In case you haven’t noticed, there is still a basketball team in Central Florida. After being the center of media attention for 1.5+ seasons, the Orlando Magic are now the forgotten team of the NBA. Now that Dwight Howard can no longer hold the franchise hostage, it’s time to evaluate how the team can work its way back to relevance. Even before Howard was traded, the Magic were given two nationally televised games during 2012-13. Since then, those networks re-assigned the national telecast to other games, so few will ever have the opportunity to watch this team and give them a fair shake. As a Magic season ticket holder, I’m among the few who have been able to evaluate the team first hand. And despite my heavy pessimism about the team’s outlook heading into the season, I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised. Last night, I watched the team give Boston a run for their money in OT after being down for most of the game, and despite the loss, think there is a lot of good that can come out the game that can carry through the rest of this season.
In what was Dwight’s (and coach Stan Van Gundy’s) last season with the Magic, it was painfully evident how awful the team’s chemistry was. Even though they were still somehow won 56% of their games, you could tell there was something wrong. You could see it in the other Magic players’ body language: they were sick and tired of the soap opera revolving around Dwight. They couldn’t stand him pointing out their inadequacies. They simply didn’t want to play with him anymore.
In the blockbuster trade over the summer where superstars were dangling around among three other teams (LA, Denver, and Philadelphia), none of the biggest names were going to Orlando – not Andrew Bynum, not Pau Gasol, not anybody the Magic were originally considering trading for. Instead, they completely dismantled the team and got a boat load of trade exceptions and draft picks, as well as middle-of-the-road players like Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, and Moe Harkless. Then began life After Dwight Howard (A.D.12), where the team is now being built around Afflalo, JJ Redick, and Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis – a trio hardly anybody considers to be top tier.
Expected to be the laughingstock in most preseason predictions of various NBA affiliates worldwide (myself included), this Orlando team has been consistently displaying something I never saw last season: Heart and Hustle. While their lack of superstar talent is extremely evident, they have been playing like a playoff team, and are better than what their record (5-8) indicates. As the season progresses, they will either become a lottery team or be a threat to make the 7th or 8th seed in the East. We won’t know which way they will go, but here are a few strengths and weaknesses to consider:
Coaching: Considering the circumstances, new head coach Jacque Vaughn clearly has been managing the team extremely well. Many scoffed at Orlando’s decision to hire Vaughn over the likes of Brian Shaw, but even Shaq – one of the biggest critics of the acquisition – pointed out that Doc Rivers was the last coach hired by the Magic with no head coaching experience, and we all know he turned out to be one of the best. I’m not sure if Vaughn will get there, but he has been a dark horse Coach of the Year candidate to me so far. He has been able to maximize the effort from his young and inexperienced team.
Shooting: Most lineups that coach Vaughn has put on the floor have featured five players that can all shoot from the perimeter. Because they don’t have a dominating force in the paint anymore, this is mostly a perimeter team without any real good slashers (other than a few glimpses of vintage Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu). Nelson, Afflalo, Redick, and Turkoglu can all light it up from downtown, and big guys like Vucevic and Big Baby are fairly consistent from mid-range.
Ball Movement: With the lack of a go-to superstar, ball movement has been a crucial element to the Magic so far. A year ago, their offense mostly consisted of force feeding it to Dwight Howard in the post, which often resulted in him displaying his still-raw post game and poor free throw shooting. Now, there are several shooters spacing the floor, and Nelson and Redick have been able to facilitate the offense fairly efficiently in certain pick-and-roll situations. Although they are a perimeter oriented team without any great playmakers, they somehow have a decent amount of firepower on offense.
Rebounding: Although Vucevic and Big Baby have been holding their own so far, the Magic have often shown an inability to close out defensive plays. The stats don’t reflect it yet with a small sample size of games, but with undersized bigs like Big Baby and Harkless, this team is going to get outrebounded regularly.
Dribble Penetration: A team without elite playmakers, slashers, or post players, the Magic do not exactly feature an inside-out attack. They are currently 2nd to last in Offensive Efficiency. Most of their points come from pick and rolls featuring Nelson and Redick, as well as Big Baby’s creativity underneath the basket. Afflalo, who is the most gifted scorer on the team, needs to improve his ability to penetrate in order to add another dimension to this offense – especially while Hedo Turkoglu is out with a broken hand.
Perimeter and Post Defense: Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez were licking their chops when they saw this team on their schedule. The Magic have nobody to keep elite bigs out of the paint. Also, great point guards like Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo have had absolute field days against this team due to their inability to contain quick perimeter players. Josh McRoberts has been doing his best against bigs like Lopez and KG, but he can only do so much.
Overall, I have been impressed by the Magic so far. They are a scrappy, hard-playing team that won’t quit on any given night. Obviously they have a long way to go, but considering that the team was decimated over the summer and is basically being built from the ground up, Magic fans have a reason to be optimistic about their future. Of course, they could easily lose a lot of games this year given all their inexperience and weaknesses, but there is light at the end of the tunnel in the A.D.12 era.