At present, there appear to be two clear cut contenders in the Eastern Conference: The Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat.
After their 9-8 start to the season, the Miami Heat have pulled it together and become one of the league's best teams, posting a 23-3 record ever since. Despite the team's current two game slide, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have played exceptional basketball of late, although James' slight ankle sprain, sufered in the loss to the Clippers, offers one area of concern for the duo.
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics, per their routine over the past few years, began the season on fire (23-4 prior to Christmas) and falling off following the holidays (6-5 since). But while the Celtics are looking every bit the aging, gassed team many expected they would morph into as the season progressed, they are still the most formidable adversary and the biggest threat to Miami's title hopes.
Having just crossed the halfway point of the season, these two teams are shaping up as the favorites to advance to the conference finals in May. But certainly teams like the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks have the potential to provide each of these teams with a serious obstacle in their road to the NBA Finals.
However, one team that is being talked about lately because of their recent play is the Orlando Magic.
Owners of an 9-4 record following the trades that swapped Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat for Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu, many pundits and NBA analysts have begun to argue that they will be the team to possibly defeat the Heat and Celtics and make it to their second finals in the last three years.
"Watch out for Orlando," says one Miami fan. "They look more scary right now than the Celtics."
That sentiment would be hard to deny since the Celtics are once again in the midst of their customary post-New Year's slump.
But the Magic, though admittedly looking impressive in wins against the San Antonio Spurs and the New York Knicks, have hardly convinced me that they are serious contenders at this point. And it's not just because of the team's current lack of a back-up center. Even if the Magic had retained the services of Gortat I would still find them less of a threat to the Heat than the Celtics.
Here are five reasons:
1. The Magic lack an established clutch performer- It's one thing when a team's offense is being executed with an almost surgeon-like precision and they are winning games by running up the score on their opponents in the regular season. It's another thing altogether when they are faced with a 4 point deficit in the waning minutes of a must win playoff game and must look to their star to make a game changing play. Dwight Howard, because of his struggles at the free throw line (57 percent on the season), cannot be the Magic's go-to guy in the clutch. Gilbert Arenas is shooting 37 percent from the field for the season and his relative newness to the Magic's system makes him an unlikely candidate for the role of go-to guy. Hedo Turkoglu has had some impressive game winning plays, but does anyone really think he can take over an important playoff game when it matters? For all the talk of the importance of having a solid center to win a title when assessing the Miami Heat (which I feel is untrue because the Bulls won six titles without an elite center), one thing that all championship teams have is a go-to guy. I have never seen an exception to this rule. From the 2004 Pistons (Chauncey Billups) to the 3-Peat Bulls (Michael Jordan) to the Celtics teams of the 1980s (Larry Bird), you can't win a title without a go-to guy. When the defenses begin to dig in and both teams are laying more bricks than a construction site, you have to have a guy that can say: "Give me the ball and let me take over the game." The Lakers have Kobe Bryant. The Celtics have Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Heat have Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Where is the clutch performer for the Magic?
2. The Magic Are thriving in the open court, but in the playoffs that will be more difficult Since the trades the Magic have become one of the most effective fast-break teams in the NBA which has been one of the keys to their dramatic turnaround. Before the trades, they were among the bottom teams in the league in fast break points averaging about 7.6 per game. However, since the trades they have been averaging 16.5 fast break points per contest, which is a startling number. It's also not too surprising. Teams that are undersized at several positions generally elect to speed their offense in order to compensate and the Magic are doing that quite well. But can it last? Will playing this style allow this team to get past the Heat and Celtics? I would think not. Ask the Phoenix Suns (Richardson's former team) how effective this fast-paced style was for his former team in the post-season. He would tell what all fast-breaking teams find out: The games slow down in the post-season and teams must be able to win with their half-court offense. The Celtics have the ability to play at multiple tempos. If Rajon Rondo leads a fast break he can get easy dunks for Kevin Garnett or open 3-point shots for Pierce. But if the game slows down, the Celtics have such exceptional ball movement on offense they can still make plays. Although the Magic won their last meetings against the Celtics and Mavericks, the Magic struggled in the early going of both when they needed to set-up in the half-court and trailed both games by double-figures when it was a slower paced game. Many teams felt that Miami Heat were only strong in the open court and that if Wade and LeBron were limited to scoring in half-court sets they could be beaten. But the Heat have not been scoring as much in the fast break in recent games compared to earlier in the season, but because their half-court offense has improved, they have managed to continue winning.
