The Orlando Magic are on a roll, tying a franchise record with 9 straight victories after two big trades netted them rotation pieces Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as prospect Earl Clark. The offense, which stagnated too often prior to the trade, is now thriving thanks to increased balance, better passing, and improved transition conversion. But the team has maintained a party line: they're trying to get better, game by game, regardless of the winning streak. Bearing all that in mind, here's a look at some stories that merit our attention going forward.
The Magic's new crew seems to be doing okay defensively, but there's a long adjustment period for the new players, who must become accustomed to the Magic's philosophy and rotations on that end. Pick-and-roll coverage particularly concerns Stan Van Gundy, who's not thrilled about how his team has handled "the point of the screen" defensively since the trades. He also made his players run sprints after Monday's practice because they reached in too much that day.
In parting with Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat, Orlando lost two of its better individual defenders, and two whose familiarity with its system kept it afloat. Arenas, Richardson, Turkoglu, and Clark aren't renowned for their expertise on D, which is why integrating them might be an issue. In general, team defense can trump one-on-one coverage, so as long as those four know where to be, when to be there, and what not to give up, they should be fine. Having Dwight Howard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, behind them should make their jobs easier.
Van Gundy led a team featuring Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and Turkoglu to the 2009 NBA Finals, which should give you a great idea about his abilities coaching the defensive side of the ball.
Gilbert Arenas' Adventures at Point Guard
Arenas has shown flashes of being the same brilliant scorer and playmaker he was during his prime years with the Washington Wizards, but his overall shooting (36.8 percent from the field) and high turnover numbers (2.6 per game, in 23.1 minutes) indicate he's not where Orlando needs him to be just yet. Otis Smith, Arenas' close friend and the man responsible for acquiring him, has some theories about Arenas' up-and-down performance:
"He's got a lot of adjustments to make. He was not playing the point much in Washington this year and he's playing the point almost exclusively for us. He's played at the two at times, but he's played a lot of point guard for us. He's having to adjust to coming off the bench, which he hasn't done very often in his career, and that's on top of adjusting to a new team and a new system.
More than any other newcomer, Arenas has it in him to swing the balance of Orlando's season, which seems silly to say after Richardson and Turkoglu have gotten off to such strong starts in Magic pinstripes. His raw ability to score from anywhere and to make the proper pass, either in the halfcourt or in transition, make him a threat to opposing defenses.
There is, of course, the chance he'll never make it all the way back from the three knee operations he's undergone in the last three years. Magic television color commentator Matt Guokas noted on a recent broadcast Arenas has trouble turning the corner on some of his pick-and-rolls, forcing him to basically tiptoe his way to the rim when he gets an open lane. That's a problem that'll compromise his scoring and some passing, but even when his knee is utterly shot, he can still make the right reads and deliver the ball accordingly.
Orlando swapped four rotation players for three in the separate trades on December 18th, including Marcin Gortat, its only backup to Dwight Howard. Van Gundy's used an eight-man rotation almost exclusively since the trades, with Clark getting spot minutes at both forward positions if needed. Shortening the rotation tends to help in the playoffs, as it allows the top-line players to log more minutes, but in the short term can hurt.
Depth at point guard, with Nelson and Arenas, is not an issue. Rotating Richardson, Turkoglu, and J.J. Redick on the wings has worked beautifully so far; Turkoglu's passing and court vision makes everyone better, but especially his wing counterparts, as they're both always ahead of the ball in transition, as Van Gundy pointed out after a recent home victory.
The question mark, obviously, since the trades is the big-man rotation. Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass are producing in their increased minutes due to Rashard Lewis' departure, and Howard remains the league's best big man. The ubiquitous question is if the Magic can cope with Howard in foul trouble, or otherwise unavailable, during a playoff series. The Magic aren't high on any of the free-agent bigs, so we may not see a resolution immediately, if ever. But Howard's foul-prone ways--as a lane-clogging defender who has to erase his teammates' defensive mistakes, and as an offensive player who doesn't always keep his hands to himself--make this issue a particularly pressing one.