A steady descent for the Orlando Magic | Magic Basketball

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Feb 10

A steady descent for the Orlando Magic

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It was January 9.

The Orlando Magic just got done beating the Dallas Mavericks the night before to extend their winning streak to nine games — tying a franchise record. The Magic’s record was 25-12, third in the Eastern Conference, and they were within striking distance of the Miami Heat (trailed by 3.5 games) for the No. 2 seed. It looked like general manager Otis Smith struck gold with two blockbuster trades that brought Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jason Richardson into the fray.

All was well.

The playmaking that was needed? Turkoglu took care of that.

The offensive firepower on the perimeter that was lacking? Arenas, Turkoglu, and Richardson brought the ammunition.

Unfortunately for Orlando, their nine-game winning streak — looking back on it now — was fool’s gold. That 22-point win over the San Antonio Spurs? The Spurs were playing on a back-to-back and head coach Gregg Popovich waved the white flag early in the third quarter, knowing the outcome was decided. That eight-point win over the Boston Celtics? Rajon Rondo, someone that has given the Magic plenty of problems in the past, didn’t play due to sprained left ankle (Kendrick Perkins was out, as well). That 10-point win over the Mavericks? Dirk Nowitzki sat out of the game with a sprained right knee. Orlando’s lone other win against a winning team in that timeframe came against the New York Knicks, a squad that is merely average and capable of beating beaten on any given night. Especially by the Magic.

Granted, Orlando has had some close losses too.

Losing by three to the New Orleans Hornets in overtime. Losing by a point to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Losing by three to the Celtics. Losing by nine points to the Chicago Bulls. Losing by four points to the Miami Heat. These aren’t bad losses, per se, but they’re not wins either.

For the Magic, close enough isn’t good enough. Not for a franchise that’s been considered part of the elite in the NBA since 2009 when they made their run to the Finals. And since Orlando’s winning streak, they’re 9-8 in their last 17 games and looking less like a championship contender.

It’s spurred writers from around the blogosphere to ask if the Magic are done?

Let’s put it this way — Orlando is close. The problem for the Magic is that their problems, and there’s a lot of them, can’t be fixed in one felt swoop.

Little-to-no perimeter defense
When Smith made the choice to jettison Mickael Pietrus, gone was Orlando’s best perimeter defender that made a name for himself defending the likes of Paul Pierce, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant in the 2009 NBA Playoffs. Goofiness and inconsistency aside, Pietrus was a valuable player to the Magic because he had a nice blend of athleticism and strength to combat the elite scorers in the league. No, Pietrus didn’t always succeed in his task because he would sometimes let his offense dictate his energy and effort on defense, but he was a player that could be relied upon more often than not. Without Pietrus to buoy Orlando defensively on the perimeter, head coach Stan Van Gundy has had to rely upon J.J. Redick and Quentin Richardson to man those particular responsibilities. Even though Redick is a savvy defender and is rarely caught out of position, he can’t guard Pierce, James, or Bryant. Neither can Richardson because even though he has the athleticism and strength like Pietrus, he’s undersized at 6-foot-5.

Exacerbating the issue is that Jason Richardson and Turkgolu aren’t the best defenders in the world. Turkoglu, when he’s engaged and focused, is a good on-ball defender but he sometimes loses concentration off-the-ball and that has driven Van Gundy crazy these past few weeks. As for Richardson, he has the athleticism to be a great defender but his technique is terrible. Try watching Richardson chase Ray Allen around screens — it’s not a pretty picture. As for Jameer Nelson and Arenas, they can’t keep opposing point guards in front of them. Not even a player like Mike Conley, someone that has no business torching the Magic’s defense but did just that on January 31. Two years ago when Orlando made the Finals, they had Courtney Lee and Pietrus to rely upon for perimeter defense (don’t forget about Rafer Alston either). Last year, it was Pietrus and Matt Barnes. This year, it’s Redick? Smith gambled that more offense was the key for the Magic against the likes of the Heat and Celtics.

Still need to play defense, though.

Before trades After trades
Defensive Rating 103.5 (37 games) 104.5 (17 games)

Because the Magic are unable to keep opposing wing players in front of them, that has weakened one of the best defenses in the league even though it’s still ranked third in defensive efficiency.

Lack of size
At the beginning of the season, Orlando was considered a squad with a lot of big men at their disposal. Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, and Dwight Howard. Now it’s just Bass, Anderson, and Howard, with occasional appearances from Earl Clark.

But the key is Gortat.

When the Magic were in need of extra rebounding and defense, Van Gundy had the luxury of playing Gortat alongside Howard for a twin towers alignment that beefed up the frontline. Sure, because of Gortat’s inability to space the floor while he was on the court next to Howard, Orlando’s offense would sputter here and there. Yet the Magic could make up the discrepancy sometimes because they were better equipped to stop their opponents from scoring.

