For those that follow the Orlando Magic, it's not too difficult to look around and find different media outlets that are commenting on the team's recent struggles. Whether it's about chemistry or something else entirely, new opinions are being formed about the Magic because the team hasn't lived up to the expectations that were set prior to the start of the regular season. However, more often than not, people aren't taking the time to explain why Orlando has been struggling for nearly a month now. Blanketed statements are being made instead of educated and informed ones.
There's a myriad of issues with the Magic right now and unfortunately, there's not enough space to cover all of them in this write-up. Nevertheless, since Orlando is conveniently at its half-way point in the regular season, I wanted to strictly look at the statistics of the team's four All-Stars - Vince Carter, Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson - to see how bad they have been performing this year. Opinions may differ, but if the Magic want to turn things around before it's too late, it starts and ends with Carter, Howard, Lewis, and Nelson. Their respective track records indicate that they're more than capable of playing at a higher level than they have been but the jury is out as to whether or not improvement will occur. Still, it's worth looking at the numbers to reveal - especially to those that don't know - partly why Orlando is "off" and playing bipolar basketball these past few weeks.
I coded (bold indicates the player's stats are better this year than last year; italic indicates they're worse) the statistics of Carter, Howard, Lewis, and Nelson to visually emphasize a dip or rise in their numbers from last season to this season.
Click after the jump to see the data.
|Games Played||Minutes Played||statistical plus/minus||PER||1 yr. adjusted plus/minus||net plus/minus|
|TS%||eFG%||Total Rebound %||Assist %||Turnover %||Usage %||Offensive Rating|
|adj. defensive plus/minus||opponent PER||net defensive plus/minus||eFG% allowed|
|Carter*||-3.08||13.3 (vs. SG's)||-3.4||47.1%|
|Howard||-4.99||15.2 (vs. C's)||-7.1||47.3%|
|Lewis||+1.61||17.8 (vs. PF's)||+1.0||47.0%|
|Nelson||+0.03||18.2 (vs. PG's)||+0.4||48.3%|
*the Dwight Howard effect on defense has helped to improve Vince Carter's defensive numbers dramatically
It's a bit puzzling that Vince Carter, at least on a per-minute basis, is taking more shots this year with the Magic than last year with the New Jersey Nets. The amount of field goals Carter is attempting normally wouldn't be much of a problem if he was making them at the rate he was this past season, but he's not. As such, Carter has had a bit of a negative effect on Orlando's offense because he's shooting the basketball with such inefficiency. Compounding the problem is the fact that Carter's assist percentage (17.6%) is the lowest it's been since his rookie year with the Toronto Raptors (17.2%) in 1999. For whatever reason, Carter isn't passing the ball enough. These are issues that can be fixed as the regular season progresses but will they? No one knows, at this point.
Up to this juncture, not many people expected Carter to be playing the way he has been playing this year. It's safe to say, after looking closely at the statistics, that Carter is experiencing his worst stretch in his NBA career. Carter's stats were just as bad, if not worse, with the Raptors in 2004. But many observers felt he quit on the team before he was traded to the Nets later that year, where his production sky-rocketed once he played alongside the likes of Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. Who knows what will happen with Carter, but it's clear something needs to change with him and quickly.
For Dwight Howard, the only numbers that are out of the norm for him on the offensive side of the ball is the increase in turnovers (20.0%) and the lack of field goal attempts (9.2 FGA). Both are partly the reasons why his PER (22.6) is lower this season than it was last season (25.4). Other than that, Howard is shooting with great efficiency, rebounding and blocking at practically the same rate he was last year, and more.
Doubts as to whether or not Howard's busy summer has affected his development as a player, more so offensively than anything else, may have subsided a bit (or may have not) after his performance against the Los Angeles Lakers a few days ago. In short, he was dominant against a team that currently is 1st in the NBA in Defensive Rating. Not only that but Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, players that guarded Howard in single-coverage with success in the 2009 NBA Finals, couldn't stop him. Head coach Phil Jackson adjusted the defensive coverage at halftime (sending double-teams, for example) but the point is, the offensive potential for Howard was on display. As such, a quick - and perhaps long-term - fix to Orlando's woes on offense (as well as the potential for further refinement in his offensive repertoire) is to give Howard the basketball a lot more. Head coach Stan Van Gundy is already considering centering the Magic's offensive strategy more around Howard and it would be smart to do so, given that he's the most efficient player on the team. Yes, Howard has occasional issues with free-throws and turnovers, but it'd be foolish not to get him more involved offensively.
It's key that Orlando improves its balance on the offensive side of the ball but it's also key for the team to move away from a Carter-centric offense. Although the Magic are 9th in Offensive Rating, the team is capable of so much more offensively and is undercutting its ability to do better by allowing Carter to shoot so much. By involving Howard more on offense, Orlando has the potential to improve its efficiency. Whether or not it happens remains to be seen.
Another player that's having - one could legitimately argue his worst season as a professional - an off-year is Jameer Nelson. Nelson is averaging career-lows, most notably, in PER (13.7), TS% (51.0%), and eFG% (48.0%). His Offensive Rating (105) is darn close to a career-low, too. Everyone expected Nelson to regress to the mean this year after his utterly ridiculous shooting display this past season, but he's regressed too much and it'll be interesting to see if he can improve his statistics back up to his career-averages at the very least. Nelson has been playing well here and there since his return from injury in late December, but he's certainly playing nowhere near the All-Star level he was performing at last year. Still, there's plenty of time for Nelson to pick up his play. It wouldn't hurt for Nelson to be more aggressive on offense, considering he attempted as many free-throw attempts as I did during the Magic's unsuccessful West Coast road trip. Zero.
If there's an individual that can't afford to regress on the defensive side of the ball aside from Howard, it's Rashard Lewis. His ability to play above-average defense this past season was one of the main reasons Van Gundy was able to start Lewis at power forward without many negative effects. This year, as the stats indicate, has been a different story. Defensive numbers are still a work in progress but they do a decent job of showing how good or bad a player is on defense. Considering this is Lewis' third season in Van Gundy's defensive scheme, his performance on defense can be analyzed more effectively than normal. Yes, the personnel for Orlando has changed in each of the three years Lewis has been a member of the team but the anchor of the defense - Howard - has not.
The main things that stand out with regards to Lewis' defense is that opposing power forwards this season, as opposed to last season, are a.) much more efficient on offense, b.) scoring more, c.) rebounding more, etc. Additionally, the Magic are 2.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Lewis is on the court. Not good. Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus sheepishly suggested that Orlando should take a look at starting Ryan Anderson and the numbers certainly do make a compelling case for him.
All in all, none of the Orlando Magic's four All-Star players are playing at the levels they were this past season (some worse than others), which is mainly why the team is 26-15 and seven games off its regular season pace from last year. For the Magic, improvement starts from within and it begins with Vince Carter, Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson. Orlando, at its best this past season, had two individuals playing like legitimate All-Stars (Howard and Nelson) and another playing at a borderline level (Lewis). This season, only Howard is playing like an All-Star but as has been stated before, not at the plateau he was at last year. The Magic's supporting cast has improved and helped to pick up the slack, but unless the team wants aspirations of returning to the NBA Finals this year, it needs its All-Stars to play like All-Stars.
Sooner rather than later.