The Orlando Magic are not all about winning games in 2013-14, they’re about learning how to win games. They’re about picking up experience as the rebuilding project moves along, one that has left them in a bit of lurch because they did not bottom out in Dwight Howard’s final year with the team, earning a lottery pick along the way.
They bottomed out last year, compiling the most losses in the NBA and allowing them to select Indiana’s Victor Oladipo second overall in last June’s draft. The rookie has won raves for his quick instincts and versatility thus far, but his overall numbers have been pretty poor as he transitions to a playmaking role at the NBA level.
This transition is leaving longtime Magic point guard Jameer Nelson without a role in the latter stages of the game. Nelson still starts, but he’s often left to watch Oladipo finish games while the talented young man racks up “experience” that probably won’t pay off until long after Nelson leaves the only team he’s ever known (draft night trades, excluded). Nelson, who is a free agent at the end of the season and likely in his last year with Orlando, is handling this with typically professional ease. From Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel:
"The thing about it is, obviously, I want to play and I want to compete," Nelson said Monday when he was asked about the situation.
"I'm a competitor and I want to win, so I wanted to be on the court. Coach decided not to play me, and that's his decision. I can only play the minutes that he gives me, play them as hard as I can and leave it out there for those minutes. It's his decision who's going to play the minutes and when they're going to play them. And our job as players is, like I said, to play those minutes as best we can."
After Nelson sat down the stretch in an Orlando loss to Dallas on Saturday, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn explained the move:
“(Nelson) was not hurt,” Vaughn explained. “It was more so a coach’s decision. At the time we were playing small and it gave us a chance to keep Vic in the game, experience the fourth quarter and try to get a comeback.”
Yep. There’s that “experience.” Oladipo, who never played point guard at any level prior to this year, had four turnovers and missed three of four shots while Nelson watched.
As he should. Because while this is unfair to Nelson, the Orlando Magic don’t need to be squeezing every available ounce out of the diminutive 31-year old point guard. It’s not a nice way to end Jameer’s ten-year career in Orlando, but that’s what happens when you rebuild. And because Vaughn and Magic general manager Rob Hennigan are taking the intelligent, long view of the situation, these sorts of things go down. Even if the rookie continues to fumble away.
Oladipo’s struggles make this tougher, because it’s not as if he’s busted out as a surefire star in the early going; even if most think he’ll eventually be a fantastic player. Victor is averaging a whopping four turnovers a night in only 25.5 minutes a contest. Still, it’s also not as if Nelson is scorching the nets, because Jameer’s shooting percentage is actually lower than Oladipo’s (pretty awful) 38 percent from the floor. Nobody is being denied the chance to contribute All-Star-level ball, here.
The Magic are a surprisingly-good 4-6 due to a fantastic year from guard Aaron Afflalo, who might be trade bait himself on a roster that is much younger than him. Vaughn has done well to create a top ten defense out of young players and center Nikola Vucevic, who struggled to guard the rim consistently last season, but it’s a long season, and that has a way of wearing on rebuilding teams.
Nelson, for now, is staying put, and saying all the right things. As if he had any other options.
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