"Runnin' mad games as if your name was Scott Skiles." - A Tribe Called Quest
After months of trading for players, signing free-agents, and playing pre-season games, the NBA is officially underway tonight for several teams. The Orlando Magic are not one of them, which is bad and good. Bad, because people have to wait one more day. Good, because it allows Third Quarter Collapse to fit in one more preview before the Magic begin its quest to return to the NBA Finals this year (and win it all).
As has been my custom in the past, I was able to corral some of the brightest minds around the internet and in the APBRmetrics community to provide their thoughts on Orlando this year. For regular 3QC readers, you'll recognize the names fairly quickly:
Bradford Doolitte, Basketball Prospectus
Neil Paine, Basketball-Reference
Ryan J. Parker, Basketball Geek
Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus
Each individual provided his opinion on the Magic's busy off-season, ascertained which Eastern Conference rival matches up the best with Orlando, and more.
Recently, the NBA released it's annual GM survey and only 7.1% believe the Orlando Magic will win the Eastern Conference. Likewise, Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated polled a half-dozen scouts and all of them agreed that the Magic were the consensus #3 team in the East. Even Orlando was ranked #8 by Sporting News in a power ranking a couple weeks ago. In your time covering the NBA, have you ever seen a team receive less respect after reaching the Finals just a few months ago? To what you would attribute it to?
Neil Paine: I don't know, it seemed like the East's representative was constantly being slept on after losing the Finals at the beginning of the 2000s, too -- Philly, New Jersey, etc. I think the general feeling (and I can't say it's totally wrong, to be honest) is that Orlando caught lightning in a bottle last spring, and that the burden of proof is on them to show that it wasn't a one-year thing. Boston obviously has proven themselves two years ago, and they very nearly beat Orlando even without Garnett, so it's easy to see them ranking ahead of the Magic. Cleveland is better on paper and they have the best player in the game -- but that was true last year and Orlando still won, so their ranking above the Magic is harder to justify. Maybe it's the Shaq addition, maybe it's (undeserved) disrespect for Vince Carter, exactly why I can't say. The stats obviously say to go with Cleveland, but you'd think the sportswriters would go with the team that won last year.
Ryan J. Parker: Historical preseason rankings aren't really relevant here. The reality is that there are other good teams in the East that are getting more respect. People like the Magic, they just like Cleveland and Boston more. I personally see Cleveland as the team to beat, with Boston and Orlando behind them. Simply getting to the Finals shouldn't give the Magic a sense of entitlement. It's probably better that way, since SVG doesn't have to worry about the guys getting big heads. They get to play the disrespect card, however useful that may be.
Kevin Pelton: Well, the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls (who were a little before my time actively covering the NBA) and the 2004-05 L.A. Lakers come to mind. Now, a team that brought back the majority of its roster and arguably improved its talent? No, certainly not. I think a lot of it is that people never completely bought into Orlando's playoff run. The win over the Celtics can be written off as due to Kevin Garnett's injury (never mind Jameer Nelson's injury), while the Cleveland series could be viewed as something of a fluke. The other factor, which you guys have discussed from all angles, is this surprising notion that going from Hedo Turkoglu to Vince Carter is a huge negative for the Magic.
Bradford Doolittle: A lot of it comes from the belief that the Celtics would have beaten them had Kevin Garnett would be healthy. Now Garnett is back the Celtics have added Rasheed Wallace. As for Cleveland -- the Cavaliers did win 66 games last season and it was an upset when the Magic knocked them out last spring. I wouldn't take it as a lack of respect. The league is really top heavy right now and I think everyone agrees the Magic are part of the upper crust. Also playing into this, I believe, is that Jameer Nelson's importance to the Magic is underrated. It's amazing that they made the Finals without him and were competitive in the Finals even with Nelson playing at about 60 percent of his capacity.
More after the jump.
Out of all the moves general manager Otis Smith and the Magic made in the off-season, which one did you like the most and why?
NP: I liked the headline move, the Vince Carter pickup. He gets a lot of flak from the press for not being what they wanted him to be (he isn't the next Michael Jordan, and he never was), and it's true that he quit on the Raps a few years ago, but I can see him being an important piece on a winning team like the Magic because of his ability to both create off the dribble and shoot from long-range. He's also an underrated defender, which will fit in very well with Van Gundy and the Magic. All in all, I think he's a terrific fit and hands down one of the off-season's best pickups.
RP: The addition of Vince will be interesting to see, but I believe that managing to keep Gortat and add Bass helps to give the team depth that any real championship contender needs.