Plus, when Howard would sit on the bench due to foul trouble or to get some rest, Gortat could step in and Orlando’s defense would barely miss a beat. As a result, knowing that Gortat could anchor the Magic defensively, that allowed Howard to be more aggressive on defense. If Howard picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, for example, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem because Gortat could step in. Those are luxuries Orlando doesn’t have anymore.

Howard can’t afford to pick up fouls because the Magic’s bench isn’t equipped to maintain the same quality of defense when he’s off the floor. That’s forced Howard to be less aggressive defensively and opponents are taking advantage of that, becoming more willing to attack the basket. Gortat’s departure has created a parasitic effect on Orlando’s defense that can only be solved if Smith is willing to go out there and acquire another defensive-minded big man.

Inconsistent playmaking and shot creation
The arrival of Arenas, Turkoglu, and Richardson was supposed to give the Magic a much-needed boost with their perimeter attack. The players they replaced, Vince Carter and Lewis, weren’t cutting it anymore.

Even though Carter was performing efficiently offensively, his inability to provide Orlando buckets at will when they needed them made him an unreliable option late in games. As for Lewis, he simply wasn’t producing on offense anymore. Arenas, Turkoglu, and Richardson were supposed to solve the Magic’s problems of shot creation, playmaking, and ability to perform in crunch time. At first, after the trades, Orlando got what they desired from Arenas, Turkoglu, and Richardson.

Arenas willingly stepped in as the sixth man and provided a spark off the bench, Turkoglu rekindled his synergy with Howard in the pick and roll, while Richardson didn’t shy away from hitting big shots for the Magic in the clutch. All seemed well.

During winning streak Since winning streak
Gilbert Arenas PPG (11.0) | TS% (49.0) PPG (7.6) | TS% (42.2)
Jason Richardson PPG (14.8) | TS% (61.8) PPG (14.0) | TS% (54.0)
Hedo Turkoglu PPG (13.4) | TS% (62.3) PPG (10.1) | TS% (47.0)

In the past few weeks, though, the wheels have fallen off and Orlando is suddenly dealing with the same issues that cropped up before the trades. Arenas’ arthritic knee has made him a liability on both sides of the ball, Turkoglu has been lazy and reverting back to some of the bad habits which made him reviled with the Toronto Raptors, and Richardson simply can’t hit a shot to save his life it seems like.

The worst part of everything is that there’s no easy fix for the Magic. The offense has been a problem all season long but now defense is an issue, too, because of the trades.

10 comments
J G
J G

I think both the Magic front office and Magic fans underrated Vince Carter's contribution to the team. During the latter half of last season (when Orlando was the best team in the NBA), Vince was a reliable and efficient scorer and the clear second best player on the team. All of that was erased during games 3-5 of the Boston series, and even when Vince came back this season playing MORE efficiently, the Magic panicked and tried to "upgrade" to J-Rich at the 2-guard spot. Lewis was a problem, and the flu bug hurt, but this Magic team did not need a complete overhaul. Richardson and Turk were supposed to be much better than Carter and Lewis, which is why we sacrificed money and our best trade asset to make the change. Unfortunately, Richardson appears to be a wash offensively (better shooter, worse at creating) and a massive downgrade defensively (and it's not like Vince was anything more than an average defender). With J-Rich and Turk gone, the Suns defense has improved dramatically, while the Magic defense has suffered. To attribute the decrease in perimeter defense to the loss of Pietrus is a bit ridiculous - he was barely playing this season.

And to whoever said the first Vince Carter trade was a mistake, are you serious? Courtney Lee is a below average NBA player. In return the Magic got Anderson (who is already a better player than Lee) and Carter (who helped fill the void that Smith created when he refused to match Turk's contract and also added new dimensions to the offense). The real mistakes were signing Duhon (over Ridnour or Blake), Richardson (over pretty much everyone), and BOTH midseason trades. As a fan, it is so upsetting to see the GM take a championship contender for years to come and turn it into a middling playoff team with no chance of beating the NBA's best, and no hope for the future. Thank God for Dwight Howard, otherwise I'd have a hard time still cheering for this team.

TheHeroofOsaka
TheHeroofOsaka

I think it's really easy to look at these kinds of things and freak out. I tend to do it too when I'm sitting at home watching games. However, there is a lot of comfort to be had as well. The talent is there. The possibility of winning a championship is there. It comes down to execution, effort and focus, none of which the Magic are showing a lot of in this current stretch.

