- Wednesday, January 12, 2011 8:38 AM
- Written By: Jordan Schultz
It didn’t take long for Orlando GM Otis Smith to recognize his team’s deficiencies in the loaded Eastern Conference. After a solid start to the season, the Magic went through a brutal stretch in early December where it lost six of seven games, including losses to Utah, Atlanta and Denver, all teams it needs to beat if it wants to be a contender.
(With his new teammates flanking him, Dwight Howard can smile again.)
Aside from Dwight Howard in the paint, Orlando was having a bevy of issues defending anyone, and despite the onslaught of threes last season (an all-time NBA record), it seemed hampered and slow on offense, where it couldn’t consistently get the ball into Howard down low, and was unable to ever develop any sort of real rhythm or flow on a game-to-game basis.
As with most struggling teams, many of the issues can be attributed to the point guard. Jameer Nelson, a solid NBA point guard for sure, is also an undersized and not overly quick point who when defending elite guards becomes a liability if he’s not hitting his jumper. Nelson is a tough defender who will battle all night, but his lack of sheer speed and size make him at times a problem guarding super quick guys. Considering that the three other Eastern Conference contenders feature Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade (at times) running the point, not having an alternative option as a lead guard translates to crisis mode.
Gilbert Arenas, whom Smith acquired from Washington for Rashard Lewis, doesn’t completely fix the Nelson conundrum, but he certainly provides relief in the form of a nicely composed band aid. Not a good defender himself, Arenas’ benefit will come solely at the offensive end, where despite not being the dominant scorer of the “Hibachi” days, he is still a deadly three-point shooter who can also create his own shot, something Lewis couldn’t do.
(The addition of Arenas helps spell the scoring role from Jameer Nelson and gives Orlando yet another three-point shooting threat.)
While Arenas surely won’t replace Nelson, he offers a unique blend of 1-2 guard ability. His shooting alone should help free up Nelson a bit and he excels pushing tempo where he can either pull up or find somebody else for an open three, a staple to the Magic attack. Bottom line: Arenas he is a drastic upgrade from the anemic Chris Duhon to backup Nelson at the point.
Lewis himself is clearly at the tail-end of his career. Getting rid of such a one-dimensional player stands as one of the better moves of Smith’s career. Why he ever gave Lewis $118 million over six years from a sign-and-trade with the Seattle Sonics is an entirely different story.
Lewis, never an apt ball handler, tenacious rebounder or defender, had seen his only real value reduced to spotting up on the perimeter to shoot 3’s. But even then, the 6-10 forward was hitting them at an alarmingly low rate, his worst percentage since the ’02-’03 season. Much of the scoring earlier in his career came from the post where he had developed a lethal turnaround jumper, but his refusal to post up anymore and lack of rebounding officially made him a one-trick pony … with a diminishing trick even then.
Another key cog to the Magic’s mega-trades is the emergence of Brandon Bass. The super athletic and active banger who loves to bully his way around the paint and create contact resulted in Marcin Gortat officially becoming a bystander for Stan Van Gundy. A talented backup center that clogs the paint and has a deft touch around the basket, Gortat was perhaps the toughest piece for Smith to let go, especially given the foul trouble that Howard has been prone to in the past. The Magic of course matched Gortat’s $34 million offer sheet from Dallas – which he publicly expressed his displeasure toward -- in July 2009, so playing him less than 16 minutes a night simply wasn’t proving to be a good investment. Bass himself is still just 25 and has shown plenty of upside to one day become a middle tier starting four-man, making Gortat expendable. Further, Bass is a much better bargain at just $4 million every year through 2013, compared to the nearly $8 million Gortat will earn in 2013-14, the final year of his contract.
But perhaps the best thing about the Gortat deal for Orlando was that it also freed itself of perennial loser and underachiever Vince Carter. Whatever “Vinsanity” was left for Carter had long vacated him before he came to central Florida. Never a good fit for a Magic team seeking leadership and consistent scoring from its best perimeter player, Carter tanked for much of last season and was heinous in the playoffs, when he singlehandedly shot Orlando out of games and literally refused to defend.
One other key element dealt was Jekyll and Hyde shooting guard Mickael Pietrus, a perpetual gunner and subpar defender who like Lewis, only value stemmed from an inconsistent three-point shooting stroke. The Frenchman, while he did hit some big shots for Orlando, was clearly never going to become the shutdown defender or consistent scorer he had shown glimpses of becoming as a plus athlete with good size and strength. Chances are it’s not a coincidence that the Suns have lost six out of seven since the debut of Pietrus and Gortat on Dec. 26, and five out of six since Carter joined the lineup.
