Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or us would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Orlando Magic.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
2009 could happen again.
Hamstrings could be pulled. The bracket could shift in Orlando's favor. Buzzer beaters could fall, and there could be some heretofore undiscovered matchup with either Boston, Chicago or Miami that works in Orlando's favor. With talent, comes opportunity. Throw in sound coaching and good people (through all the Strum and Drang, the Magic do have good people on this roster) and you will always have a chance.
This is the part that is supposed to cheer you up. And for a team that could win 45 games (the 2011-12 equivalent of 55 wins) while featuring the 2012 MVP, there isn't a lot of cheer to go around, 'ere.
This is without even getting into the possibility of trading Dwight Howard between now and the start of the season. This only has to do with the team's misguided general manager, Otis Smith. Smith not only appears to be outclassed by his peers (witness his bid against himself to keep 32-year-old Jason Richardson, or the startlingly bad Glen Davis trade/signing), but he might just be deluded enough to think that he's put together a roster that will convince Dwight "There's no place I'd rather be than Orlando" Howard to stay with the Magic when he becomes a free agent next July.
Look at the win-now moves! Hanging on to Richardson, trading for Dwight's buddy in Davis that was likely more concerned with making the $26 million in Orlando that no other team was offering than he was playing for six months with Howard. This is the sort of man who might turn down Andrew Bynum. The sort of man that could think the Magic has what it takes to sway Dwight.
They did have what it took, once. Back in 2007, when Dwight was set to sign an extension. Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson were already on board, Stan Van Gundy was taking over as coach after a misguided attempt at hiring Billy Donovan, and Rashard Lewis had yet to be signed, much less signed and traded to Orlando. It was true back then that there was no other place Dwight Howard would rather be. And Orlando, the team at least, shot that goodwill to pieces.
Cheerful, Kelly. Cheerful.
If my fears are realized, and Smith is going to attempt a 2011-12 run in an attempt to woo Dwight back to the fold next July, then the Magic will have a championship caliber team.
I'm well aware of this rotation. You don't need to remind me that Richardson can't dribble and apparently can't really shoot any more. I'm aware that Glen Davis might be one of the more overrated players in the game, a function of his hours spent on national TV. I get that Jameer Nelson comes and goes. I grok Hedo and I'm aware Ryan Anderson doesn't get the minutes he deserves.
They will also have, health willing, perhaps the most dominant player in the NBA running for about 35 minutes a game for the entire season plus playoffs. That, plus a middling group of teammates, is enough to shock the world in spring and summer.
Would I pick them to take it all? No. Would I like their chances in a first-round rematch with Atlanta, and Jason Collins? Yes, but just barely. Would I put money on six or seven other teams to win the ring before Orlando? Definitely.
But if they keep Dwight, and he decides to earn what he's going to be paid this particular season, this team has a chance. Such is the power of having a star.
Orlando fans know it too damn well.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Orlando Magic
I'm so excited for you!
Ryan Anderson is the kind of player who often goes unheralded by casual NBA fans and becomes a cause célèbre for League Pass die-hards. The combination of his development and the potential volatility of the Magic's roster could present an opportunity for him to see both more floor time and widespread recognition.
The sweet-shooting 6-10 forward, who surprised many observers with an effective rookie campaign for a bad 2008-09 New Jersey Nets team, has continued to refine his game in two seasons with the Orlando Magic. Last year marked the third straight season that Anderson's efficiency and long-range accuracy improved, as the former California Bear connected on 39.3 percent of his 3-point tries (up from 36.5 percent and 37 percent in his first two years) in Stan Van Gundy's spread-'em-out-and-shoot offense. The upgraded marksmanship gave him a double-digit scoring average for the first time in his career and put his True Shooting (which adds free throws and 3-pointers in with regular field goals) and Effective Field Goal percentages (which accounts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than 2-point shots) well above league-average.
He also asserted himself a bit more on the glass in 2010-11 than he had in his first two seasons, posting the best rebound rate of his career despite playing the lion's share of his minutes alongside Spalding vacuum Dwight Howard. Most notably, Anderson made an improvement on the offensive boards, grabbing 10.8 percent of his team's available misses there, which ranked him well above league-average for power forwards who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last year, according to Hoopdata. In sum, Anderson produced his best all-around season yet.
No one's going to confuse Anderson with Zach Randolph, Kevin Love or Serge Ibaka; he's not that kind of eye-popping, dominant four. Set against the litany of stars in the NBA sky, he doesn't stand out. And Orlando importing Glen Davis, a clearly superior defensive player who averaged nearly 30 minutes a night for the Celtics last year, could slow Anderson down a bit.
