Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Back in 2009, I had a more-than-casual interest in LeBron’s Cavaliers. My buddy and I watched almost every game of the playoffs that year in a small bar here in Chattanooga, and we both felt that we were watching something special.
The Cavs had annihilated Detroit and Atlanta, sweeping both teams and waltzing to the Eastern Conference Finals. We thought — practically everybody thought, as I recall — nothing on this planet could stop LeBron James and company from advancing to the NBA Finals.
Enter Hedo Turkoglu and the Orlando Magic.
Hedo’s captain-esque performance in the Conference Finals gave way to an onslaught of clout the likes of which LeBron had rarely seen in the postseason, and it produced a 4-2 series win for the Magic and a trip to the Finals.
In those six games, I came to respect, loathe, revere, and fear Hedo as the Magic stared down King James and stood tall. I was a Cavs fan then, and I cringed when Hedo touched the ball. My shoulders got tense when he instigated the pick-and roll with Dwight Howard. As a LeBron fan, Hedo absolutely terrified me.
Following that stretch of brilliance, he entered a downward spiral — first in Toronto, then in Phoenix, and back in Orlando. Hedo declined as a player, got suspended for a failed PED test, and is now expected to have his contract bought out soon by the Magic. What happened? How did we get here?
There were several things working for the Magic during their Finals run in 2009. Dwight Howard was blossoming into a superstar, Rashard Lewis was a sniper, and the team defense was smothering.
What stood out to me, though, was the leadership of Hedo Turkoglu. Granted, a lot of that feeling stemmed from intangibles: his confidence, his unwillingness to lose, etc. The presence that Turk had — so important in a playoff environment — was critical to that Magic team. He played like a captain.
The irony is that 2008-09 was a modest year numbers-wise for Turkoglu. His 14.8 PER hovered around the league-average (15.0). In 24 playoff games, he averaged 15.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game — nothing to email mom about, necessarily. In fact, his PER dropped during the playoffs to 13.2. But to me, it was the climax of his career.
Now let’s step back a year prior when Hedo won the Most Improved Player award in 2007-08. During the regular season, Hedo averaged 19.5 points, 5 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. He had a career-high 17.8 PER while posting a .576 True Shooting percentage. Statistically, 2008 represented the high point in Hedo’s career, but a second round shellacking from Detroit cut his season short.
So what changed from 2008 to 2009 that made Turk look much savvier as a player? It was the type of offense the Magic ran. In 2008, Turkoglu ran the pick-and-roll 24.7 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports. In 2009, that percentage jumped up to 29.7 percent — in part due to Jameer Nelson getting hurt midway through the season.
Hedo ran the pick-and-roll everywhere. Top of the key, on the wing, didn’t matter. The dynamic threat of him serving as the primary hub of the Magic’s offensive attack completely reshaped the team, and that transformation brought them to the NBA Finals.
To me, that matters more than a Most Improved season with a slightly higher stat-line. Hedo knew his role, was given a job, and executed it to near perfection within Stan Van Gundy’s system. SVG was a genius (and still is). He directed that offense like a concertmaster, and Turk was his first chair violinist. He had him running the pick-and-roll like his career depended on it. And as we later found out, his career actually did depend on it.
Obviously things took a turn for the worse when Turk signed with the Toronto Raptors as a free agent following his run to the Finals. The general consensus was that Hedo’s role had changed, and he was being treated more as a spot-up shooter. The reality is that he ran the pick-and-roll 27.7 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports. Hedo’s issue wasn’t really a lack of involvement. It was more so a lack of effort.
And contrary to what most people think, his time with the Raptors was not horrible. His True Shooting percentage was the same as it was in his final year with the Magic, his 3-point field goal percentage improved, and his PER fell just a bit, mainly due to him scoring less. Other than that, it still seemed like a salvageable situation.
His time in Phoenix is really where Turk’s game started to hit the skids. Hedo’s involvement in the pick-and-roll dropped to an embarrassing 10.9 percent, per Synergy Sports. Through 25 games in Phoenix, Hedo was severely misused.
We saw in 2008 and 2009 that Turk’s game stemmed from his ability to facilitate, work in and through an offense, and have a more holistic approach on the court. More simply, his success stemmed from the pick-and-roll with the best center in the game.
Maybe it was the hard truth that he played on two losing teams. Maybe he felt like he peaked in 2009 and left it all on the floor that year. Maybe he missed Dwight. It’s really hard to say. What we know for sure is that the years following that Finals run, it was the beginning of the end for Turkoglu.
By the time he returned to Orlando, Hedo was playing pretty uninspired basketball. He returned to his role as a ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. In fact, he was involved in pick-and-roll possessions 34.7 (!) percent of the time, per Synergy Sports.
But he just never had the pop that he once had. His 3-point field goal percentage slumped, taking away one of the threats that made him so dangerous in the pick-and-roll, and he lost a step, perhaps because of injury, and perhaps just because he was getting older. Either way, it was clear that the 2007-09 Turkoglu was nowhere to be found.
It was a fall from grace, to be sure. Turk was the man for a few short seasons. He was large and in charge, and a beacon of light in the Magic organization. And it all went away in a flash. That’s the unfortunate truth of the somber trajectory of Hedo Turkoglu.