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The Orlando Magic Can't Help That They Have the NBA's Easiest Schedule

There's plenty of great information concerning the Orlando Magic in the Weekend Dime at ESPN, which was posted yesterday. Most interesting, though, is the discussion between writer Marc Stein and ESPN Radio host Marc Kestecher which was recorded a few hours before the Magic's 90-78 victory over the San Antonio Spurs; we'll discuss the other two items after the jump. Stein says he would include San Antonio in the discussion of the league's elite teams, but is much less certain about the Magic. As Kestecher notes, 16 of the Magic's 19 victories at that point were over teams with losing records. Stein says he's impressed with Orlando's ability to win on the road--it is 10-3--but still believes it would falter in a playoff series against either the Boston Celtics or the Cleveland Cavaliers. The second round of the playoffs is the Magic's ceiling, says Stein.

Since that conversation, the Magic have beaten the Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers to run their record to 21-6. They have won 21 of their last 24 games while battling injuries to their three best guards and their franchise center. They have an All-Star center, two productive forwards in their primes, an emerging point guard, and a bench that's gotten deeper as the season has progressed. About the only thing working against them, in terms of public perception, is their early schedule.

And that's what bothers me.

It's so obvious that I almost hate to write it, but here it is: teams can only play who is on the schedule. They have no say which other teams they play, when, or where. The Magic have taken care of business in the early going, as have the Celtics, Cavaliers, and Lakers. Yes, every other team in the NBA has played a stronger schedule than the Magic. But if anything, that's more reason to pay attention to them, not less. The "Oh, the Magic aren't for real, they haven't beaten anyone" argument is simply absurd. The Magic are 5-5 against teams currently above .500, and 4-1 in their last 5 such games. It's clear that they're starting to pull it together. So when the schedule toughens up, as it will in January, when 9 of the 13 games are against teams currently over .500, the Magic should be tougher, too.

Bottom line: I understand if people need to see more of the Magic before lumping them in with the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Lakers among the league's elite teams. But to dismiss them outright is unwise, not to mention premature, and not only because it makes one look foolish: it also helps the Magic, who feed off the perception that they're not ready to contend. Magic forward Rashard Lewis explains:

"We keep feeding off of flying under the radar just so we can prove a point. It feeds our fire. Keep pouring gasoline on the fire, it's going to keep flaming up."

To which I respond, "Burn, baby. Burn."

Make the jump to get my take on the other two items of interest in that Dime.

First: the Oklahoma City Thunder are willing to part with power forward Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith as well as point guard Earl Watson, and are "simply looking for expiring contracts and/or future first-round picks in exchange." Marcin Gortat and Tony Battie have helped the Magic at the power positions a great deal, but the Magic should jump at the opportunity to acquire a vet of Smith's caliber if the price is right. Wilcox is no slouch, either, but he takes entire games off. Not so with Smith, who can play either power forward or center, rebound at a respectable rate, defend well, and make the 18-foot jumper at a solid rate.

Watson, too, is intriguing. He'd make a solid backup to Jameer Nelson in Orlando, but his contract is the least attractive of any of the available Thunder players; it pays him $12.8 million over the course of this season and the next (thanks, ShamSports), whereas the contracts of Wilcox and Smith expire after this season. Given how well Marcin and Tony have played, one could argue that depth at point guard is the Magic's biggest weakness. They could certainly find worse players than Watson to fill that need, though. It's something to keep in mind.

Second: Stein believes Kevin Garnett, not Dwight Howard, is deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award. He admits it's a tough call, but...

Boston's start has been so historic -- and its defense remains so ferocious -- that I can't make this just about numbers. Sorry, Orlando. I simply can't turn in a trimester report with only one Celtics winner. KG's effectiveness and reach as a defensive anchor and chief of the intensity police, in conjunction with [Doc] Rivers and [Paul] Pierce, to keep these Celts so hungry has him just above Howard for now.

"Effectiveness." "Reach." "Hung[er]."

Draw your own conclusions.