Last season, all the talk was about how the Magic had decided to sacrifice their biggest mismatch advantage by allowing point-forward Hedo Turkoglu to walk in free agency while replacing him with a traditional shooting guard in Vince Carter after an unexpected trip to the NBA Final. The move was both a win and a loss for the club. It was a win insofar as Turkoglu signed a $52-million deal with Toronto only to bomb in his first year with the club. The Magic looked incredibly wise for sacrificing their continuity by not gifting Turkoglu with a grand extension and investing the much shorter-term money committed to Vince Carter, instead.
However, the decision wasn't a slam-dunk. Carter had his worst statistical season of his career last year with Orlando, and he was often criticized for trying too hard to blend in to the Magic's attack rather than taking over in times of need, especially down the stretch of games. However, even with that criticism the Magic were dominant force throughout much of the season, impressive especially considering that they were without Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson for a combined 34 games, forcing the team to delay their much-needed chemistry building heading towards the Playoffs. Also, for all that people have criticized Carter and his inability to dominate for the Magic, the team still easily led the league in point differential last season (+7.49) and were within two wins of once again reaching the Finals against the Lakers. Did they improve upon their overall fortunes of a year ago? No, but they came pretty damn close, and a lot closer that the more highly-touted Cavaliers managed – though both were ultimately bested by the East Coast Champ, Boston Celtics.
Why all this rehashing of last season? Because reminding everyone that this team was pretty darn good a year ago should give some perspective to the notion that they'll be pretty darn good this year, too. Their only major loss this summer was Matt Barnes, who was replaced by injury-waiting-to-happen Quentin Richardson, and that may have an affect on this team if they are forced to matchup against Miami in the post-season, but for the most part the club looks every bit as strong as they were a season ago, except now they are armed with more chemistry than they had at the start of the 2009-2010 season. For a look at how vital chemistry can be when the games really matter, look at how the Celtics shook off a middling regular season to dominate in the Playoffs, or conversely, how an always reshuffling Cavaliers roster looked totally out-of-sync against Boston as they fell to them in six games in the Conference Semi-Finals.
The real question for the Magic is: Do they have enough to topple the best in the East this season? Well, that's a very difficult question to answer. Surely they will again have trouble against Boston (if they're healthy) as Boston has even more looks that they can throw at Howard this season while they allow him to be defended one-on-one, stifling the Magic's 1-in-4-out playbook by refusing to leave shooters open on the perimeter. Conversely, while Howard should be able to feast against Miami's front line, it remains to be seen if a wing cadre of Carter, Lewis, Richardson and Mickael Pietrus are up to stopping Wade AND LeBron for a seven-game series.
What is essential for the Magic (as well as Boston) this season is to clinch the second overall spot in the East so as to try and avoid the Heat until the Conference Finals (should the Heat a) finish with the top spot and b) get through the first two rounds of the Playoffs). That way they'll have presumably had the easier path to the third round while also getting the Heat after what would most probably be a grueling second-round matchup.
That's a lot of presuming, actually, but that's what one is faced with when a team's relevant measuring stick doesn't make an appearance until April of next year. A multitude of things can happen between now and then, but for now let's just say that the Magic look to be in no worse a position to repeat their achievements of last season this year, but their ability to improve is completely unknowable at this stage. That, as they say, is why they play the games.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – JAMEER NELSON
Without Hedo Turkoglu around to hide Nelson's lack of playmaking skills, Nelson's PER dropped dramatically, from 20.72 down to 15.6, and in just about every measureable way he was weakened last season. Nelson was forced to become more of a traditional point guard, which saw his shooting fall to a three-year low (54% True Shooting percentage, 45-38-85 traditional percentages), and his assists fell, too, if only by 0.1%. The Magic are hoping that Nelson's decline was merely a one-year aberration and not the long-term result of losing the uniquely skilled Turkoglu, because at $23.5-million left in committed dollars, they've tied their immediate future at this position to Nelson's abilities, for better and for worse.
SG – VINCE CARTER
What really knocked Carter out last season was the fact that his minutes were reduced considerably from his time in New Jersey (down six minutes from the year before) and his confidence seemed broken by the reduction. Carter is a rhythm player, a guy who handles the ball and looks for opportunities to score or pass (he's a very underrated playmaker). However, in Orlando he was purely a finisher, he was too far down on the pecking order to dominate the ball the way he likes, and so his percentages dropped and his impact was negated (he registered the lowest PER of his career in Orlando at 17.1). When star two-guards fall off in their careers, it's usually because they either their bodies betray them or they can't adjust to less time holding the ball. For Carter to be more than a role player going forward, he's either going to have to learn to seriously increase his efficiency or else the team is going to have to be more comfortable with him holding the ball. Since the odds of Stan Van Gundy redesigning his offense for Carter is slim, Carter had better find a way to be more effective with less.
SF – MICKAEL PIETRUS
Pietrus' career has basically hit a plateau, and all he managed to achieve was the status of solid defender and questionable offensive decision-maker. Without Matt Barnes around, though, Pietrus must find a way to bring more to the court when he's playing. Last season the team was a net minus-7.2-point performer when Pietrus was on the floor, which was worse than any other Magic player save for Marcin Gortat. Unless the team wants to put more of their fate into the hands of Quentin Richardson, Pietrus and the Magic have to work together to make him more of a positive in more areas of the game this season.
PF – RASHARD LEWIS
While Nelson saw his career slightly derail at the loss of Turkoglu, no player seemed as totally lost without him as Lewis. Notorious for being their highest-paid player, Lewis posted the worst PER of his Magic career last year (14.09) and scoring dropped by nearly four points per-game. Turkoglu and Lewis had a great on-court synergy and Lewis missed Turkoglu's ability to create offense for him. Defenses guarded the 1-5 pick-and-roll differently without Turkoglu running the point, because usually the Magic would use the play to swing the ball out to Lewis on the weak-side. However, defenses were able to use Nelson's size against him since he had trouble seeing over taller defenders, and the whole play was slowed just enough that Lewis didn't get the same clean looks as he was used to. To rise above the cream in the Eastern crop, Lewis needs to find other ways to impact the offense or else the Magic are going to be faced with some tough decisions on the trade market.
C – DWIGHT HOWARD
People complain about Howard not being more things to more people, but at 18.3-points and 13.2-rebounds each night he's already a pretty dominating force. The team isn't designed for him to be a Shaq-like figure, and while the team would happily redesign their offense to accommodate that kind of improvement, the team should be credited for acknowledging what they actually have versus what other dream Howard can be. Howard hasn't added any major wrinkles to his offensive attack, but he's perfected the things he does well each night. At this point he is who he is: a defensive and rebounding leviathan that will never anchor an offense. The Magic have done pretty well using him within his limitations, and more teams could use their reality-facing mission statement as a blueprint for how to deal with stars with limitations in their game.