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.