On the flip side, the reward for Pietrus and Carter has proved to be gigantic. Hedo Turkoglu -- whom Smith never should have let walk in the first place -- and Jason Richardson are both excelling in Orlando’s run-and-gun format along with its half-court dump offense revolving around Howard. Richardson won’t ever be the unstoppable force Vince Carter used to be, but in many ways his game mirrors some of the same elements: He is a fantastic athlete who attacks the rim and is awesome in transition, has an effective pull-up game, is a decent defender and really good three-point shooter.
Turkoglu, meanwhile, has re-assumed his role as the ultimate point-forward playmaker he had during his first stint with the Magic. His diverse ability and unique skillset, along with his willingness to alleviate some of the ball handling duties from Nelson make him a drastic upgrade from the sinking Lewis. Plus Lewis, who is a natural three-man, was clearly never comfortable playing power forward and thus played out of position during parts of his tenure for Van Gundy. In averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 assists, Turkoglu has taken much of the creative pressures off of Nelson, and provided a superb pick-and-roll partner for Howard. He is also one of the more clutch shooters around. Richardson, with his explosive leaping ability and scoring prowess, has been just the athletic spark this team needed on the perimeter and his 38.6 percent long range marksmanship spreads the floor far more than Vince Carter ever could.
Turkoglu is a natural wing player whose creative capacities allow for Bass to start at the four and gives Ryan Anderson the chance to slide into a crucial bench slot.
(Turkoglu may just be the most significant upgrade for Orlando. His versatility as a point-forward will be huge for the Magic offensively, and a monumental different from the stagnant Rashard Lewis.)
Anderson, like Lewis, is a 6-10 outside oriented player. He provides a real outside threat and is a decent rebounder. Not merely a serviceable role player, Anderson is just as good if not better than Lewis at this stage in his career. He is also a willing low-post presence at times, and since emerging from the cellar of Van Gundy’s bench proceeding the trades, the third-year man out of Cal has hit the double-digit mark in all but two games. Moreover, at under $1.5 million salary this season, he too is a thrifty bargain for Otis Smith, especially with the league’s new CBA talks lurking.
At the end of the day though, none of this matters if Orlando doesn’t have Dwight Howard. The 25-year-old monstrous pivot is the be all and end all of this franchise. He makes everything go.
When you have a superstar talent in his prime, not surrounding him with the necessary pieces to win a title is like not allowing Zenyatta to run in the Breeder’s Cup. That’s what was so demoralizing about Kevin Garnett during his Minnesota days. Here was this brilliant, once-in-a-generation talent relegated to rotting away on mediocre teams for a most of his career.
After losing two straight after the trades, Orlando has rattled off nine consecutive victories, including wins over San Antonio, Dallas, New York and Boston. The new pieces meanwhile, are fitting in just as I said they would (link up to twitter). All three are averaging double figures in points, but Turkoglu and Richardson in particular, have turned a once predictable Magic offense into a dynamic and nearly unguardable attack.
During the Magic’s nine-game winning streak, at least five players have scored in double digits every game, and only once did just the five. This is now a club that wins with a high octane offense scoring from all over the floor and has enough depth to supplant cold spells or even injuries. Better yet, with its re-tooled defense anchored by D12 down low, Orlando can defend well enough in a prolonged series to survive shooting woes, something it couldn’t do in the past. As of January 11, the Magic were fifth in the league in total points allowed. Even better, during the eleven games since the trades, they’ve held their opponent to under their season scoring average in all but one affair. For the first time since its Finals run in 2008, Orlando team is showing a full commitment to winning on a nightly basis.
The Heat and Celtics are typically considered the two real contenders in the east, with the Bulls a distant, albeit relevant third or fourth, but with its retooled line-up surrounding a Superman-type talent (no pun intended), the Magic deserve not just to be in the discussion, but side-by-side with the two big guns. While it will continue to bomb from long range and occasionally fail to shut the door on teams when they should, Orlando is nevertheless a legitimate contender with Howard as an anchor in the paint to go along with an influx of gifted perimeter players and stable bigs.
Orlando finally … has a real shot at the title. Follow me on Twitter @206Child