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Everyone Else Just Got Better

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Not to pile on Otis Smith, but the Magic are the only Eastern Conference team currently over .500 not to make at least one roster move to improve itself in the past month. To recap:

  1. Boston Celtics (44-12)
  2. Detroit Pistons (42-16)
    • Acquire guard Juan Dixon from the Toronto Raptors for center Primoz Brezec
    • Sign free-agent center Theo Ratliff (bought-out by the Minnesota Timberwolves)
  3. Orlando Magic (37-23)
  4. Toronto Raptors (32-24)
    • Acquire center Primoz Brezec from the Detroit Pistons for guard Juan Dixon
  5. Cleveland Cavaliers (32-26)
    • Acquire forwards Joe Smith and Ben Wallace from the Chicago Bulls for foward Drew Gooden and guard Larry Hughes
    • Acquire forward Wally Szczerbiak and guard Delonte West from the Seattle SuperSonics for forwards Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble

Okay, maybe the Raptors getting Brezec from the Pistons doesn't count, but the fact remains: the teams around us are at least trying to improve, and we aren't. The Magic, as constituted the day of the trade deadline, were certainly not talented enough to defeat Boston, Detroit, or Toronto in a seven-game series. Now? They're arguably not talented enough to take down Cleveland, either. Even more troublesome is the fact that Toronto and Cleveland are potential first-round playoff opponents for us, which makes the possibility of an early vacation for us much more immediate.

As MME wrote at Bold 'n' Blue, the Magic are the only team in the NBA this season to beat Boston and Detroit twice each. However, one win against each of those teams came on a game-winning shot, and another came down to a missed last-second shot by the opponent. Only one, the most recent victory over the Pistons, was decisive by any stretch of the imagination.

On the day of the trade deadline, I considered Detroit the most formidable of any of these plus-.500 teams. Now that Boston has added two talented, savvy, playoff-proven veterans, I'm even more frightened of them. In last season's playoffs, Detroit's Chris Webber and Dale Davis (who no longer play for the Pistons) hacked Dwight Howard into a funk he could not shake. They intimidated him. The Celtics now have P.J. Brown, who can similarly pester Dwight. Celtics coach Doc Rivers can also dust-off Scot Pollard, who is good for six fouls a game. Meanwhile, Sam Cassell has 115 games of playoff experience, and still has the skills to pick-apart younger point guards; see this season's 35-point undressing of the Pacers' Jamaal Tinsley for proof.

Theo Ratliff is finally healthy, and he gives the Pistons the same toughness that Davis and Webber provided them last year. He's still a good shot-blocker, and can be trusted in late-game situations; in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in a playoff series, with Rasheed Wallace fouled out, Pistons coach Flip Saunders will go with Ratliff over emerging youngster Amir Johnson 11 times out of 10.

Cleveland is similarly tougher with Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. Even with Wallace's declining skills, he's still more of a banger than Drew Gooden ever was or ever will be. Adding those two guys to a frontcourt that already boasted Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao makes the Cavaliers a team built for hard-nosed playoff basketball. Also, they have LeBron James.

As for Toronto, they're already a better team. As ESPN.com's John Hollinger mentioned yesterday (Insider, although it's free for right now), Toronto has a better point differential than we do, and point differential is a better indicator of a team's ability that won-loss record is:

Let's put it more simply: The Raps aren't beating people, they're killing them. Toronto topped Milwaukee by 31, Washington by 39, Miami by 32, Minnesota by 23 and 22, New Jersey by 18, Orlando by 17, and New York by 23. In a 16-game stretch, half their games were blowout wins.

Sum it up and you'll see in that modest-looking 16-game stretch [during which Toronto is 10-6] the Raptors are outscoring opponents by an impressive 10 points per game.

Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard play well against each other, so the real difference-making factor for the Raptors in a series against us is the point guard tandem of Jose Calderon and T.J. Ford. There's no way that either Jameer Nelson or Keyon Dooling can shut both of those guys down; they get into the lane at will and have the three-point shooters to make defenses pay for collapsing on them. The Raptors, as a team, shoot 40% from beyond the arc, is tops in the NBA.

So should we just give up and concede the conference to these teams? No, of course not. We can beat any of these teams in a playoff series, but the odds are decidedly not in our favor. After reading this post by Matt at Hardwood Paroxysm, I decided to contact him to chat about D-League players who could help Orlando. Click "Permalink" below to read what he had to say.

Matt, widely recognized as the basketblogosphere's D-League expert, suggested the following big-men as possible signees for the Magic:

Player Age Ht. Wt. Pos. Matt says...
Lance Allred 27 7'0" 250 C He "isn't a bad option because [the Magic are] primarily looking for defense;"
Elton Brown 24 6'8" 270 PF "Now that [Jazz center Kyrylo] Fesenko's gone, he's the best D-League free agent available."
Carlos Powell 24 6'7" 225 PF "He's a little small, but he's talented."
Darryl Watkins 23 6'11" 265 C "He was in [Orlando's] preseason camp [...] he's got a lot of talent."

Here's a crucial part of the conversation that illustrates why NBA teams have nothing to lose by signing a D-League player:

Ben Q.: I don't see how any of these guys could be worse than Pat Garrity.

Or James Augustine, although he tore up the D-League last year, so..

Matt: Well that's part of it, though.

My point is not that all players will become Kelenna [Azubuike], or [Mikki] Moore, or [Jordan] Farmar, but that there are much worse players in the league right now.

If Otis Smith wants his team to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference, which just saw its top teams all add depth, his best option may be to look to the D-League. Cutting Pat Garrity or James Augustine to open up a roster spot for someone with more potential is a low-risk, medium-reward proposition that could pay dividends come playoff time. Alternatively, he could look into signing Davis, a suggestion I made months ago. Either way, this team will head home early barring a fortuitous first-round matchup with sub-.500 team. Smith cannot stand idly by, as he has done for the past week, while other teams scramble to upgrade. He's on record as saying, "We're not going to do a deal just because everybody else is dealing." Fair enough, but when those other people's deals make their teams better than yours, Otis, you need to do something to keep pace.

Put down that fiddle and pick up the phone.