Discussing the Orlando Magic with Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus is among the brightest minds covering the NBA today. Along with Bradford Doolittle, he published the Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, which lives up to its billing as "the essential guide to the 2010-11 NBA Season," and I'm not just saying that because they let me contribute a paragraph to the Orlando Magic's "From the Blogosphere" section. The Prospectus is available as a PDF download for $9.98 or in paperback for $19.95.

Kevin graciously agreed to answer some of my Magic questions via email.

Evan Dunlap: Having to divide just 48 minutes a night at power forward between Rashard Lewis, Ryan Anderson, and Brandon Bass is a problem a lot of coaches would love to have. How would you allot those minutes?

Kevin Pelton: In some sort of hypothetical situation where I did not have to deal with the players' reactions to their minutes, I would probably play Anderson and Lewis fairly equally at power forward, give Lewis 10-15 minutes a night at small forward and leave Bass on the bench. Anderson is, to me, pretty comfortably the superior player. I totally understand why Stan Van Gundy wants to use all three guys, however.

ED: Bass didn't see the court too often last season, as he struggled with rebounding and team defense. He's taken a lot of strides in the exhibition schedule, though, which is going to make it hard for Van Gundy to keep him off the court. In the Prospectus, you write, "Bass is strictly an average reserve, and his poor rebounding undercuts the notion that playing him would really strengthen the Magic’s weaknesses," but also that he's "overqualified" as a fifth big man. Has his strong preseason play changed your stance on him?

KP: Not really. Preseason has value, but in this case the track record of Bass being average or worse on the glass is a lot more significant than six preseason games. He would have to play at this level for an extended period for me to really believe he's changed his stripes.

The rest of the interview, which includes Kevin's thoughts on Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, the team's offseason moves, and championship chances, follows the jump.

ED: Orlando hasn't enjoyed the benefits of a healthy Jameer Nelson for several seasons now. Assuming he can stay injury-free this season, what can he add to the team? Can he approach his All-Star production from the 2008/09 season?

KP: I'd be surprised if Nelson ever played at that level again, especially now that he's nearing age 29 and his late prime. I think somewhere between where he's played the last two seasons is a more reasonable target. That's similar to how Nelson played when healthy in 2009-10, and it's a level of performance with which the Magic can win a lot of games, as we've seen.

ED: After a disappointing campaign last season--one which saw his offensive opportunities drop, perhaps due to the addition of Vince Carter--Lewis is looking to bounce back. Any chance he will? And can the Magic afford to play him if his treys aren't going in, given that Ryan Anderson's a comparable outside shooter with solid rebounding production?

KP: Surely a chance, especially if he continues to take so well to spending increased time at small forward. I would love to see Lewis rediscover his post-up game against smaller defenders. I don't think people around the league realize just how lethal he became in the post at the end of his career in Seattle. Late in the 2006-07 season, when Ray Allen was sidelined by ankle surgery, Lewis was the go-to option for the Sonics and was effective in that role, leading the team to some unexpected wins. I would say Lewis is worth playing even in a scenario where he's not shooting the ball well because of his superior defense as compared to Anderson's. He seemed to slip a bit on D last season as well as on the offensive end, but in 2008-09 I think he was a big part of Orlando's defense.

ED: Dwight Howard drew a lot of attention this summer for his working out with Hakeem Olajuwon, which peaked when footage of their sessions together reached the internet. What'd you make of the footage? Is this year the one where Howard advances from "good" to "great" at the offensive end? And can he make that leap without losing anything on defense?

KP: That last question is interesting. I sometimes think there's a bit of a trade-off whenever a player learns a new skill or improves in one area where he slips in another. Naturally, go-to scorers tend to coast more on defense, but in Howard's case I would say that he's already enough of a focal point in the Orlando offense that any development will be more about making him more efficient with the plays he uses rather than him having to expend more energy. I'm reserving judgment on how much Howard really can improve at the offensive end. If he adds the little jumper he's shown during the preseason, I'm not sure how you defend that.

ED: The Magic's offseason acquisitions of Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson went unnoticed, for the most part. Which player do you see having a greater impact? You seem high on both signings, noting Duhon's improved defense over Jason Williams and Richardson's ability to hit the three-ball, a fact that has NBA.com's John Schuhmann writing that the Magic will break records in that area this season.

