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When it comes to championship contenders in the NBA, there’s five teams that are universally agreed upon — for the most part. Ranking them by their efficiency differentials, they are the Miami Heat (+8.6), Chicago Bulls (+8.1), Los Angeles Lakers (+6.6), San Antonio Spurs (+6.6), and Boston Celtics (+6.2). And since their trades, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets get pub too.
Then there’s the Orlando Magic, sandwiched in between those teams with an efficiency differential of +6.6, right between the Lakers and Spurs.
At the start of the regular season, the Magic were widely regarded as a threat to win a title. And when Orlando jumped out to a 15-4 start to the year, they were fulfilling everyone’s expectations. There were no surprises. Then the month of December came and everything fell apart for the Magic in a hurry. Orlando hit a stretch of nine games where they only won once. A lack of energy and effort from the players on a consistent basis, plus the regression of Rashard Lewis and others aided in the Magic’s fall from grace. Scoring, which was supposed to be Orlando’s strength since they finished 4th in offensive efficiency last season, faltered and suddenly the offense became an average unit. General manager Otis Smith attempted to rectify the problem by acquiring Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Gilbert Arenas in two separate trades on December 19. For a time, it looked like Smith’s gamble paid off, as the Magic roared to a nine-game winning streak (tying a franchise record) that could have been longer had the basketball bounced in their favor in games against the New Orleans Hornets and Thunder that each resulted in losses. Nevertheless, it appeared as if Orlando fixed their woes and the chemistry seemingly improved. The acquisitions provided the Magic with the jolt of life they needed, especially offensively. But the honeymoon soon ended, as Orlando regressed to the mean on offense, and Smith was back where he started with the roster, except it can be argued things got worse than better.
For all the scoring that Turkoglu, Richardson, and Arenas were to provide, Smith sacrificed defense, depth, and size to get it. As the Magic began to come down from earth offensively, it soon became clear that they got weaker. Even though Orlando remains third in defensive efficiency, thanks in large part to Dwight Howard and Van Gundy, when the big fella is on the bench, the interior defense has been compromised without the presence of Marcin Gortat. Depth, the Magic’s calling card last year, is nearly gone now that only J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson can be relied upon to contribute consistently. Free agent signees, Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon, have done little to help the cause. As for Orlando’s size, with Lewis and Gortat absent, they have gone from big to little. In the league, size is needed to win championships and the Magic had it with Howard and Lewis manning the frontcourt with Gortat, Bass, and Anderson coming off the bench. But the trades reshuffled things, and have put a lot of pressure on players like Howard to stay on the floor and avoid foul trouble. Earl Clark is an intriguing prospect, but he’s not a player that Van Gundy can rely upon and trust at the moment. Sure, it’s true that Mickael Pietrus, Lewis, and Carter are not playing right now due to various injuries but there’s no denying that Orlando isn’t the same team.
It’s been an interesting season for the Magic.
The question is, following the aftermath of everything that’s occurred, whether or not they’re a team that can be taken seriously in the playoffs?