Friday, November 5, 2010

Orlando Magic: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 59-23
2009-10 Playoffs: #2 seed; lost in Eastern Conference Finals to the Boston Celtics in six games
Additions: Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon, Daniel Orton, Malik Allen
Key Losses: Matt Barnes, Anthony Johnson, Adonal Foyle
Projected Rotation Players: Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus, Quentin Richardson, Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, J.J. Redick, Chris Duhon

Look for the 2010-11 Orlando Magic to fall from the ranks of the NBA’s legitimate title contenders.

Just how good are these guys?

I initially asked this question in the preseason with regard to Dwight Howard’s supporting cast, but after seeing the Magic’s evisceration at the hands of the Miami Heat, it seems fair to expand the question to the entire team. More on this in a second.

While there’s no doubt that the Magic are a good team, it’s becoming difficult to include them with the Lakers, Celtics and Heat in the top tier of title contenders. Sure, they’ve won 59 games in each of the past two regular seasons, reached Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last spring and represented the East in the 2009 Finals, but they’ve failed to deliver in a “must win” game in either of their last two postseasons and lack big-game performers.

A close look at the Magic reveals a collection of players that either have no business being counted on in a big game or have no experience in that spot. During their run to the 2009 Finals, the Magic relied heavily on Hedo Turkoglu- a solid playmaker with size and strength- in crunch time. While it can be argued that this team’s overall talent level is greater than that of the 2009 squad, no one on the roster fits into that vital role.

What’s worse is that, irrespective of track record, there’s not really anyone on this team that you’d trust unequivocally with a championship on the line. Let’s break this down:

The starters

Rashard Lewis- not only is the $120-million man not a reliable big-game player, he’s become essentially useless in the regular season as well.

Vince Carter- VC is at his best when there is nothing at stake. He’ll accumulate numbers in the regular season and in low-pressure playoff games, but he’s also the guy that will limp off the court in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and make no attempt to return. Y’know, kinda like Wilt Chamberlain in the 1969 Finals. (Sorry, had to get that in)

Jameer Nelson- Definitely has the heart to be a big-time performer. And while he’s got the ability to take over a game as well, he’s not unstoppable. He’s not Kobe, Wade or LeBron. Even if he’s red-hot, Nelson can be taken out of his rhythm by either a double team or an aggressive bigger defender. For all of his talent and heart, if Jameer Nelson is your one and only prime time performer, you’re not a championship contender.

Quentin Richardson- Unless Steve Nash is involved, forget it.

And on the second unit? J.J. Redick can absolutely be counted on to hit a big shot or to get hot for a while, though he can't get his own shot. Mickael Pietrus is a great guy to count on a for a defensive stop. And Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass can get you a big rebound or blocked shot. However, if these are the guys you’re counting on to win a big game for you… once again, you are not a title contender.

And then there’s Dwight Howard.

Howard is a physical freak, a monster on the boards and unquestionably the best interior defender in the NBA. In terms of raw ability, his ceiling is as high as any big man in NBA history.

However, for all of his physical gifts, Howard is unable to assert himself when his team needs him. This has been evident in a number of postseason games in which Howard’s been a non-factor on offense, in no small part because of early foul trouble and turnovers. However, on Friday night, the Miami Heat dealt a major body blow to the notion that Dwight Howard can lead a team to a title.

In the most anticipated game of the young season, Howard scored 19 points (8-15 FG, 3-7 FT), grabbed seven rebounds and blocked just one shot in 28 minutes, before fouling out.

Really? 28 minutes, seven rebounds, one blocked shot? Against Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire?

While I realize that in theory this game was no more meaningful than Wednesday’s 42-point thumping of the Timberwolves- just one of 82- in reality the Magic had quite a bit at stake. After a summer of yapping at the their suddenly star-studded in-state rivals- from GM Otis Smith, to coach Stan Van Gundy, to Howard himself, declaring Kevin Durant a better player than LeBron- Howard and the Magic should have been more prepared to compete. Matched up against Joel Anthony in a game surrounded by that much hype, the best big man in the game needs to be gunning for a 40- 20, swatting shots and forcing the opposing bigs to commit a foul every four and a half minutes. Win or lose, Shaq in his prime would not have had Dwight Howard’s game from Friday night.

There’s no shame in losing to a good team, but to be dismantled and utterly humiliated in your first shot at your biggest rival probably means you’re not winning a title.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Magic at 54.5. This is probably a fairly accurate number, though given the inconsistency on the wings and Howard’s propensity for taking himself out of games with foul trouble, the Magic will probably be closer to 50 wins than they will be to 60. Look for them to finish the regular season with 52-55 wins and once again grab a top-three playoff seed.

However, look for the Magic to struggle in the postseason. Their go-to guy, while an excellent big man, is absurdly foul prone and offensively raw (as cool as that video with Hakeem was, maybe we made too much of Dwight spending all of three days working on his post game). When games are on the line, this team lacks a bona fide playmaker that will take over and win games.

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