You may recall a few months ago when I interviewed Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated regarding his cover story about Dwight Howard's lighthearted nature. SI was once again nice enough to allow me to interview another of its authors about another story: Ian Thomsen, whose story about the Orlando Magic's road to the NBA Finals, "Magic Show," appears online here and in the June 8th issue of the magazine.
Below, an excerpt from "Magic Show." After the jump, our q-and-a with Ian Thomsen, in which we address--among other things--Jameer Nelson, "respect," and the chances of the Magic's unique style taking hold elsewhere in the league.
The franchise player is years away from realizing his potential, the secondary star is lavishly overpaid, the locker room has been bereft of leadership since the point guard was injured, the Turkish small forward is too passive and the French sixth man thinks he's a better shooter than he really is. That only makes him fit right in on this team, which puts up way too many three-pointers to be taken seriously, and whose coach screams so much that he's guaranteed to lose his players-a bunch of softies who can't play defense and lack the experience to beat the likes of the Celtics and the Cavaliers and, especially, the Lakers.
Third Quarter Collapse: The story dominating the lead-up to the Finals is Jameer Nelson's potential return to the Magic's lineup, albeit as a reserve. [ed note: since this conversation, the Orlando Sentinel has reported that Nelson will probably not play at all in the series] We expect an official announcement later this evening, but reporters around the team are fairly certain Nelson will suit-up. What are your thoughts on Nelson's return? Is the NBA Finals really the right place to re-integrate such a crucial player?
Ian Thomsen: I'm of two minds on it. The Magic have been playing at a high level without Nelson, and it's asking a lot of him to suddenly rise to that level after all of this time off and help rather than hurt them.
On the other hand, there never is a bad time to add a good player. If Nelson can't play well enough then I'm sure Stan Van Gundy will get him out of the game quickly. But if he can play then the Magic can't afford to ignore him, because this round is going to be tougher than the conference finals against Cleveland and the Magic can use his leadership and toughness.
3QC: If the Magic lose this series--as most experts expect will be the case--will they get any respect from anyone just for making it this far? You touched on all the knocks against the Magic in your article, and rebuffed them, but I still sense that the narrative surrounding their win over Cleveland in the Conference Finals is, "the Cavs collapsed against the Magic," rather than, "the Magic soundly outplayed the Cavs for most of the series." (Guess to which theory I subscribe!) Put another way, is there any realistic scenario in which the Magic lose the series but gain respect?
Thomsen: I couldn't disagree more. Maybe you assume people are thinking of the worst of your team, but get over it: Orlando crushed those guys.
If people want to focus on Cleveland's collapse, that doesn't take anything away from what Orlando did to inflict that collapse.
All of this talk about "respect" in sports is so hokey. No team gets respect until it wins the NBA title. Last year the Lakers looked like a terrific team until they went to the Finals and after they were buried in Game 6 they took abuse all summer. No respect was shown to them and obviously in their case it had nothing to do with being a small-market team. If the Magic win they'll be respected. It's that simple.
3QC: There's a sense that a three-point shooting team without a burly power forward can't win a title, or really do much of anything. What are you hearing from other teams about potentially adopting the Magic's contrarian style? Might a middling team try to give it a go? I think a team like New Jersey, with Brook Lopez as Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson as Rashard Lewis, and Devin Harris as Nelson, could try to make it work.
Thomsen: GM Otis Smith told me that he didn't necessarily seek to build a team like this, that it just worked out this way. The reason Orlando has so many shooters is to create space for Dwight Howard, who is a true low-post center who can be (and has been recently) dominant. I don't see many other teams with that kind of player; shooting so many threes wouldn't work nearly so well with New Jersey because they don't have that dominant guy in the paint to provide a spine to the offense.
3QC: The Magic have won their last 2 playoff series despite being the underdog. In the first round, they eliminated the 76ers in Game 6 without Howard, when no one expected them to do so. Now, they're headed to the NBA Finals as an underdog yet again. What role, if any, does the underdog designation play in the team's success? Do they feed off it? Or is it simpler than that, namely that they're an excellent team?
Thomsen: I think they're simply an excellent team that took advantage of its opportunities, as excellent teams do. They can feed off it in the sense of convincing themselves they can in fact beat the Lakers, even if others believe they can't. But once the game starts it all boils down to making threes and Howard making his free throws and everybody defending hard.
Thanks to Ian Thomsen for his insight. We look forward to hearing from him, and more SI writers, again in the future.
"Magic Show" appears in the June 8th, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.