Your Very Own Chemistry Playset

The Magic are suddenly everyone’s favorite team, and as the “I told you so’s” start to pile up (Matt Moore wins at life), let’s keep in mind that consistency has never been the name of the game for the Magic.  Their entire season has been a series of peaks and valleys, with their crowning achievement being a complete dismantling of the Cavalier powerhouse.  At their best, they’re a step beyond world beaters: titans in their own right, but with an underdog charm that puts a glint in Dwight Howard’s smile.  For some reason we see Orlando and try to find reasons why they shouldn’t be able to win, largely in part because they share attributes with flawed teams of yore.  They shoot a lot of three pointers, so they’re doomed to lose.  Dwight isn’t a visionary with his back to the basket, so they’re doomed to lose.  They employ Rafer Alston, so they’re doomed to lose.  Some of that has basis in reality and some does not.  But regardless of where you stand on the Magic’s chances in the Finals, I think there is common ground in the notion that the Magic walk a relatively fine line.

The Cavaliers were rock steady, the Lakers’ supreme and laissez faire.  Somewhere above and below them are the Magic, a team so delicately balanced that Dwight’s unfathomable force, Hedo’s off-balance runners and layups, long-range artillery, and expertly timed and executed defensive rotations all manage to impact the game while supporting the system.  Everything that Orlando does is a specific, balanced compromise between old and new, inside and outside, etc.  When the balance is formed, it’s beauty.  But when those specific compromises are not kept intact, things go South.

That’s why I’m a bit surprised to hear that the Magic are even considering throwing Jameer Nelson back into the fire.  Considering that the forces controlling Orlando’s destiny are so specific, attempting to integrate a player who hasn’t played a game in four months seems a bit misguided.  Jameer is a fantastic player, an All-Star, and the rightful point to lead the Magic to the promised land.  I’m sure he’s twitching at the thought of getting back into the game, and being part of a team with a shot at the title must be a thrilling feeling.  But before we start thinking about what Nelson’s return could add to the Magic, it’s important that you consider what it could take away.

Rafer Alston may be no All-Star, and to me he will always be the consummate NBA punchline.  But lo and behold, Rafer is that starting point guard on a team in the NBA Finals, and he’s done a fine job of establishing the offense and playing some very impressive defense.  The Magic were just fine on defense before acquiring Alston, but the stop-loss (the loss being Anthony Johnson or Tyronn Lue) Rafer has been able to provide is precisely the reason Orlando is still playing in June.  The offense is as confident as ever, and the defense is surely championship-worthy.

Throw a rusty Jameer Nelson into the mix, and the delicate balance that so far has made the Magic the kings of the East could be disrupted.  Players coming back from injury are often tentative, have lost game conditioning, and have a poor sense of timing and execution.  Passes fly out of bounds, coverages are blown, and jumpshots are just a little off.  It’s all part of working into a groove.  Jameer faces a special set of obstacles being that he’s 6’0”, lacking the length to contest or cut-off penetration to compensate for slowed footspeed, a lack of endurance, or poor anticipation.  The Magic would’ve had that luxury against the Sixers, or maybe even the Cavs, but can Stan Van Gundy really afford to play on-court chemist on the biggest stage against one of the league’s biggest opponents?

Jameer Nelson’s return may very well help, but at what potential cost?  It’s hard to imagine that Nelson changing from a suit to a uni would have an incredible, detrimental effect on the team’s psyche and performance, but the Magic’s kingdom is hardly one reinforced to perfection.  No one trusted the Magic because of their inability to consistently ride out those highest highs.  And now, when there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, we’re asking them to add a player who hasn’t been active in months to play one of the most important roles on the floor?  Just because the solution isn’t bubbling just yet doesn’t mean that its components aren’t volatile or reactive.

Seth Carstens