Here's a pop quiz for all you NBA aficionados out there: guess which NBA team had the best point differential in the 2009-10 regular-season?
No, it's not the Los Angeles Lakers, who ended up winning the NBA championship. No, it's not the Cleveland Cavaliers, who captured most of the media attention in winning the regular-season Eastern Conference crown. Instead, it was the Orlando Magic, who outscored teams by an average of 7.5 points per game last season. By one measure at least, it was Orlando that should have been the favorite entering the playoffs.
The first two rounds of the playoffs went about as well as one could have expected, with the Magic winning all eight games in dominating fashion. But then, old nemesis Boston awaited in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they were a different animal than anything Orlando had seen in a long time. Having not been seriously tested for several months, the Magic were rusty, and fell behind 3-0 before they could even blink. They rallied to cut the deficit to 3-2, but it was too little too late. The favorites entering the playoffs were gone before they could return to the NBA Finals.
Now, after a summer where the Miami Heat built a super team, the Magic have been reduced to fringe contender status. The Lakers are the champions, the Celtics are the battle-tested veterans and the Heat are the Heat. The Magic? They're somewhere in there, but very few people are talking about them, especially after a summer where their marquee moves were to bring in Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon. On paper, this looks like the same team that came up just short the last two years.
But as strange as it sounds, that may suit the Magic well. They were the contender that made big moves last summer, and it didn't help them get over the top. Now, they know each other better, and they're being counted off by most. This is a team that historically has been better when playing the disrespect card. They now have that chance.
The Magic are also smart enough to understand that they need to come in with a different mindset. They've done exactly that, as SB Nation's Magic blog Orlando Pinstriped Post notes:
In the bigger picture, the most significant move happened off the court, due to something that kept happening on it when the Boston Celtics ended their season in the Eastern Conference Finals. Indeed, the Magic have tried to become more focused and mentally tough this season. "[Toughness]," [J.J.] Redick said during Media Day, "[is] a big reason why Boston beat us." The team has abandoned its pregame "Magic Show" exhibition during warm-ups. And [Dwight] Howard has vowed to take a more businesslike approach on the court, a topic which Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today covered in greater depth here.
The Magic set the tone for their season in a three-and-a-half-hour meeting the day before training camp. Though the coaching staff and GM Otis Smith were in attendance, the players did most of the talking, and discussed accountability. Every player has a role to fill, and it's up to him to fill it. It also means knowing every other player's role, and holding those players accountable when they aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
The one guy who must lead the way with this culture change is Dwight Howard. Howard has been dominant at times, mostly as the lynchpin of one of the league's best defenses, but it's his limitations that have cost the Magic in the playoffs the last couple years. The Celtics, much like the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals, were able to stop the Magic by single-covering Howard in the post and not helping off Orlando's shooters. For the second straight year, Howard was unable to make the opponent pay for that strategy.
Howard has already vowed to become more serious this year, but a demeanor change isn't going to be enough to make him a better offensive player. To fix that problem, Howard spent time working with legend Hakeem Olajuwon on his post game. Magic Basketball believes that will lead to Howard's best season.
We finally may be witnessing an evolution in Howard's offense, thanks to his off-season workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Howard has developed a newfound confidence in his mid-range jumper, thanks to Olajuwon, and he's made an effort to expand his offensive repertoire to include more moves and countermoves in the low post. Add to the fact that Howard has improved his footwork, and everything is shaping up for him to have his finest year on offense.
The Magic will need Howard to take a step forward offensively, because they did nothing to fix one of their major weaknesses: shot creation on the perimeter. Last summer's trade for Vince Carter was supposed to provide the Magic a wing scorer capable of creating offense when everything broke down, but Carter struggled in the role. He spent much of the first half of the season launching errant shots and killing the Magic's flow, and after finally settling down at the end of the regular season, he was bottled up by the Celtics' physical defense in the playoffs. Unless Carter somehow turns it around, this will continue to be a weakness, as Orlando Magic Daily notes:
Orlando's big weakness continues to be its ability to create points from the perimeter. Everything is nice and efficient if Orlando can get around pick and rolls and get the ball inside to Dwight Howard. But what happens if a team can defend Howard one on one or switch screens and keep guys like Jameer Nelson or Vince Carter out of the paint?
What the Magic really lack is a guy who can get you 20 points a night no matter what and score the game-winning basket for you. They lack a go-to perimeter scorer. Carter was supposed to be that guy when Orlando brought him in last summer. But, for whatever reason, he struggled to integrate into his new team and took a backseat to the more established players on the roster. That will not do this year.
If perimeter scoring continues to be an issue, the Magic may need to think about abandoning or tinkering their four-out, one-in offensive approach. Indeed, as Orlando Sports Central notes, the Magic have been doing that a bit in the preseason, moving power forward Rashard Lewis down to small forward at times.
The central figure among the moving parts is Rashard Lewis. Upon signing with Orlando in 2007, Lewis was moved from his natural small forward position to power forward in order to help fill a void at that spot.
Van Gundy entered the preseason hoping to experiment a little, though, by giving Lewis the chance to ease back into the three spot while providing extra playing time for Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass at the four, alongside centers Howard and Marcin Gortat.
But that seems like a last-resort approach to me. There's nothing really wrong with Orlando's style - it works against pretty much everyone. For those last couple teams, it just comes down to Howard. Howard is one of the NBA's five best players even with a developing post game. If his offseason work pays off, there's nobody the Magic should fear, including the Heat. Miami may have great talent on the wings, but Howard is the ultimate equalizer, the perfect foil to Miami's lack of interior strength. He remains the key to the Magic's season, and maybe the key to the entire balance of power in the league.
How will Orlando do this season? The bloggers weigh in with their predictions.
- Orlando Pinstriped Post: 62-20.
- Magic Basketball: 60-22.
- Orlando Magic Daily: 59-23
- Orlando Sports Central: No prediction.