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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Should We Believe in Magic?

The L.A. Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic own the four best records in the NBA. It is easy to believe that the first three of those teams are legitimate championship contenders: the Lakers and Celtics battled each other in the 2008 NBA Finals, while the Cavs made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and have a better, deeper roster now than they did then. What about the Magic, though? Their record suggests that they have become championship contenders but is that really the case?

Here is an analysis of the Magic are performing better than they did last year--and what they need to do to truly establish themselves as a championship contender:

It is easy to believe that the Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are legitimate championship contenders; the Celtics and Lakers competed in last year's NBA Finals, while the Cavaliers made it to the Finals in 2007 and battled the Celtics for seven games in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals.

This season, those three teams have been in a tight race to finish with the league's best record but they have some unexpected company: the Orlando Magic. Why are the Magic doing so well this season and are they truly a championship contending team?

Last season, the Magic won their first division title since the lockout shortened 1999 season and had their first 50-plus win campaign (52-30) since the brief-lived Shaq-Penny era was in full effect (60-22 in 1995-96). The Magic ranked sixth in scoring (104.5 ppg) in 2007-08 and fifth in point differential (5.5 ppg); the Magic not only could score but they also did a reasonable job defensively, anchored by Dwight Howard's menacing presence in the paint. Their weakness was rebounding: even though Howard led the league in that category with a 14.2 rpg average, the Magic ranked just 17th in rebounding differential.

The Magic do not pair Howard with a true power forward; instead, the rest of their starting frontcourt consists of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, two versatile but slender 6-10 forwards who can shoot, pass and drive but are not dominant inside players.

This season, the Magic again rank among the league leaders in scoring (101.8 ppg, eighth) and point differential (8.1 ppg, fourth). Their rebounding differential has actually regressed slightly. So why is their record so much better? One big difference is that they are shooting three pointers even more prolifically than they did last season while also doing a better job of defending against the long ball.

TNT's Doug Collins often makes note of the differential between how many points a team scores on three point shots and how many points it gives up from behind the arc; this year, the Magic have made nearly twice as many three pointers as their opponents and that extra point per shot covers up a multitude of sins. A second big difference is that point guard Jameer Nelson has emerged as an All-Star caliber player, posting career-high numbers in scoring, field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage.

This Magic team is constructed similarly to the Magic team that made it to the NBA Finals in 1995 and to the Houston teams that won championships in 1994 and 1995; all of those teams had a center who was dominant at both ends of the court flanked by several excellent three point shooters. If the center was single covered, he scored; if he was double covered, one of his teammates shot a wide open three pointer.

However, the 1994 Rockets and the 1995 Magic each had a power forward who did the dirty work in the paint (Otis Thorpe and Horace Grant, respectively); the 1995 Rockets used the versatile Robert Horry as the de facto power forward, trading away Thorpe's size/muscle for All-NBA swingman Clyde Drexler. The 1995 Magic also had an All-NBA swingman: Penny Hardaway, who made the All-NBA First Team that year, while O'Neal settled for a Second Team selection (people seem to forget that little detail when they act as if O'Neal simply carried Hardaway and the rest of the team-Hardaway's later injuries should not be used to obscure the fact that he was a top five player at one time).

The Magic do not currently have a power forward like Thorpe or Grant, nor do they have an All-NBA level swingman like Drexler or Hardaway. Therefore, it is reasonable to wonder how well they will perform in playoff games against elite teams when their three point shots are not falling and it becomes increasingly important to be able to control the boards.

Also, although Howard certainly provides a dominant presence in the paint, he is averaging 19.9 ppg on .559 field goal shooting-good numbers but not on par with O'Neal's 1995 production (29.3 ppg on .583 shooting) or Olajuwon's 1994 and 1995 outputs (27.3 ppg on .528 shooting and 27.8 ppg on .517 shooting respectively). During the postseason, O'Neal and Olajuwon would become almost unguardable for extended periods of time, O'Neal because of his great power and Olajuwon because of his amazing repertoire of low post moves. Howard has yet to show that he can carry a team offensively in that manner.

Orlando recently went out West and beat the three division leaders-Lakers, Spurs and Nuggets -- on their home courts. That is a most impressive accomplishment-but in order to face one of those teams (or someone else) in the NBA Finals the Magic will first have to make it out of the East. So far this season, the Celtics routed the Magic 107-88 in Boston on Dec. 1 and then beat them 90-80 in Orlando on Jan. 22.

In both of those games the Celtics outrebounded the Magic, contained their three point shooters and held Howard to fewer than 15 points. The Detroit Pistons beat the Magic 4-1 in last year's playoffs and are 1-0 against them this year; the Pistons have changed their head coach and point guard since last season but still seem to match up very well with Orlando. The Magic have yet to play the Cavaliers, but because of Cleveland's inside strength and good defense versus the three point shot the Magic do no match up well with the Cavs.

The Magic are playing very well overall but until they prove that they can beat Boston, Cleveland and Detroit it would not be accurate to label them a championship contending team; in order to make it to the NBA Finals they will have to beat at least one -- and possibly two -- of those teams in a seven game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM



At Saturday, January 24, 2009 2:46:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I'm glad you mentioned what dominant scorers O'Neal and Olajuwon were compared to Howard. Howard has pretty good footwork and will drop in a running hook from time to time, but he doesn't have Dream's skill or Diesel's lower-body strength. At this stage of his career I don't see him being able to take over a playoff series at the offensive end. His ability to score still depends a lot on his explosive athleticism.

During the Boston-Orlando game one of the guys calling the game (I believe the team was Albert and Collins) mentioned that Howard takes more than twice as many free-throw attempts (10.7 per game) as anyone else on his team (Hedo is second at 5). They rely on him for the vast majority of their easy baskets, and teams like
Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit will not allow him to dominate inside the way they need him to. I like Turkoglu as a player but I don't think he and Nelson will create enough off the dribble to offset this. That means they will be even more reliant on 3-point shooting than usual, which is not a recipe for a deep playoff run.

I see the Magic as a dangerous team but I still rank Cleveland and Boston ahead of them, and I'm not even 100% convinced they would beat Detroit in a playoff series.

At Saturday, January 24, 2009 3:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You make some excellent points.

As inconsistent as Detroit has been recently, you are right that the Pistons could very possibly defeat Orlando in a playoff series again this year because the Magic do not match up well with them.

At Monday, January 26, 2009 12:38:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey speaking of centers, I wanted to comment that Andrew Bynum really displayed some of his finer skills against the Spurs and Tim Duncan. In yesterday's game he wasn't relegated to just being the dump off option or garbage guy. I've never doubted that he had it in him, it just hasn't been his role to be a post-up guy on the offense. He really showed some big-time moves against Duncan, and he is improving on his defensive positioning. This should be encouraging for Lakers fans. It's too bad the WOW faction can distinguish the difference in play by Bynum because that isn't reflected in the stats.

At Monday, January 26, 2009 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

I think that this season Bynum has increased his repertoire of low post moves. His field goal percentage is down because he has had some trouble finishing plays, often after making some nice moves; the finishing problem is probably caused by some combination of rustiness (particularly early in the season) and lack of conditioning.


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