by about three and minutes by four.
Twelve-year veteran Rashard Lewis is his normal self, still putting up efficient threes and creating some difficult matchup problems. His proliferation of clutch threes during last year's playoffs (especially where he did a quick 180 in the corner and heaved a game-winner to beat Cleveland) should come in handy again. Maybe against the CavaLeBrons.
(If he resigns there, I think the ownership should change the team name to that. Yes, it's lame, but seriously, LeBron James is more important than the other 11 people on the team, combined. In the playoffs, James will inevitably end up playing one-on-five for entire halves of some games, bombing threes from the Cav's logo at center court. Okay, rant over.)
With all these pieces performing admirably and showing signs of improvement, there's a high probability the Orlando Magic will reach the Finals again. “Our team’s goal is to win a championship,” Nelson said.
Well, with this assembly of talent, that goal isn't so far-fetched.