I think I realized how much of a fan I am of the Magic when they made the trades the other day. Despite more than a year of evidence, I still believed that Vince and Rashard could be part of a championship team. If I was looking at any other team, I would consider that belief horribly short sighted. I realized what I had been missing last night as I watched the game against the Mavs.
While the numbers from last nights game were ugly for our newcomers, the eyes told a different story. I was more excited, and more impressed, with Hedo and J-Rich than I remember being with Vince and Rashard since Vince joined the team. This team is a mess right now, but it's a mess with lots of things that can be fixed, rather than a mess that is beyond the point where it can be fixed. That's the difference between this team and the team we had last week. The high and low points by player:
Jameer: He looked very uncertain last night, but that's understandable. Jameer's showed signs of uncertainty in the past when his position isn't secure, and he's undergoing the biggest change of any of the players from the core of the team. Towards the end ofthe game I saw him working a little more naturally off the ball, but towards the start, he was just handing the ball to Hedo once he got to half court and hanging out. I'm confident that he'll come around in his new role of combo guard, and expect him to be able to provide scoring punch at the wing in the shape of 3s, that long two from straight on from the pick and roll, and drives to the hoop. I think Jameer is the second most likely candidate for drawing productive fouls behind Hedo (Dwights drawn fouls are relatively unproductive due to his FT%).
Gil: Gil is very obviously feeling pressure, but he's also very obviously rising to the level of mental toughness and determination that was typical for him before his knee injuries. I'm really high on the idea of this being the best opportunity for Gil to revive his career. I believe that he has the skills and the swagger to be an absolute killer on offense. He's not going to regain the ability to streak to the rim and finish, or draw fouls through sheer atheleticism, but Gil is only 30, and he can still shoot with the best of them when he gets his shot going. A confident and comfortable Gilbert Arenas will command a lot of attention from opposing defenses, and he has the offensive awareness to make plays based off of that. Defense is going to be an issue for him. He's not very mobile when he has to change direction. You saw it several times last night when he switched during P&Rs then had to turn and run someone off of the 3 point line. It ain't happenin. The sooner we, and Stan, accept that as a reality, the easier it'll be the make the necessary defensive adjustments, strategy-wise, and give Gil the support he needs to be a valuable asset to our team.
JJ: I've got to be honest, as much as I like JJ, his game, and the amount of work he's put in for this team, I see him getting traded soon. Teams are not that terribly interested in Duhon or J-Will, and the Magic have got to move a guard for a big. JJ, though we'd all hate to lose him, will net us an acceptable backup to Dwight. If he stays, he does the same Jameer does, at a less elite level.
J-Rich: This man is going to be a killer for this team, but the team needs to make adjustments to it's offensive strategy in order to facilitate that. J-Rich is too fast and too athletic to not be moving constantly away from the ball. You can play a P&R offense and hope he takesthe initiative to do this on his own, and toss him some gimmes in the process, or you can start adding those screens and curls in. The Magic have the opportunity to become much less predictable here, and more efficient in the process, but this will take more time to perfect than any other change they face. Defensively, his rebounds, strength, and athleticism are going to make him a positive contributor. With a little coaching and focus, I believe he has the ability to be just as much of a wing stopper as MP was.
Q-Rich: Welcome to purgatory. The only way to escape is to play your way out of it. Time to find that shot. Time to bring every ounce of energy you've got on defense. He's probably not getting traded, but he's not going to play much unless there's an injury or he plays himself into a rotation spot like Bass did this year, and JJ did the year before.
HEDOOOOOO!!!: It's funny to me how opinions change concerning this guy. I think Hedo really breeds a love hate relationship with his fanbase. He's entertaining, and talented, but he's also out of control, and I've never been convinced that Hedo is truly motivated. He always appears lackadaisical to me. In the past, with goofball Dwight, he fit right in. I'd love to see him get serious this year. I don't expect the turnovers to drop much, but this guy creates offense. Between finding the right guy at the right time when no one expects it, hitting an above average percentage of threes, and drawing fouls, Turk is going to help this team. I was also VERY impressed with his D on Dirk last night. Dirk never got going, and it was because Hedo was dialed in and concentrating on bothering him. He gave him no space for the jab step, and when Dirk fell away, Hedo was usually right there with a hand up. The man has length. He can use it defensively.
Bass: Brandon is about to play the best basketball of his career. There is no reason, with the way the ball is moving, for him to average less than 8 automatic mid-range jumpers a night. There will be cleanup duty needed at the rim, and he is the only bruiser we've got besides Dwight. He's going to earn this years pay and last years in the next few months. Watch it happen.
Ryan: I've got a completely nuetral outlook on expectations for Ryan right now. Coming off an underwhelming start and an injury, it may take him a while to get going at a productive level. I think Ryan's either going to be making progress, or we're not going to see much of him. I don't see him playing much above backup level ball this year, for this team, but the potential is still there for him to be Kevin Love light.
My name is Earl: That nickname caught my attention on NBATV last night, and I think it's funnny. YMMV. I was surprised to see him play so much last night, given that he's logged so few minutes over his short career, but I was a little impressed. He plays backup level offense, and there's tons of realistic room for improvement. Defensively, he played Dirk ok, but Tyson Chandler abused his lack of awareness. I'm not pinning the loss on those blunders, but a vet backup big could've saved the Magic 6-8 points last night. Coach him up and bring him along. This guy could be the next Gortat in a season or two (no name center to solid backup).
Dwight: Nothing negative. This has been his best season yet without question. He's playing MVP level ball. He deserves a shot at a title. MVP caliber players do not stay with teams that don't deliver a shot at a title, regardless of how loyal they are. The Magic need a finals appearance this year or next to have a shot at keeping Dwight unless the new CBA changes things dramatically in a way I can't currently envision.
The Magic have a team that can develop into a title contender. It may not happen this season. I wouldn't be surprised if they fall in the second round this year, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they accomplish the most incredible post all-star break turnaround in the history of the NBA. This team is still up in the air, but every day since Saturday has brought me more hope. Looking at the reads from the national sports community over the last few days indicates I'm not alone. Despite 2 losses, opinions have been getting rosier and rosier.
This team is probably not going to play above .500 ball for the next month or two. That should not diminish our support of the team or it's players. We've got a club full of shooters here that deserves our hope and enthusiasm. Win or lose, it's time to enjoy the ride, and temper expectations for a litle while.