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Thinking back to October, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about covering the Magic for the 2012-13 season. You didn’t have to over-analyze anything to realize the Magic were rebuilding, as they spent the summer offing the likes of Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard, and Ryan Anderson. This team was going to stink and everyone knew it. Or at least they thought they did.
Now Orlando is creeping up on mediocrity and looking more and more like an average NBA team. That’s troubling to some, as all this hard work and team effort will seemingly only amount to a low draft pick and more averageness.
I, however, have enjoyed this run of success Orlando has experienced in the early goings of the regular season. Themes of team effort, all-out defense, ball movement, and solid coaching echo throughout Orlando. And here they are at 8-12. It caused me to look back at five projected reasons for imminent failure this season and how Orlando has defied those expectations.
No Dwight Howard
This only really concerned me from a defensive standpoint. Sure, you miss a big threat in the middle offensively but truth be told, I thought Orlando would get murdered in the paint on defense. With a lack of size and a real lack of any major threat at the rim, it seemed as though teams would be able to waltz in, feed the post, attack the hoop, and live either in the paint or at the free-throw line.
What we’ve seen, though, is a real team effort and I mean that in every cliche sense of the phrase. Quite literally, the Magic’s defense has kept them in most of the games that they’ve played. It’s no secret the Magic lack any scoring punch, so you have to point to their eighth-ranked defense that has kept them afloat without a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate serving as the anchor.
No Stan Van Gundy
It truly freaked me out thinking about the future of Orlando without Stan Van Gundy. If you’re new to my work covering the Magic, I’ve always been adamant about SVG being the glue and only positive for the Magic in the event that Dwight would jump ship. He did and he sunk Stan as he plowed out the front door.
Turns out, though, that Jacque Vaughn is turning into a great coach. There isn’t much more to say than that, really. His distribution of minutes, lineup management, defensive schemes, and ability to get these guys up to play every night has been fascinating to watch. It should come as no surprise considering Vaughn’s pedigree — a Gregg Popovich disciple. But let’s be honest, everyone and their mother was a little bit worried about Vaughn, as we would about anyone becoming the NBA’s youngest head coach and replacing one of the best coaches in the game.
No perimeter scoring
So you don’t have a superstar (Dwight) or a star (Anderson) and you don’t have guys who can create offense for themselves consistently. You lack a dynamic perimeter scorer and you certainly don’t have a dominant point guard. This was the real reason I was terrified about Dwight leaving. Dwight, given some of his limitations offensively, and Anderson often made up for the lack of scoring from the wings.
The Magic are getting perimeter scoring, though, primarily from Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, and Arron Afflalo.
In 13 games, Jameer is right on par with his typical scoring output. And to date, he has scored more buckets at the rim this season (21 field goals made) than he has from beyond the arch (20 three-point field goals made).
Redick is having a career-best season in scoring, albeit with a slight decline in efficiency. In addition, Redick is facilitating and distributing, upping his assist percentage above any season he’s had in the Association (26.8 percent).
Afflalo is also having a career-best scoring output this season as well, though he’s not as efficient as he usually is and his shot selection has been questionable at times. So while I cringed at the perimeter scoring for Orlando this season, the Magic have blown those expectations well out of the water.
This is still true in the sense that Orlando doesn’t have an attacking scorer in the mold of Kevin Durant. It’s also true in the sense that that they have an Offensive Rating that ranks 29th in the league. It’s finally true in the sense that they are 30th in the league in free-throw attempts.
However, as noted above, Orlando has guards that are scoring and, though they have not been the most efficient, the fact remains that they have proven themselves as capable of attacking on offense.
Here is a quote from Tom Ziller of SB Nation:
Afflalo is a good defender. Ayon is a decent defender. Vucevic should be a good defender. At small forward, Moe Harkless might be a good defender. But this team is almost assuredly going to stink defensively. Bad teams tend to get worse on defense as the stakes decrease. Defense is partially talent and physical attributes (length, athleticism, agility), but in the NBA, effort and determination and will are huge factors. When you’re 15 games out of the No. 8 seed, effort and determination and will suffer.
Nothing could be further from the truth at this point. Orlando, as noted before, has the eighth-best defense in the NBA and it starts every night with effort and determination.
Ziller was right on when he noted the lack of physical attributes, but dead wrong in his assertion that the Magic would struggle. The best part is that in October, I totally agreed with him! But the numbers don’t lie and Orlando, given their lack of offensive firepower, has held on in games by the skin of their teeth with tremendous team defense (given the circumstances and roster).
I’m not sure where the Magic will end up this season. You can call a .500 bubble team a huge failure in the context of a rebuild or a huge success given the hand they were dealt. Either way, this team has destroyed my personal expectations thus far and I hope they continue to do the same.