In Which Jon Barry Gets It Wrong

In a rundown focused on the weaknesses of the NBA's contending teams, Jon Barry of ESPN.com says the Magic don't play championship-style basketball, and that they wouldn't be serious threats to contend even if Jameer Nelson were healthy:

The Magic just don't have a style of play that's good enough to win. They have Dwight Howard, but Orlando is really a jump-shooting team. Howard is literally their only post-up option, and I have questions about whether they can win by going through him in the final minutes of a close game. Rashard Lewis used to post up, but he hasn't done much of that as of late. So the question is: Can the Magic win with Howard at the free-throw line? Because that's where he's going to be.

I believe he is mistaken on both counts. But before I go any further, I'd like to clarify that I'm not trying to slam Barry. He's only calling it as he sees it, so to speak, which is what ESPN pays him for. And he's hardly the only person who thinks Orlando doesn't have what it takes to contend. I'm only trying to clear up a common misconception.

Barry's first claim rings somewhat true because three-point shooting teams that don't rebound well traditionally do not win championships. However, as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus explained back in February, Orlando has the other tools necessary to win a title. After presenting the data, Pelton wrote the following:

That all said, there's a funny thing about these comparisons. If Orlando is to somehow emerge from the trio of elite teams in the Eastern Conference and win it all, I hope everyone forgets them and considers the Magic an atypical champion. That's because it would be so painful for a certain group of analysts, particularly the type that inhabit your television screen before and after games, that loves to reduce success to a simple formula: "Defense wins championships" or "Rebounds mean rings." I rail against that mentality, and not just because I don't think it's backed up by the data. I hate it because it is boring.

Now scroll up and re-read Barry's words. Sure sounds like he's reducing success to a simple formula.

Regarding his second claim, that the Magic wouldn't stand a chance to win even if Nelson were healthy: um, what? Nelson is an All-Star point guard who helped get his team off to a 33-8 start which included season-sweeps of the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, two of the other contenders Barry mentions. Had he not stepped up his game this year, Orlando would likely be in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack with Atlanta and Miami, as his improvement has mitigated Hedo Turkoglu's (expected) statistical drop-off.

Here's the state of the league's contending teams on games played before February 2nd, the night of Nelson's injury:

  • Orlando was 36-10 with a +8.5 point differential;

  • L.A. was 37-9 with a +8.7 differential;

  • Cleveland was 37-9 with a +10.3 differential;

  • and Boston was 40-9 with a +9.9 differential.

Indeed, the Magic were right there at the top with those other three teams, and stood a great chance of winning a title. The only thing that's changed since then is Nelson's injury, after which Orlando has gone 11-7 with a +3.0 differential. The winning percentage dropped, but the average margin of victory has plummeted by nearly two-thirds. Staggering. As a matter of perspective, Orlando's pre-Nelson victory margin of +8.5 is slightly better than Boston's season-long victory margin of +8.3; Orlando's post-Nelson +3.0 margin is just slightly better than New Orleans' season-long margin of +2.9. That's the difference between the defending NBA champions and an underachieving Western Conference team with only a slim chance of making it past the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. If that much doesn't indicate that Nelson is a difference-maker, I'm not sure what will.

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