Fact or Fiction presents both sides of key issues the Orlando Magic will face in the upcoming NBA season.
The Orlando Magic's season is in Jameer Nelson's hands.
FACT: Nelson isn't the Magic's best player--that'd be Dwight Howard--but he's their most important. He's the key to their success, the straw that turns the drink, the engine that makes them go, and so on.
Some people would have you believe that Hedo Turkoglu played that role for Orlando last year. Blame it on the recency effect: Nelson played poorly in the NBA Finals after several months off due to shoulder surgery, while Turkoglu led them in scoring. Fact is, Nelson became an All-Star last season, and was among the leading candidates for the Most Improved Player award before shutting it down after just 42 games due to a torn labrum. Turkoglu, meanwhile, saw a drastic drop-off in both production and efficiency from his Most Improved campaign in 2008. And since the Magic obliged Turkoglu by moving him via a sign-and-trade deal to the Toronto Raptors, he's not really relevant to this discussion.
In Nelson's 42 starts prior to the shoulder injury, the Magic went 32-10, with a per-game point differential of +8.09, which would have challenged the Cleveland Cavaliers for the league's highest had they maintained that level of play. In the 40 games split between Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson starting at the point, Orlando was a solid 27-13, with a +5.225 differential, which would have ranked just behind the Portland Trail Blazers for 5th in the NBA last season. In a vacuum, that's not so bad. But that's the difference between what some observers dubbed a Team Of Destiny led by the league's MVP and an also-ran in the league's toughest conference. A significant difference, I contend.
Nelson's an ideal point guard for the team Otis Smith has assembled. He can play at any tempo, make smart decisions, sink jumpers from anywhere, and get to the rim when he absolutely has to. And if he were to miss an extended period of time this season, the Magic would be stuck with Johnson or Jason Williams running the show. At least if Howard goes down, Orlando can count on Marcin Gortat, who's nearly as good a rebounder and defender as Howard, to provide quality minutes.
Picking a most important player from a team boasting four recent All-Stars in its starting lineup isn't easy, and maybe we're splitting hairs here. But given the Magic's frontcourt depth behind Howard and Rashard Lewis, and given how Nelson's absence affected them last season, he's our choice.
FICTION: Yeah, Nelson's absence affected the Magic alright. It affected them all the way to the NBA Finals. They can deal without Nelson. Vince Carter is enough of an upgrade over Turkoglu to compensate for Orlando's hypothetical struggles without Nelson. And Smith has trade chips in case he needs to acquire an emergency point guard, as he did with Alston last year. Johnson, Williams, Adonal Foyle, and J.J. Redick have expiring contracts. Smith also has a $5.4 million trade exception from the Turkoglu sign-and-trade deal, which would allow him to absorb a contract up to that value without parting with a player; a future draft pick could suffice.
Listen, Jameer's cool and everything, but this team begins and ends with Dwight Howard. Gortat's a top-notch backup center in this league, and could start for a lot of teams. But subtracting Howard, who anchors their league-best defense and their offense? That's too much. The Magic will only go as far as he takes them.
Verdict: My opinion won't surprise any longtime readers of this site. The Orlando Magic's season is indeed in Jameer Nelson's hands. They could weather the storm without Howard, but as we saw last year, we can't say the same for them without Nelson.