Chris Duhon's performance as Jameer Nelson's backup at point guard in the Orlando Magic's 102-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday once again had Orlando fans calling for Duhon's job. In his 11:29 on the court, Boston outscored Orlando, 30-11, as the Magic shot 3-of-11 from the floor and committed eight turnovers, according to NBA.com's proprietary stats database. The calls for coach Stan Van Gundy to bench Duhon in favor of Ish Smith were as loud and vitriolic as ever.
Duhon didn't score--he didn't attempt a single shot or free throw, in fact--while tallying no assists, two turnovers, and two fouls, so one can certainly understand Magic fans' frustration with the eight-year veteran. Yet the data suggest Smith may not be such a huge improvement over Duhon, given how Orlando has played with each on the floor.
Per the NBA stats database, Orlando scores 99.3 points per 100 possessions with Duhon on the floor, a pretty horrid figure. Smith, however, fares worse, at 89.8 points per 100 possessions. In fairness to Smith, though, many of those fruitless possessions came in situations in which the game had already been decided, situations in which Van Gundy had emptied his bench. But for a brief time, Smith had succeeded Duhon as Nelson's top backup, and in those five games he logged meaningful minutes. Controlling for those contests helps Smith's numbers, but doesn't substantially elevate them above Duhon's, as Orlando scored 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the court.
Digging deeper, the Magic shot 41.4 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from three-point range with Smith at the helm, compared to 43.1 percent and 38.8 percent, respectively, with Duhon.
Where Smith has the biggest edge on the former Duke Blue Devil is in the turnover department: the Magic committed turnovers on just 10.6 percent of their possessions with Smith on the court, in contrast to 13.1 percent with Duhon.
When Van Gundy switched from Smith back to Duhon, he said Smith "may still play a role here," but explained his preference for Duhon this way: "When we're struggling, I wanted to go back to veteran guys. I think Ish penetrates the ball very well--maybe better than Chris right now--but I think we get better organization on the floor with Chris, which helps the other guys play well."
If Duhon gets the team more organized, the data don't show it. By the same token, the data aren't terribly kind to Smith either. But Smith's appeal is his speed and athleticism. Smith can get by pressuring defenders with relative ease, whereas Duhon has to slow the game down by leveraging his rear end into the defender and backing him down, often 30-plus feet from the basket. Based simply on the eye test, Smith's able to get Orlando into its sets more quickly thanks to his ability to handle pressure. Against a team of Boston's caliber at the defensive end, that's a valuable skill.
Even if the numbers don't make an overwhelming case for Smith over Duhon, I'd nonetheless argue the time has long passed for Van Gundy to make a permanent switch in Smith's favor, simply because of the speed at which he plays. Van Gundy needs to either bench Duhon outright or pair him with at least two other playmakers, most likely J.J. Redick and the currently injured Hedo Turkoglu. He can't continue apace with the current rotation, as Duhon is far too big a liability with the ball in his hands to log meaningful minutes at this level of competition.
When it comes right down to it, Orlando's going to have to rely on Nelson in the postseason more than it ever has before, simply because of the lack of quality depth behind him.