KP: I would say Richardson will have the greater short-term impact since he's stepping into what figures to be a larger role. To me, Duhon was more of a long-term signing to have a backup to Nelson in place for a few years now. He's a slight upgrade on Williams this year, but the real difference will come down the road. I would definitely agree with Schuhmann on the chance that the Magic breaks its own three-point record because of the newcomers. SCHOENE projects 892 three-pointers, an increase of 51 from last year's total.

ED: One question-mark for Richardson is his defense, as his "counterpart numbers were below average" in Miami. While he's certainly an upgrade over Matt Barnes on offense, given his shooting range, is there any chance he can approximate Barnes' effectiveness on defense? Is the trade-off a net positive or negative for Orlando?

KP: I was a little surprised Richardson's defensive numbers were not better, given he played for a very good Heat defense and was taking on a lot of difficult matchups. That could be a fluke, since the defensive numbers we have are not especially reliable. If he's motivated, Richardson has the tools to be a solid defender, though he doesn't match up as well with bigger small forwards as Barnes did. I would say Barnes' versatility gives him the overall advantage and indicates that replacing him with Richardson is a net negative.

ED: In the Prospectus, your SCHOENE projection system says there's a 37% chance Vince Carter improves this season. Can you talk about SCHOENE a bit more, and how specifically it applies to Carter? Is there any way he can be a perimeter ace on whom the Magic can rely when they need a basket?

KP: SCHOENE uses 13 statistics, including height and weight, to pick out the most similar players at the same age from the last three decades for each current player. In this case, what SCHOENE tells us is that most players who were similar to Carter declined at the same age, which is to be expected given that he is in his mid-30s. It's not such an overwhelming number, though, that Carter is certain to drop off. Because Carter's previous two seasons were better than his 2009-10, our overall projection (based on the previous three years) suggests Carter's bottom-line results will be fairly similar to last year. We may just not see as dramatic swings within the season as we did in 2009-10. Carter's projected usage rate remains strong, so he still should be able to create his own offense. It's a question of his efficiency doing so.

ED: Because Carter's contract is not fully guaranteed, there's a good chance he won't be part of the Magic next season. But because of their high payroll, even letting him walk won't free up the cap space necessary to acquire a replacement, via either trade or free-agency. What are the Magic's options if they decide not to keep Carter as part of their core? Could they get decent value for him in a midseason trade?

KP: I think the best scenario would probably be looking to move him next summer, when he would essentially be an instant expiring contract for a team looking to shed payroll. If Orlando looked to deal Carter at the deadline, that would mean competing with guys who are expiring at season's end, and the market is likely to be flooded with such players. Unless the Magic gets someone who could be the missing piece for a championship this year, it probably makes sense to hold on to Carter.

ED: "Ultimately," you write, "Otis Smith is going to have to get value for [Marcin Gortat] in a trade." Do you still feel this way? Is there any chance the Magic could keep him and trade Bass, for example, instead?

KP: Lewis at small forward opens up some options, but I'm still dubious on Gortat and Howard working together because of the lack of shooting in that lineup. To me, it's Howard that is blocking Gortat, not the overall frontcourt depth, so to me moving Bass would not really do much to help the situation in terms of what you're paying Gortat for the minutes available for him.

ED: You also write that the Magic would be among the favorites to win a title this year were it not for the Miami Heat. Do you still feel that way? Which things have to go right for Orlando (or wrong for Miami) for the Magic to emerge as the favorites?

KP: Yeah … if I was doing championship power rankings, I would have the Heat first and the Magic second. I do feel like Orlando has closed the gap in my mind, so it may just be a matter of winning a hard-fought playoff series rather than something in particular having to go right or wrong … though Miami injuries and the Heat taking some time to coalesce certainly don't hurt.

ED: In addition to the Prospectus book, you also have a website. What are the differences between the two, in terms of scope and goal? Is there anything more about the future of Basketball Prospectus you'd like to mention here?

KP: I would say the goals are pretty similar in terms of trying to use cutting-edge analysis in all its forms to understand basketball. Obviously, that means statistical analysis first and foremost, but also game breakdowns and understanding the role played by the Xs and Os. The book is very focused in terms of an essay analyzing each team and a paragraph or two on each player, whereas we have the chance to provide more variety on the website. We might go from discussing a statistical conference to an Every Play Counts video breakdown to a specific analysis of a team's or player's statistics to a more general observation on what wins. There are some changes in store for Basketball Prospectus, but I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to share them just yet. Stay tuned....

Thanks again to Kevin for taking the time to respond to my questions. Visit Basketball Prospectus at www.basketballprospectus.com.

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