Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
When I think of Jameer Nelson, I think of inconsistency. I think of a player that’s the very definition of that word.
Nelson has spent seven seasons in the NBA carving out a niche as a maddeningly inconsistent player that teases you with pure brilliance. Sometimes that brilliance lasts for one game. Or five games. Or 10 games. And when you see what Nelson is fully capable of, you get infatuated with his abilities.
At his best, Nelson is aggressive in looking for his own shot in pick-and-rolls while simultaneously fulfilling playmaking duties as a point guard. It’s a delicate balance that Nelson tries to find on a game-to-game basis and because equilibrium is remarkably hard to achieve (with Chris Paul serving as the model of consistency and excellence), it’s easy to see why he’s inconsistent.
But at the same time, because Nelson — at this stage in his career — already knows what it takes to reach his potential, it boggles the mind that he continues to suffer with bouts of inconsistency. It’s been seven years! You’d imagine that Nelson would have figured it out by now. But Nelson hasn’t, and perhaps he never will.
Which makes looking back at Nelson’s All-Star season in 2009 a depressing exercise because that’s when you thought he had his “aha!” moment. That’s when you thought Nelson had truly figured it out.
First, let’s set the stage.
Let’s go back to 2008.
Nelson’s first season under head coach Stan Van Gundy was a roller coaster ride, to say the least. The Orlando Magic stormed out of the gates with a 15-4 start to the regular season, with Nelson serving as a key contributor to the team’s surprising ascent to the top of the overall standings.
But with Hedo Turkoglu emerging as the primary playmaker in Van Gundy’s 4-out/1-in offensive scheme, Nelson’s place in the Magic’s hierarchy shifted. Nelson became a ghost in the shadows. Nelson was inconsistent and passive on offense. Those issues allowed Carlos Arroyo, of all people, to execute a brief coup d’état during the middle of the regular season and take over the reigns at point guard — only in name because Turkoglu was the de facto point guard for Orlando in many respects. Nelson shuffled in and out of the starting lineup for a month or so (spanning most of January) before he started for the remainder of the season.
However, still unsure of his role in the Magic’s offense, Nelson continued to play with inconsistency and passivity heading into the playoffs.
Orlando secured the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record and had a date with the Toronto Raptors in the first round. Although the Magic were favored to win the series, plenty of prognosticators felt the Raptors could beat them because they were a deeper team and they had Chris Bosh (a notorious Magic-killer) as well as T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, seen by many as two players that could collectively outplay Nelson. And it was hard to dispute that theory, given that Calderon played at an All-Star caliber level during the regular season and Ford was a super-sub coming off the bench for head coach Sam Mitchell.
With Toronto carrying matchup advantages with Calderon and Ford at point guard and Bosh at either power forward or center (on the flipside, Orlando had Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis or Dwight Howard depending on Bosh’s position on the court) and the battle between Jamario Moon and Mo Evans representing nothing more than a wash, this series was a toss-up.
Then something funny happened.
Nelson outplayed Calderon and Ford, single-handedly turning a Mexican standoff into an execution by firing squad. It was a ruthless slaughter. The Magic won the series in five games and Nelson was undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the route. Nelson was assertive offensively for Orlando, rose his level of play in the postseason to meet the higher standards of intensity, and quieted the critics as a result. Especially the many Magic fans that didn’t feel Nelson was worthy of being the starting point guard.
Although Orlando would go on to lose in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Detroit Pistons in five games, Nelson held his own against All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups. Granted, Billups (who got hurt early in Game 3 and didn’t play in either Game 4 or 5) still got the better of Nelson more often than not when they were matched up with each other. But Nelson didn’t back down.
Nelson went toe-to-toe with two All-Star caliber point guards in the playoffs and showed he belonged in that class. That’s when the light bulb finally went on for Nelson and he knew what he was capable of as a player.
An All-Star emerges
Now let’s fast-forward to 2009.
Even though the Magic lost to the Pistons in the Semifinals the previous season, it was the first time the franchise advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1996, back when Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway donned pinstripes. As a result, optimism abounded in Orlando heading into 2008-2009 season and the basic goal was to advance deeper into the postseason.
But doubts still lingered that Nelson was the point guard to lead the Magic. There was a lot of uncertainty that Nelson could carry over and replicate the success he had in the playoffs against the Raptors and Pistons.
Yet Nelson did. And then some.
Buoyed, perhaps, by the psychological effect of knowing he was the undisputed starting point guard for Orlando, given that general manager Otis Smith chose not to re-sign Arroyo (or Keyon Dooling for that matter), Nelson was able to play with a clear head and not be forced to look over his shoulder. Combine that with Nelson playing in Van Gundy’s system for a second year, thus knowing what was expected of him on offense, and you had the makings of a supremely confident player on the floor.
That spelled double-trouble for the rest of the league.
Before Nelson got injured on a freak play against the Dallas Mavericks in February 2009, he played like a man possessed for 42 games. But more importantly, Nelson was able to remain consistent and maintain a high level of play, carrying over the momentum he began to develop for himself during the 2008 NBA Playoffs.
The numbers bear that out.
A low turnover percentage (the lowest of his career up to this point) combined with some obscene shooting percentages created a perfect storm of efficiency for Nelson offensively.
|2008-2009 (regular season)||.612||.580||12.6||23.2||121|
And the stat that boggles the mind, especially for a perimeter-oriented player like Nelson, was his shooting percentage from 16-23 feet.
|Games Played||Minutes Played||FGM-A||FG%|
A league average percentage from 16-23 feet typically hovers around 40 percent on nearly two shot attempts per game.
Nelson shot 52 percent on three-and-a-half attempts per game.
That’s Dirk Nowitzki-level of shooting.
And when breaking it down, that’s the reason Nelson was named an All-Star that season. With players on opposing defenses going under pick-and-rolls consistently against Nelson and daring him to shoot or going over them and allowing him to attack the interior, he made them pay. It was a beautiful display of offensive wizardry and it’s safe to say, looking at Nelson’s career as a whole, that Magic fans won’t see that extended period of streakiness ever again.
Which is a shame because in the aggregate, with Nelson and Turkoglu terrorizing defenses in pick-and-rolls, with Lewis spreading the floor and spotting up from the perimeter, with Howard anchoring the middle of the paint and bringing balance to Van Gundy’s philosophy of working inside-out on offense, Orlando was a handful to deal with for nearly every team in the league except the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. And without a doubt, with Nelson’s moment of clarity in 2009, it’s no coincidence that the Magic transformed into an elite team and championship contender seemingly overnight.
Unfortunately for Nelson, his evolution into an All-Star caliber point guard was only temporary. Oh, sure, Nelson would show those same flashes of pure brilliance, like he did during the 2010 NBA Playoffs but then he’d revert back to the inconsistent and average point guard he’s been for most of his tenure in the league.
It was never wise to expect Nelson to keep being so efficient from 16-23 feet, which is why he’s such a boom-and-bust player (much of his effectiveness is predicated on his jumpshot). But Nelson could have still displayed ruthless aggression more often not, maintaining an attack-first mentality that serves him well on offense. Yet Nelson just doesn’t do it enough. Why? Perhaps no one will ever know.
That’s why, to this day, Nelson remains such an enigma.