Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Looking back at Jameer Nelson’s 10-year tenure in Orlando, the 2008-09 season will forever remain his finest year in a Magic uniform. For 42 magical games, Nelson was a pick-and-roll assassin that shot the ball with deadly efficiency.
Nelson’s brief transformation in becoming a basketball savant actually began in the playoffs the prior season. After alternating between being a starter and a backup during the 2007-08 regular season, Nelson had a breakout of sorts in the 2008 playoffs.
In the first round against the Toronto Raptors, many prognosticators expected the point guard tandem of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon to outplay Nelson. Who could blame them? During the regular season, the collective production of Ford and Calderon dwarfed Nelson’s output. Instead, it was Nelson that badly outplayed T. Jose Caldeford, as the Magic won the series in five games.
Nelson followed up his standout performance against the Raptors by holding his own against an at-his-peak Chauncey Billups and the once-dreaded Pistons in the semifinals (albeit for two games, as Billups missed the rest of the series with a strained right hamstring).
Even though the Magic lost to the Pistons in five games, the biggest takeaway from Nelson’s exploits in the postseason was that he showed confidence in Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll-heavy attack. The indecisiveness he displayed during the regular season, in which he was unsure of his role offensively (it got so bad that Van Gundy benched Nelson for Carlos Arroyo at one point), was minimized. And he became much more aggressive on offense by actively looking for his own shot rather than strictly be a pass-first point guard, which allowed him to be more of a playmaker since teams had to respect his scoring ability.
Nelson’s confidence carried over to that memorable 2008-09 season. As the regular season got underway, the Magic got off to a fast start. In the first third of the season, the Magic were 19-6 and slowly forcing their way into the conversation as one of the elite teams in the NBA. However, none of the experts believed they were for real. At the time, people thought it was unfathomable that a 3-point happy team could be a title contender — the negative stigma of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns was fresh on everyone’s mind and there were those that were slow to realize how stout the Magic were defensively.
A big reason why the Magic jumped out of the gate was because Nelson, to put it frankly, was playing out of his goddamn mind. He bottled up all the good things he did in the 2008 playoffs and it spilled over to the following season. Supremely confident of his own abilities in Van Gundy’s offensive system, Nelson became a diminutive tower of terror in the pick-and-roll.
In the first few seasons of his career, the scouting report on Nelson was to go under the screen when he was the pick-and-roll ballhandler and force him to shoot jumpers. The knock on Nelson was that he was an inconsistent jump shooter. But in 2008-09, that strategy failed spectacularly when Nelson showed signs of a consistent and lethal midrange jumper. Time and again, teams instructed their players to go under the screen on Nelson. Time and again, Nelson made them pay dearly. But no one wanted to believe it. No one could imagine that a player many thought (including Magic fans at the time) was no better than a backup point guard in the league was suddenly this good.
It wasn’t until a four-game home stand in mid-December 2009 against some of the Western Conference’s elite that people began to pay attention to the Magic and Nelson and take them seriously.
On December 18, the Magic hosted the Spurs on national television. It was a Thursday night game on TNT. During the pre-game show, Kenny Smith commented that he wasn’t sure if Nelson was a backup point guard (mind you, Nelson just came off a career-high performance against the Warriors on the road, in which he scored 32 points). Smith added that he felt the Magic were missing something, but he didn’t know what.
Charles Barkley contributed to the discussion by saying that he felt Nelson was a good point guard, but that the Magic didn’t need a shoot-first point guard. He suggested the Magic were better off with a true point guard, one that was more of a distributor than a shooter.
In a way, Smith and Barkley spoke what everyone felt at the time. They weren’t believers. They weren’t sold on the Magic or Nelson. That would soon change.
Against San Antonio, Nelson severely outplayed Tony Parker in their individual matchup. Parker, following the scouting report, went under the screen in pick-and-rolls against Nelson. It didn’t work. Nelson was ruthless in his annihilation of Parker and the Spurs. There was a sequence in the third quarter when Nelson made three consecutive jump shots, then followed that up a few minutes later with a spectacular layup to give the Magic their largest lead of the night — a 54-31 lead that prompted coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout. Orlando would go on to win 90-78.
In the next game on December 20, the Magic and Nelson faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers. Different opponent. Same result. Nelson torched Fisher, burning him repeatedly in pick-and-roll sets during a 15-point third quarter, and the Magic came away with a 106-103 victory.
With back-to-back home wins over the Spurs and Lakers, the Magic were finally serving notice that they were for real and Nelson was leading the charge.
During a West Coast road trip a few weeks later in mid-January 2009, the Magic one-upped themselves by beating the Spurs and Lakers on the road to sweep both season series — it’s the first and only time in franchise history that they accomplished the feat in the same season. And it was in that rubber match against the Lakers, a nationally televised Friday night game on ESPN, that the Magic and Nelson became too good to be ignored by the masses.
When Nelson’s career is all said and done, his performance against the Lakers was his most iconic in Magic pinstripes. It’s when he solidified himself as an All-Star. It’s also the night that the Magic undoubtedly established themselves as a championship contender. The Magic beat the Lakers by the score of 109-103 and Nelson was the reason why. He hit big shot after big shot, with his go-ahead 3-pointer with 35.7 seconds left punctuating a 15-point fourth quarter that left the Lakers dazed and defeated. With the win, the Magic — owners of the NBA’s best record at 32-8 alongside LeBron’s Cavaliers — erased all their doubters and Nelson quieted all his skeptics.
Nelson went on to suffer a torn labrum on February 2 in a home game against the Mavericks, less than two weeks before the All-Star Game, and the Magic eventually lost to those same Lakers in the Finals (with Nelson making a meek return in the series at less than full strength). Even though the season ended on a sour note for the Magic and Nelson, there’s no disputing that it was a magical journey along the way.
Comparing Nelson’s numbers in 2008-09 to his career numbers reveal the absurdity of that season. Three particular statistics stand out the most (career percentages are in parentheses): his 20.6 PER (15.5), .612 True Shooting percentage (.537), and .545 field goal percentage from 16-23 feet (.417). To say that Nelson was an efficient shooter would be a gross understatement. For 42 games, he morphed into Stephen Curry.
Above all else, that .545 field goal percentage from 16-23 feet was the biggest reason why Nelson was an All-Star. It’s what fueled his efficiency. Not even Steve Nash in his prime, when he was a perennial 50/40/90 guy, shot that high of a percentage from that distance in any season of his illustrious career. To further hammer the point home about the insanity of that .545 percentage from midrange, in the seasons before and after his All-Star campaign, Nelson shot .370 percent (2007-08) and .387 percent (2009-10).
For 10 seasons, Nelson dazzled Magic fans with many moments of brilliance. But it’s his 2008-09 season that will always been seen as the height of his genius. Sometimes everything clicks for a player, and that’s what happened during that season. It was truly a sight to behold.