Since the Orlando Magic traded Mickael Pietrus to the Phoenix Suns, the team's fans have wondered, in the comments sections of this website and elsewhere, to whom the team will turn for one-on-one perimeter defense. Dwight Howard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, anchors the pivot and can shut down entire offensive sets almost entirely by himself, as Gian Casimiro pointed out yesterday. But Howard can't contain the likes of LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, and Joe Johnson on an individual level. This season, he's already called out his perimeter teammates to give a better effort on that end.
So, where indeed will the Magic turn? Of late, coach Stan Van Gundy has deployed 6-foot-10 combo forward Earl Clark, obtained from Phoenix in the trade involving Pietrus, in that role. In the last week, the second-year man has guarded Kevin Durant, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony for some stretches; those players rank first, third, and fifth, respectively, in the league in scoring. And Van Gundy's glowed about Clark's potential to the media. Via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:
"But I think his potential as a defensive player and as a defensive impact guy is unlimited if he can get down some better team defensive principles and focus and if he can truly understand that his route to being a special player in this league lies at the defensive end."
That level of praise from Van Gundy, who prizes defense above all other facets of the game, isn't to be taken lightly.
However, Clark isn't the only candidate for the role of wing stopper. Orlando signed Quentin Richardson this summer in order to space the floor offensively but, more importantly, to provide the sort of tough, physical defense against high-scoring opponents that can throw them off their game.
The arrival of Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson from Phoenix bumped Richardson out of the rotation, but he vowed to stay positive and ready when I spoke to him about the trades a few months ago. He's done just that, and helped bottle up Anthony in the second half of the Magic's come-from-behind win against the New York Knicks on Wednesday. His effort didn't go unnoticed. Here's Van Gundy again, via Robbins:
"He can help us. He’s so competitive," Van Gundy said. "I think we can use his fire and competitiveness, so we want him ready to go."
Richardson's biggest issue this season--apart from, in general, not being a better player than Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, or J.J. Redick--is his offense. At 29.1 percent, his three-point shot has eluded him, and he's taken nearly 60 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Because he doesn't handle the ball much or create for himself off the dribble, he's hard to keep on the floor unless he's making threes.
And yet. At 6-foot-6 and 227 pounds, he's a better physical match for most high-scoring small forwards than Clark, who's more better equipped to handle more stationary players. In playing either Clark or Richardson, Van Gundy has to weigh the cost of diminished offense against the potential benefit of better defense.
Let's assume Van Gundy finds room in his rotation for only one player for the rest of the season and the playoffs, with the one he doesn't choose only getting spot minutes. On which player would you want him to rely for perimeter defense?