After tonight’s win on the road against the Miami Heat (an impressive feat), Orlando fans will be quick to name their team as a major contender for the NBA title in 2011. They wouldn’t be wrong to have at least a glimmer of hope—Orlando has built on their 2009 NBA Finals squad with a few crafty trades and on paper, appear to have a shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2011. However, several issues stand in the way of Orlando being recognized as a legitimate playoff threat.
Arenas, at 29 is supposed to be at the prime of his career. Instead, since his trade to the Orlando Magic, he is posting career lows in Points, Three Point %, and Free Throw %. His numbers look even worse when you take away his 2007-2008 season with the Wizards, in which he only played two games.
However, having only registered 21.4 minutes per game in a deep guard rotation with the Magic, he hasn’t been given the same opportunity to succeed as he was in diluted Washington. Although Orlando’s backup point guard isn’t vital to their success, remember that they shipped off Rashard Lewis to the Wizards in order to acquire him. Orlando’s front office obviously had high hopes that exchanging Lewis for Arenas would turn their team into legitimate contenders, and thus far, this hasn’t been the case.
In his first few games with the Orlando Magic, Hedo Turkoglu provided energy for his old team, propelling them to a nine-game win streak after two losses to Atlanta and Dallas. Within that streak, Turkoglu had two games with four three-pointers made (Christmas vs Boston and December 27th vs New Jersey). Since then, he’s only had one game with four threes (February 23rd vs Sacramento).
Turkoglu’s game is all about energy. When he exercises such energy, we see performances from him like we remember from the 2009 Playoffs (When Orlando went all the way to the NBA finals). We also remember his lackluster season in Toronto, where personal issues (mostly effort-based) destroyed his on-court performance and earned him a few benchings. Since coming back to Orlando, he began to look like the Hedo of old. The only way Orlando stays competitive is if Turkoglu picks up the pace and becomes aggressive with the basketball again.
At 69.6%, Orlando is currently the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA. In a playoff environment, where close games and overtimes are commonplace, it becomes imperative that contenders convert as many points as possible from the stripe.
If Orlando can’t convert close games, it could be the difference between an early exit and a deep playoff run.
Offensive struggles are commonplace for teams whose best players are primarily defensively focused. Dwight Howard, the defensive powerhouse of Orlando, has had troubles throughout his career in developing a legitimate offensive arsenal. Although he has seen improvement this season, based largely on off-season work with Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon (often considered one of the best low-post players of all time), Howard still has a ways to go if he is ever to be considered a dangerous first option in a contender offense.
With the East becoming deeper, and Orlando falling to the fourth seed as of this point in the season, (barring a miracle) the Magic will match up against a winning team in the first round of the playoffs. Orlando, however, is only 15-16 against teams over .500. Compare that to Boston’s 19-9 and Chicago’s 16-10, and you realize that Orlando lacks the firepower to run with stronger teams in this league.
Orlando can’t make it to the NBA finals losing more than half of their games against their matchups. At the level they’re currently playing at, a more determined team could easily knock the Magic off early in the playoffs.
When Orlando made their deep playoff run, the East was in shambles. Boston, the defending champions, had nearly thrown away their playoff hopes in the first round, in a series against the Chicago Bulls that will live forever in NBA TV reruns. The Cavaliers, led by LeBron James (Remember those times?) were busy building a reputation for choking in the playoffs. This left an open window for a young, talented Orlando team to take their game to the NBA Finals (and get thwomped 4-1 by the Lakers, which said a lot about the East that season).
This season, new powerful teams have emerged in the East. Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls, with the addition of Carlos Boozer, have finally cemented their place as a legitimate playoff threat. The Miami Heat currently hold the top seed in the East. (Meanwhile, Cleveland is out of the picture.) The Celtics, after a regular season of futility in 09-10, have returned to old form, and seem poised to take the Eastern Conference Championship once again in 2011. The true effectiveness of New York’s “1, 1a Punch” (as described by Amar’e Stoudemire) remains to be seen, but you can’t count them out either. With a more cluttered East, can Howard’s Magic expect a playoff run as smooth as they have encountered in recent years?
When Orlando’s front office sent Marcin Gortat to Phoenix (Along with Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus) to acquire Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark, they gave up the only legitimate Center on the team other than Dwight Howard. The next tallest players on the team are Earl Clark and Hedo Turkoglu, both listed at 6’10”.
Orlando was widely expected to make a move for another center (such as Joel Przybilla, who ended up going to the Charlotte Bobcats in the Gerald Wallace trade), but now that the trade deadline has passed and the free agent big man market is thin, it seems unlikely they’ll have anyone to hold down the middle when Dwight Howard is off the floor in the playoffs.
Since Orlando lacks a backup to Howard, he’ll likely end up playing a huge amount of minutes once the playoffs come (especially against the Hawks, their current first round matchup, who possess an excellent big man tandem in Al Horford and Josh Smith). If Orlando gets caught up in long series, Dwight Howard can’t have the energy to play 48 minutes every game for a month and effectively lead a contending team.