3. The Magic lack premier wing defenders-When I expressed doubt about the Orlando Magic's clutch abilities I mentioned that no team has ever won a title without a elite 4th quarter performer. The same can be said for wing defenders. Without elite defender to slow down the opposing team's biggest offensive threat, the Magic will have a tremendous disadvantage against the Wade's, LeBron's, Pierce's and Allen's of the world. This article, written before the trades, tell the story and ironically it mentions how Mickael Pietrus was the Magic's defender that could check guys like LeBron and Pierce and was a better defender than the more offensive minded J.J. Redick. Without a defensive-minded wing like a Bruce Bowen or Ron Artest, the Magic will not have a player that can check Wade or Allen if they start getting how from the perimeter in an important playoff game. The Heat and Celtics have the benefit of calling up some of the better defenders in the league to play defense in big games. The Celtics have excellent defensive players like Marquis Daniels and Kevin Garnett, while the Heat have LeBron, Wade and Udonis Haslem who will reportedly be back in time for the playoffs. Outside of Dwight Howard, there aren't many accomplished one-on-one defenders on the Magic, which would be a detriment to them in a series against the Heat or Celtics.
4. The Magic lack multiple All-Star caliber players-Traditionally, championship teams have one-two punches. This is vital in the playoffs because as we've seen over the last two years from the Cleveland Cavaliers prior to LeBron James' "decision," a team can have a great one punch, but without a primary second option on offense, great defenses will prepare to stop that one player and usually succeed. It was Charles Barkley that said, "I would never let a one man team beat me." The reason that teams like the Lakers and Celtics are so tough is that they have multiple great players to choose from, so if defenses focus on stopping one, the other can take up the slack. Think about every championship team you have seen and they adhere to this rule every time. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers. The Jordan-Pippen Bulls. The Johnson-Kareem Lakers. For a team to win a tile, they must have two all-star caliber players leading the way. If Paul Pierce is the focus of a defensive scheme, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett can compensate offensively, if LeBron James draws too much defensive attention, not to worry, Wade and Chris Bosh can step up and get going offensively to keep defenses honest. Outside Dwight Howard, where is the second primary option on the Magic? Jameer Nelson? He's a streaky shooter who's only averaging 13.7 ppg. Brandon Bass is a role player, not an All-Star. Quentin Richardson? He's a 6 ppg scorer who's only shooting 31 percent.
5. They do not match-up well against the Celtics or the Heat The Magic's spirited comeback victory against the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day (with the Celtics playing without Rajon Rondo yet still leading until the Magic's game ending rally) gave the false impression that the Magic matched up better against the Celtics than they really do. Playing a fast-breaking style offensively can make teams appear evenly matched. But on closer analysis when you really look at the match-ups in a series, the Magic have no clear cut advantages against either the Heat or Celtics outside of center, and even that's overstated. LeBron-Hedo/Wade-Richardson/Bass-Bosh are all match-ups that the Magic will, in all likelihood, lose to the Heat. Sure they can hang their hat on a dominant performance by Howard in every game. But both the Heat and Celtics have enough bigs to defend him tough without concern over foul trouble. Dwight Howard, on the other hand, must be very concerned about foul trouble during his matchup with either of these teams and that could be a problem since Wade and LeBron have been known to attack the basket every now and then. As for the Celtics, Garnett versus Bass, Allen vs. Richardson, Pierce vs. Turkoglu don't look any more favorable as the savvy Celtics will have a field day against the Magic's undersized front-court.
Perhaps over the next few weeks my opinion of the Magic will change. But for now, I still see them only the third best team in the East, which will not allow them to advance to the finals this season barring serious injury to the Celtics or Heat.