October 22, 2010
Last year's record? 59-23, lost in the third round to Boston.
Projected record, as predicted three months ago in time to publish in Yahoo! Sports' NBA Preview Magazine? 60-22
Why I think that sounds about right?
On quite a few nights this year, the Orlando Magic will look like the best team in basketball.
There's a very good chance, as the Lakers and Heat work their way into the swing of things, that the Magic will be the best team in basketball for the first half of the season, both in terms of winning percentage and how the team looks on the court. Outside of a few intangibles with this group, I don't see any weaknesses.
Why I think I might be terribly, terribly wrong?
I don't think I will be.
Anything less than a championship this season is a disappointment to this team. A major disappointment. This doesn't mean that the Magic are my odds-on favorite to win the ring this season, but that has to be the goal. Nothing less.
The only thing stopping Orlando is smart play down crucial stretches of playoff games, and this means the first quarter as much as it does the fourth. Because the fourth quarter is rarely crucial when you lose the first. Jameer Nelson(notes) needs to lead his team offensively, Rashard Lewis(notes) needs to get back to where he was during the 2009 playoffs, and coach Stan Van Gundy will have to get the most out of what is easily the deepest team in the NBA.
Championship, or bust. No other way to put it.
Step up or step off
Let's call it a "V" for "vestigial," because Rashard Lewis was basically an appendix in the Eastern Conference finals last summer.
After putting up solid, efficient, complementary lines in a pair of four-game sweeps against the Charlotte Bobcats (15.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 38.3 minutes per game, 52.4 percent shooting from the field, 46.2 percent from 3-point range) and the Atlanta Hawks (17 points, 5.5 boards and 3.5 dimes in 35.4 minutes per game, 55.6 percent shooting from the floor, 46.2 percent from distance), Lewis was darn near useless against the Boston Celtics.
His non-scoring profile remained roughly the same -- 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game for the series -- but as has been noted many times by many people with many CCs of venom dripping off their words, the Magic aren't paying Rashard Lewis $63.4 million over the next three seasons for his non-scoring profile. By the time Game 6 ended and the Celtics were celebrating another trip to the NBA Finals, Lewis had posted 8.2 points in 36.2 minutes per game on 33.9 percent field-goal shooting, connecting on just four of the 23 long balls he launched, a limp 17.4 percent clip. Blame it on a viral infection, blame it on Kevin Garnett's(notes) sick-like-the-flu defense, blame it on Stan Van Gundy not finding more (and more effective) ways to get Lewis loose, blame it on the Tetons -- whatever the cause, dude was straight-up wisdom teeth. A real coccyx.
The way Lewis went out left a bad taste in a lot of mouths, especially after a season that you'd be hard-pressed to call successful, marked as it was by a slide into fourth-banana status behind newcomer Carter and incumbents Howard and Nelson. (Maybe we should come up with another fruit for that low a supporting role. "Fourth serviceberry." "Fourth alligator-apple.") It's absolutely fair to note that Lewis' regular-season shooting numbers, both basic and advanced, were about the same as they've been since he came to Orlando, that his 2009-10 scoring decline was due in very large part to his number being called less frequently than it had been since 2000-01, and that his biggest struggles during the past two postseasons have come against Garnett and Lamar Odom(notes), two fantastic talents uniquely equipped to handle a stretch four like Lewis defensively and make him work on the other end of the court.
It's absolutely fair, but it doesn't eliminate the glaring problem that Rashard Lewis has settled into the uncomfortable place on the shelf reserved for known, and ultimately dismissable, quantities. We know Lewis doesn't offer much value if he's not scoring, we know he's not really the type to bow his back and bark for the ball, and we know that he's in trouble when playing against teams with options that can make life tough on a stretch four on one or both ends of the floor (which doesn't bode well for his contributions to an Orlando title run that could pit him against some combination of Garnett, Josh Smith(notes), the tandem of LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) and, if the West breaks the way many think it might, the likes of Odom and Ron Artest(notes)). We know what he is, and we know what's not, and because of that, when winning time rolls around, we know that we don't have to think too much about him, all things considered.
The hope is that Lewis opens this season (playing the full complement of games this time) intent on showing us something we don't know. That he's going to spend more time on the block punishing smaller defenders if SVG does indeed play him more at the three (we already know he can do that, but man, it'd be good to see it more often). That he's going to be more assertive and demand the rock from time to time. That he's not necessarily OK with being the nice china you only break out every so often. That he's still a useful part of a healthy body. That'd be fun to see.
Five things about the Magic that furrow Ol' Man Howard's brow