Ball Don't Lie - NBA

January 19, 2010

Orlando in a bad way

It's the midpoint of the season for your Orlando Magic and the team is on pace for 52 wins.

This is the first time all season that I haven't written a tagger to throw in there that would go along the lines of "in spite of all the injuries, suspensions and iffy shooting ..."

They don't deserve that tagger, anymore. The 26 wins, thus far, have come in spite of a litany of significant injuries, some true growing pains from new faces, Rashard Lewis'(notes) 10-game suspension and some iffy shooting, but this team should be better.

We think.

We're not sure anymore.

See, before the season, quite a few of us (with me probably banging the drum the loudest) had the Magic winning 60-something games this season. There's a good reason for that. Look at that roster, and tell me it doesn't topple any other roster 1-12. Tell me it isn't stacked.

What you're supposed to tell me is that this is a 1-3 league. That it doesn't matter much that Tony Allen(notes) and Adam Morrison(notes) can't play, or that Daniel Gibson(notes) isn't really much to write home about. That, in this league, with a hot triptych playing huge minutes in a game that only allows five to a side, 1-12 just doesn't matter.

Then you were supposed to remind me that you thought the Lakers would beat the 1999-00 Trail Blazers, too, all full of new Scottie Pippens and Steve Smiths and Detlef Schrempfs. That Phil Jackson coached that old Laker team and this one. Greater than the sum of its parts, and all that.

Well, you were right. I never had the Lakers losing to Orlando, but I did have the Magic chomping up wins left and right because, during a long season that not as many scribes tend to pay attention to on the off night, big talent and great depth can bring home win after win while the world pays attention to the Seahawks.

And I never had the Magic toppling the Cavaliers or Celtics in the playoffs, either. Always regarded that as something to revisit in May. Still do.

Here's another thing you should have reminded me of:

"The whole team better make it this year, because though [Dwight] Howard and Jameer Nelson(notes) are still a pair of whippersnappers, this is the best Hedo [Turkoglu] and Lewis will ever play. And unless the Magic can sell high on their two forwards (don't bet on it), this will be the best chance at getting to the Finals that we'll see out of this crew, as presently constructed. This isn't to say that Howard and Nelson won't have their chances once a new supporting cast arrives a few years from now, they will, but this has to be the year. Has to."

Well, they did sell high on Turkoglu, in a number of ways. But for all the talk about Hedo Turkoglu(notes) being about to go down the wrong side of that hill, Lewis (aged 30 years) is spiraling a bit, too. His per-minute numbers haven't taken a terrific tumble, but they're off.

Damn. I forgot that 2008-09 was supposed to be Orlando's season. And that replacing one guy in his 30s with another, while retaining the other guy in his 30s isn't a stroke worth counting on.

And this takes me to a place I haven't been in a while. A place that tells me to criticize Stan Van Gundy.

He needs to be playing Ryan Anderson(notes) more. Anderson shoots nearly as well from long range as Rashard, scores more, turns it over about the same amount, rebounds way better and passes the same. I'm not going to tell you he creates his shot better than Rashard, but with Rashard refusing to do it for lo these many years, you have to at least point out that Anderson bothers to attack where Rashard doesn't. Like, Nate Robinson(notes) isn't a better rebounder than Eddy Curry(notes), but because Curry decides not to do it so often and Nate does ... we'll go with Nate.

Before we pile on too much, I need to point out that his per-minute numbers aren't too far off, and probably in line with what was supposed to be expected at age 30, and with all these new faces. And he isn't alone in falling off.

Mickael Pietrus(notes) has been playing better of late, but not at a level that last season's performance would suggest. Matt Barnes(notes) continues to turn the ball over at a high rate, something that has carried over from his other stops. He just does it in ways that suggest he won't do it again — before he does it again. Like losing the ball while dribbling in transition, then giving himself a hard clap and a "my bad" for everyone to see. You think he's learned, but he hasn't.

Howard is not the defender he was last year, Nelson is not the scorer and penetrator he was last year, while Howard's offense remains pretty shaky and Nelson's defense remains pretty shaky.

And Vince Carter(notes)? Usually taking some time off and a chance to observe your team from the sideline is a tonic of sorts. Not for him. He took some terrible shots last night, and his skills as a rebounder and (truly) smart passer that we saw in New Jersey (on teams both good and bad)? Gone in Orlando. He's regressed, significantly.

All this leaves is a team that still is above the norms in most areas. The Magic don't hit the offensive glass well, which is a surprise. Lewis has been a miserable rebounder this season, but Dwight can board — which makes me think he's being asked to get back on defense more to cover for some of the new faces. And they don't cause many turnovers, which isn't often a prerequisite to defensive success.

Still, this team was the best defensive team in the NBA last season, and now it is sixth. We were expecting a drop of sorts, to third or fourth at worst, but that was only in concert with a rise offensively to the top five (they were 11th last season). This season, they've stalled at ninth on offense, and they've been there for a while. A team this talented, with this many parts — I don't care if it's relatively early — it shouldn't be ninth.

These are the whys and hows, mind you. Should Orlando continue to flail, and fade away during the playoffs, we'll write the scolding post-mortem then. Right now, we're still only halfway in.

This time last season, the Magic were riding high before losing their All-Star point man. This allowed for Turkoglu to take over on a level that went beyond his usual last-second heroics, allowing observers to see him as the key to Orlando's offense. And he was part of it, no doubt, but the Magic were worse with Hedo running the show and Jameer gone. And they had a top record with Jameer playing at an All-Star level. To say nothing of the fact that Hedo's been more or less revealed as Hedo in Toronto.

What we're saying here is that there is time for a run. A profound one. One that doles out minutes and good shots at appropriate paces, and allows for the semi-failings (say, both your point guards are bad defensively) of others to be made up for by the sterling play of some. Some whose vices will in turn be made up for by the strengths of those who were previously referred to as "the others." I've never seen an episode of "Lost."

This is on the players. It's up to Vince to play as he should. It's up to Howard to attack more often. And it's up to Dwight to remember that the only reason his Magic made it to 59 wins last season, and to the Finals, is because he had to play a near-perfect game defensively, covering for so, so much while never taking any plays off.

Anything short of that perfection and, well, you've seen the results. A team that hasn't won a thing, littered with players who haven't won jack, giving us the self-satisfied routine. Uh-oh.

We're halfway through, and that glass is always half-full with me. But this team has a lot of work to do. A lot. And that's just to get back to where it was last season — a team with a chance at the Finals.

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