It's going to come down to Hedo and Arenas, for better or for worse. If they play well, the Magic become a top tier, if not the best team in the NBA. JJ Redick, Ryan Anderson and friends are solid bench players, but that's what they are. They'll get you 10 points a night and some change but relying on them to win games isn't going to cut it.

It's obvious Hedo's hurting at least on some level. If possible, he's moving even slow than usual. I agree that he just needs to be rested until the end of the all-star break. Arenas? Well, we all knew it was a gamble. Yes, his knees hurt, but watch him on the court. He has no confidence. He picks terrible shots. He has trouble connecting when he drives to the basket. His free throw shooting is down.

Eddie, I think this article is pretty spot on, but there's a lot of positive to focus on too. Dwight Howard is playing absurdly good basketball of late. His offensive game has become monstrous. That's the number one priority for this ball club. If Howard truly becomes not just an elite center but an MVP level player a lot of our other flaws become negotiable. Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass have had career years.

Our chances come down to the play of Jameer Nelson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu. If they patch their respective games up by April, I still like our odds. If not, we're pretty much done for the year. I also believe Otis Smith needs to bring in a solid second big so Dwight can be as aggressive on defense as he'd like to be. Look at Dwight's blocks lately. He's been an absolute kitten compared to pre-trade.

Yoni
Yoni

Don't we need another big man? Smith had originally said that was in the plans... what happened with that?

I agree that overplaying an injured player, especially one of Turk's age, is a bad idea. Let's let him sit, give Q-Rich some more time, and give T-Glu some time to heal. Plus, his issues are normally focus-related, which seem to dissipate when the playoffs come around. Too bad we can't get him to stay focused and improve his game and our team during the regular season.

Seriously, we should get a world-class sports psychologist to work with Turk on focus, Anderson on confidence, and Howard on free-throws and not mentally crumbling when he gets a bad call or a tech. I agree that Howard gets a lot of bad calls, but he can't get those changed in-game and it seems to take away far more energy and focus (and confidence) in his game than he should allow it to.

Ryanm1725
Ryanm1725

they more than a 3point game to be up there with the boston celtics. The magic need size and more inside game. Dwight does his job every night it is everybody else who is shitting the bed. gilbert arenas is the biggest waste of bench space and he will never be what he used to. Otis smith keeps making these decisions that are just obscene. We can go back to the 2008-2009 magic and let try and figure out why he traded some key players who got us to the finals for Vince Carter.. If it aint broke dont fix it. just add to the team. Now he acquired gilberts bum ass instead of some good young talent. We have a worse record now than we did before the trade. at however millions of dollars arenas is getting he should be doing way more and stop making excuses like " I dont play well in afternoon games because I dont eat breakfast or I play better in the warm weather."

TimJ
TimJ

At least they have time to work on things and try to peak during the playoffs. It scares me more to think they could have won a lot of recent games if their 3 point average was closer to the norm. Then we'd be blissfully unaware of all the significant flaws.

Ferric
Ferric

I think the recent horrid play of the magic is due in part to a slum by Richardson and injury problems for Turk. Turk will get better if he doesn't seriously hurt himself. I think it a horrible idea to play a player with a sore knee. They should shut down Turk until the all star break so he doesn't hurt himself further. So assuming Turk gets healthy the Magic are going to be better. But even if Turk and Richardson are playing well I don't think its enough to put the Magic over the top. This is a horrible defensive squad that can't stop anyone. Watching games against teams with Elite perimeter player, it quite clear that the perimeter players can score at will. It almost like the Magic are turning into a lesser version of the warriors. By which I mean that opposing players routinely post absurd stat lines because the warriors and now the magic on the perimeter are almost defenseless.

just passing
just passing

Eddy, I agree with you on all points but don't downplay those 9 wins. Nobody in the league and in most blogs thought we were capable to beat the Spurs and Boston at that point. If it wasn't for those wins the team would be a pretty big mess right about now, way worse than they are.

Magic Fan in NYC
Magic Fan in NYC

At this time of year, last year, the Magic were facing a similar problem, lots of potential but under-performing. I think that the magic do have a possibility to get really hot and make a good run at a title, but the difference of competition in the east, i think, is what is making this team look worse.

Samc32771
Samc32771

Wow the other teams make enough excuses for themselves now you are making excuse for others....greg popavich waved the white flag etc.,,,,,,,,rediculous.......and uyou dare call yourself a fan

eltharion_doa
eltharion_doa

This is the most down I've ever seen you on the Magic, Ed. Can't say I disagree - or didn't see it coming, especially the defense.

Is Hedo fit? I know he's complaining to the Sentinel about his knee and back, do you know if they're legit complaints or if he's just looking for excuses? He needs to find a way to get it done - we can't afford to have him not shooting the ball well or playing without energy.