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What to Expect from Jameer Nelson in the NBA Finals, If He Returns

Arguably the biggest story leading up to the NBA Finals between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers is the potential return of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson to the Magic's lineup. Nelson tore the labrum in his right shoulder in a game against the Dallas Mavericks four months ago Tuesday. A little more than two weeks later, he underwent what was then termed a season-ending operation to repair the labrum. Now, he's several months ahead of his rehabilitation schedule. His team is four wins away from an NBA championship, and it appears as though he will play evetually during the series, although we stress that neither the Magic nor Nelson has made a formal announcement about his availability, one way or the other.

In light of his probable return, I thought it might be wise to run some numbers to try to get an idea of Nelson's effectiveness. This science is by no means exact. I do not know what difficulties a right labrum tear might present to a basketball player, even one who has recovered from the necesary surgery. What I'm assuming is that, whatever those effects are, they'll limit Nelson to 80% of his normal per-minute productivity this season. Next, I figured that he'd have 15.1 minutes per game with which to work. Rafer Alston, the starting point guard, averages 32.9 minutes per game in the playoffs. A 48-minute game--overtime is possible, but unlikely--leaves 15.1 minutes for his backup, which is the number to which I've applied Nelson's adjusted, per-minute stats. Again, "inexact" is a word I'd like to emphasize here.

One thing I did not adjust is shooting percentages or shot attempts, for lack of a great method by which to do so. Even if Nelson's accuracy bottoms out a bit, he'll still be far better than most NBA point guards: 50.3% from the field this season, 45.3% from three-point range. His true shooting percentage, which accounts for three-pointers and free throws, of 61.2% ranked him 3rd among point guards this season, trailing only Steve Nash and Jose Calderon.

Let's add another element to this exercise, though. One school of thought making its way around the NBA world is that a hobbled Nelson is an upgrade over Anthony Johnson, Alston's usual backup. To test this wisdom, I've applied Johnson's per-minute playoffs statistics, then adjusted them for 15.1 minutes per game to see how he'd stack up against Nelson.

Player Pts Rebs Ast Stl TO
Nelson 6.5 1.3 2.1 0.5 0.8
Johnson 4.4 1.4 2.1 0.6 0.6

If I'm right--and there's no guarantee I am--ceding Johnson's minutes to Nelson is little more than a lateral move. A.J. hasn't exactly set the world on fire in these playoffs, but he's at least been very steady. Will Nelson be similarly reliable, in his first NBA game in over four months, in the most meaningful playoff series of his professional career? As the Orlando Sentinel notes, Johnson has played in two NBA Finals before, losing twice as a member of the New Jersey Nets, so he at least has experience at this level. None of this is to suggest Jameer can't handle the pressure, as he's proven over the course of his professional and collegiate career that he can perform on big stages. Still, I can't help but think the NBA Finals is not exactly the right place to re-integrate such a crucial part of the team.

But, if he can return, and play more effectively than expected--more effectively than projected here--he could be the difference between the Magic winning and losing the series. He's hardly the only player on the floor, though. Rashard Lewis could just as easily prove to be Orlando's "X-Factor," as could Mickael Pietrus or Hedo Turkoglu. That's neither here nor there, though.

Ultimately, people are right to lower their expectations for Nelson coming off such a shoulder injury. Even the staunchest of Magic fans will understand that Jameer will not be in All-Star form if and when he plays in this series. What could be a misconception, as the numbers I crunched shows, is that Nelson is a significant upgrade over Johnson. It's a matter of tempering expectations, curbing enthusiasm.... whichever phrase you choose, the point remains the same. The point guard, however, will be different.