KP: I think it is tough to pick out one specific move because they were all interconnected. For example, if the Magic would have lost Courtney Lee as part of the Carter trade and failed to replace him, that initial deal would have been much worse. Therefore, getting Matt Barnes is not only useful in and of itself but also as it fits in with the Carter trade. That said, if I'm picking just one move, it's not only getting Carter for expiring contracts and Lee but adding Ryan Anderson as something of a throw-in with that deal. Already, demanding Anderson is looking genius.
BD: It's awesome that he was able to pry Ryan Anderson away from New Jersey in the V.C. deal. I really like Anderson's game and he'll be able to replace many of the things that they got from Turkoglu. I saw where Dwight Howard is now referring to him as 'Pat Garrity' which is funny, but Anderson's a more well-rounded player than Garrity.
Isn't Stan Van Gundy due for a Coach of the Year award? Could this be the season when he finally gets recognition for the work he's been doing in Orlando?
NP: You definitely could make a case that he deserved it last year, even before outmatching Mike Brown as a tactician in the Conference Finals. The way he turned Orlando into a legitimately great defensive team, with that personnel -- I know Howard is a complete beast and would anchor any D to an above-average ranking, but think about the rest of his lineup: Rashard Lewis at the 4? Turkoglu manning up on the perimeter? On the best defensive team in the league? That, to me, has been one of the best coaching performances of the past few years.
RP: After taking a quick look at last year's voting, I see SVG placed 3rd. Only one coach can win the award, so it's not likely he gets it, but it seems like he is being recognized in some form, even if he doesn't have the hardware to show off.
KP: I definitely think Van Gundy should have won a year ago. Like his team as a whole, he seems to have a hard time convincing the national media that he is a world-class coach. If the Magic challenges for first place in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, it will be hard to deny Van Gundy this year.
BD: SVG deserves the award someday, but not until Jerry Sloan gets one.
NP: It's still Boston just in terms of individual matchups; if healthy, they've got more than enough talent at all the right places to take Orlando out. Cleveland's the wild card, though -- we know Orlando manhandled them inside w/ Howard and destroyed them on the pick-n-roll last year, and I'm not even close to being sold on this idea that Shaq cures the first problem. Moon and Parker, though, those guys were terrific additions because they can defend the wing as well as anybody Cleveland had. Besides, James is so good that he could have carried Cleveland to a win if his teammates had made just a few more shots.
KP: I would say the Celtics right now. I think both teams made moves that allow them to better match up with Rashard Lewis and his ability to stretch the floor. Boston can put a healthy Kevin Garnett at the four as well as Rasheed Wallace, which is a massive upgrade on the minutes Brian Scalabrine played in the series a year ago. The Cavaliers had the problem of trying to find a fifth guy to put on the floor because they had a hard time playing two bigs together against Lewis. Depending on the situation with Delonte West, Cleveland could have two strong options this year in Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker, as well as potentially a healthy Leon Powe by playing time. That said, I still think Dwight Howard can present more problems for the Cavaliers than the Celtics. While Shaquille O'Neal can handle Howard in the post in a way Anderson Varejao was unable to last spring, the Magic will be content to play pick-and-roll basketball against O'Neal. That should mean a steady stream of easy jumpers for Nelson, who is more than capable of knocking them down.
BD: If the Celtics are fully healthy, they have an answer for everything that the Magic can throw at them, especially now that Wallace is on board to help pound on Dwight.
What are the chances Orlando wins a title this year? What is your official prediction for the team?
NP: The Southeast is going to be a cakewalk again, so pencil them in for at least 50 wins, and I think they'll be right there in the end, playing a major role in the Conference Semis or even the Conference Finals again. That said, I don't know if they can take care of both Boston and Cleveland if those teams are at 100%. Barring some kind of injury problems, the Magic are going to be the 3 seed again, they're going to have to go through the Celtics and the Cavs, and I don't think they'll take care of both in the same postseason for a 2nd straight year. The East hasn't sent the same team to the Finals in back-to-back years since Detroit in '05, and I think when the dust settles, we'll see that streak continue in 2010.
KP: Our official preseason SCHOENE projections, released Monday, have Orlando as co-favorites in the East and in the entire league with Cleveland. They give the Magic a whopping 36-percent chance of finishing the regular season with the NBA's best record. That's not quite the same as winning the championship, so I'd put the odds at about one in four. Subjectively, I'm taking Orlando to win it all. West's status troubles me, and I think the Magic matches up better this year with the Lakers or whoever might come out of the other conference.
BD: Given the ultra-competitiveness of the top of the NBA right now, I'd put Orlando sixth the overall league pecking order, with maybe a seven to 10 percent shot at a title. My subjective pick is 52 wins and a six-game loss to Cleveland in the East semifinals.
I like to thank Bradford, Neil, Ryan, and Kevin for answering my questions.