This time last year, the Magic had just beaten the Heat to improve to 10-4 and were about to win their next five games. They were absolutely considered title contenders, with essentially the same loaded roster that dominated the end of the previous regular season and playoffs before running into Boston. Now, heading into a 66-game season, they still have talent but you wouldnâ€™t call them â€œloaded.â€ They’re one of the few teams for which I can’t find that wonderful offseason optimism. The early returns on last Decemberâ€™s swing-for-the-fences trades wereâ€¦ not great. If Gilbert Arenas isnâ€™t amnestyâ€™d, heâ€™s at best a huge question mark. If Hedo Turkoglu isnâ€™t amnestyâ€™d, heâ€™s, uh, still Hedo Turkoglu. Dwight Howardâ€™s a monster, but most people assume heâ€™s out the door soon. Jameer Nelson isâ€¦ wait, what the hell is Jameer Nelson?
He was an All-Star quality guard, but that was a long time ago. His pre-injury 2008-2009 campaign could qualify for a Lost Season. If you go by the numbers, he was a good point guard before that year and heâ€™s been a good point guard since. But if you remember that All-Star turn, just â€œgoodâ€ feels wrong, doesnâ€™t it?
“He’s capable of being an outstanding player,” says Van Gundy. “A lot of it is just consistency and coming with a high energy level every night.”
While the above SVG quote is taken from just before what would be Nelsonâ€™s best season, itâ€™s representative of the two years following. Weâ€™ve all seen him be a game-changer: attacking, keeping the defense honest, always a threat to score and a huge problem in the pick and roll. Weâ€™ve also seen him be excruciatingly average, when for whatever reason he isnâ€™t as decisive as youâ€™d hope and you see too much of him standing around as Vince Carter or Hedo Turkoglu tries to make plays. That average Jameer is still a fine player and a trusted leader, but the Magic are much more dangerous when heâ€™s making his presence felt.
Well, itâ€™s hardâ€¦ itâ€™s harder to go from being a good team to a great team. Itâ€™s easier going from being a bad team to a good team because you have so much more room to improve. You look at Jason and his team this year, they were always a good team. They didnâ€™t get over that hump. They couldnâ€™t get over that hump, but they figured out a way to get over that hump to win a championship and thatâ€™s what veteran teams do. They figure out ways to go from being a good team to a great team. Weâ€™re still a good team. We had an early exit this year but weâ€™re still a good team. We still have a lot of pieces that work for us.
If the Magic are going to get over the hump and contend for a title, something has to change. A return to form from Arenas would be glorious, but injuries have probably made that an impossibility. Dwight Howard canâ€™t be much better than he was last year unless he starts hitting midrange jumpers and/or free throws. I donâ€™t see how you can bet on Turkoglu at this point. Unless you believe this is the year of Earl Clark, the only guy on the roster who could realistically change the Magicâ€™s fortunes is Nelson. The trouble is that, like with his team, thereâ€™s no simple answer for how he can be more effective. He’s essentially been the same player for years, but he has great games sometimes. A breakout season would entail doing what he does sometimes, all the time. I wish I could point to some sort of evidence that this breakout was coming, but I can’t.
I was convinced heâ€™d have a huge year last year, but it didnâ€™t happen and the worst part is Iâ€™m not sure why. Itâ€™s not as simple as â€œstarted off strong, fell off when the trades were made, then got accustomed to his new teammates and finished the year strong.â€ Thatâ€™s a tidy narrative and it was how I saw it heading into last yearâ€™s playoffs, but it doesnâ€™t address the fact that he struggles with consistency more than most players. It doesnâ€™t account for exploding for 27 points (20 in one quarter!) in Game 1 of the Atlanta series, then being held in check for the next five games. I expected him to be great against the Hawks and I expected the Magic to win the series. He wasnâ€™t, and they lost. Nelson is forever the x-factor. If you can figure him out, let me or Stan Van Gundy know.