The Orlando Magic have won eight straight games, their longest streak since the 2005/06 season and the longest active streak in the NBA. And no team has played better ball than the Magic over the last month, with Orlando drilling its opponents by an average of 14.5 points over that stretch. Each player deserves a share of the credit, as does the coaching staff. But to me, one player in particular has keyed the Magic's improvement since the break: point guard Jameer Nelson.
Here's a look at how his numbers have improved, UPDATE with his stats from last season added for comparison:
|Jameer Nelson pre- and post-All-Star break splits, 2009/10 NBA Season|
The break helped Nelson recharge his batteries, so to speak, and it's paying off with better percentages from the floor. More impressively, he's turned into an assist machine relative to his usual abilities. Prior to this season, Nelson split ballhandling duties with Hedo Turkoglu in Stan Van Gundy's offense, which robbed him of some assist opportunities. For most of his pre-Van Gundy career, he was regarded as a point guard with a shoot-first mentality and without great floor vision; the 1.5 Pure Point Rating he posted in his first full year as a starter did little to inspire confidence in his ability to run an offense. With Turkoglu in Toronto and Vince Carter not assuming that same playmaking role, Nelson's doing a little more than he used to, and proving to be one of the best pick-and-roll players in the game: data from Synergy Sports show Nelson produces 1.04 points per possession in all pick-and-roll situations, which puts him in the league's 86th percentile.
It makes sense that he'd get plenty of assists with this particular team, given that he has 3 three-point shooters beyond the arc or the league's best center in the paint awaiting a pass at any time. But it might be a mistake to assume that just anyone could post these sorts of numbers. Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and Deron Williams are the only players to best Nelson's post-break Pure Point Rating over the entire season, while Paul and Nash are the only ones to combine a better Pure Point Rating with more efficient shooting. When Eddy and I write that Nelson's played like an All-Star lately, we mean it. He's getting it done, and that his rise has mirrored the Magic's is no coincidence.
Kelly Dwyer's called Nelson "the most important non-star in the NBA," and with good reason. With Nelson producing the way he has of late, Orlando's taken its offense into another gear, with over 118 points scored per 100 possessions since the break. That offensive potency, combined with the Magic's elite defense, will make Orlando exceptionally dangerous in the postseason. And it all starts with Nelson, the man running the show.