But legitimate offensive weapons with size, unique skills and a track record (albeit a short one) of continued improvement don't grow on trees. In a year that could see the Magic scrambling to find out what kind of assets they have to rebuild their roster, it'd be worth their while to give Anderson more than 22 minutes per game to learn if he can really be the 17-and-9 type.
I'm so worried for you!
I don't wish losing a superstar on any team; really, I don't. But since Otis Smith saw fit to trade Brandon Bass for "Big Baby" and Von Wafer, then re-up Davis for four years and $26 million, I've become an advocate of his friend Dwight Howard leaving town, if for no other reason than I don't think I could stomach watching "The Dwight & Baby Show" become the NBA's answer to CBS's comedy lineup.
Both Howard and Davis always seem to be doing something very deliberately zany as part of their at-first-natural, then carefully cultivated outsized "gentle giant" personae. Dwight does impressions, planks and "Tebows," and Baby makes faces while knitting, makes faces while Dougie-ing and makes faces while catching lobsters. And everyone has big fun laffs.
Except for grumpy old Dan, who thinks that they're not really funny, or even really "athlete funny," as much as they are just sort of loud, physically expressive and showing a personality that isn't outwardly mean or jerky (except, of course, when it is, like when Dwight pouts and sarcastically claps at refs after picking up another technical, or when Big Baby curses out a heckler). Which is fine, I guess. It's just not my cup of tea, which is why I dread the idea of watching taped bits featuring the two of them dressed up as, I don't know, Holmes and Watson during every one of Orlando's 16 nationally televised games this season. I'm already fast-forwarding.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Um, hey, Jameer Nelson: Who are you?
Three years ago, you were shooting 50 percent from the floor, 45 percent from 3-point range, 89 percent from the line and closing in on a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. You looked poised to insert yourself into the conversation of, if not elite point guards, then at least something in that neighborhood ... and then you got hurt, and hit the shelf, and were very understandably not the same dude when you came back.
But in the postseason two years ago, you were that guy again! You absolutely carved up the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks before joining your teammates in a series-long struggle to get loose against a stifling Boston Celtics team that was able to single-cover Howard, stay at home on the perimeter, cut off your passing lanes and make it tough for you to penetrate and kick. That six-game loss wasn't your finest hour, but there was also no shame in looking less-than-stellar against that Celtics squad; pretty much everybody, including the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, played ugly against Boston, too.
Last year, though? The numbers were OK -- 15.5 points and 7.1 assists per 36 minutes, a not-so-hot 44.6 percent from the floor but a very cool 40.1 percent from long range, a down but still respectable 80.2 percent from the line -- but they weren't top-shelf. The assist rate was great, but the turnover rate was up. The win shares were there, but the Player Efficiency Rating was only a tick above average.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose became an MVP, and Rajon Rondo became an All-Star, and Deron Williams came over, and John Wall arrived, and Jrue Holiday improved, and Jeff Teague got a chance, and Kyrie Irving got drafted ...
And all of a sudden, you're looking like a middle-of-the-pack option pushing 30 in a conference that's moved on. Is that who you are? If so, that's a shame; it's been nice knowing you. If not, though, this would be a really good time to show it.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
Orlando Magic: Leonard Cohen, "Is This What You Wanted?"
Dwight Howard is going to be traded, whether before the season starts or right before the deadline a few months from now. The Magic simply have too much to lose by letting him go for nothing, and the wounds from Shaquille O'Neal's departure are still fresh enough to cause pain. They're not going to do whatever possible to keep him in town, so it looks likely he's on his way out.
Still, it's unlikely that break will stop the hurt caused by losing Howard, because the entire team has been constructed with his presence in mind. J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and others simply wouldn't be on the team with their current deals if not for him, and their roles are wholly dependent on Howard locking down the middle. If Howard leaves (along with one of those bad contracts, likely Turkoglu), the shell of the Magic will remain. Howard will still define the team even as they miss his production.
The exact circumstances of Leonard Cohen's "Is This What You Wanted?" the first track on his stellar "New Skin for the Old Ceremony" album, are unclear -- it could be the aftermath of a breakup, awkwardness after a mistake of a sexual encounter, or what happens when one partner cheats. But, as the chorus makes clear, it's fundamentally a song about living with the ghosts of past mistakes and events after the good times have ended. The Magic, no matter what happens with Howard, are going to remain haunted for some time. There's no way to get around it, and the way in which he leaves might not change the situation. Even if the Magic end the relationship in their preferred way, they're not going to come out winners.