There is still time for Magic formula to work
Dwight and the Supermen were supposed to take the NBA by storm after Orlando general manager Otis Smith retooled the team and injected more star power. They’re still trying to find that Magic harmony that carried them to the NBA Finals last season.
Chemistry is a funny thing, as Celtics fans are learning. Orlando’s addition of Vince Carter has not gone as seamlessly as expected. Not only is Carter accustomed to dominating the ball and serving as the No. 1 option, but when he has received the chance to score, he has faltered, shooting a career-low 38 percent.
Like the Celtics, the Magic come into today’s showdown at TD Garden with their share of issues (injuries, players falling short of expectations). And like the Celtics, they still believe they can make a run at NBA supremacy. Smith’s moves just need a few more weeks to take effect.
Smith allowed Hedo Turkoglu to sign with the Raptors and then executed the risky move of trading Courtney Lee, Tony Battie, and Rafer Alston to the Nets for Carter and Ryan Anderson.
Carter returned to his native Florida, bringing his aging body and erratic perimeter game with him. Allowing Turkoglu to leave appears to be a lose-lose move. The Magic’s perimeter shooting has suffered, and Turkoglu is lost in Toronto.
Losing Turkoglu left Orlando without a pinpoint outside shooter and clutch player down the stretch. The Magic were tied for 17th in the league in field goal percentage and were 15th in scoring entering yesterday’s games. They are four games behind their pace of last season but the way Smith views it, they remain in contention even though they have yet to play consistently well, so his optimism isn’t wavering.
“I don’t know if we’re approaching [a peak], but we’re playing a lot better,’’ said Smith. “We’re getting opportunities to score the ball from different places. Dwight [Howard] is starting to get into his groove and control the paint area.
“I think, at the beginning of the season, our best four guys weren’t playing very good basketball. We’ve actually ended up winning games with our backups, with our bench, which is a good thing to have.’’
The bench play indeed has helped keep Orlando from falling into the second tier of Eastern contenders. The Magic get 33 points per game from Anderson, Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, and Mickael Pietrus, offsetting the subpar seasons of Carter and $118 million man Rashard Lewis, who is averaging a career-low in field goal percentage and has his worst rebounding numbers in 10 years.
The absence of Turkoglu, who could stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting, has hurt Lewis because he can only stand and watch while Carter dribbles and looks for tough turnaround jumpers. The days of Carter beating opponents with a lightning-quick first step and soaring for a dunk are over. He is content to save his legs and shoot contested jumpers, and that wasn’t Orlando’s philosophy last season.
The Magic have taken nearly 50 games to adjust to the changes, and the process has been littered by curious losses: back-to-back defeats at Chicago and Indiana, a 5-point home loss to Toronto, and a 15-point loss to Portland without Brandon Roy. Those are not indications of a championship-caliber team, but the Magic don’t have to be championship-caliber yet. Winning the Southeast Division would likely mean a top-three seed, and coach Stan Van Gundy can push the reset button for the postseason.
“I think [the Eastern teams] are going to beat each other up through the course of the season and it will all come down to a seven-game series and who’s playing well at the right moment,’’ Smith said. “You’ve got to play well enough to get to the postseason, and when you get to the postseason, you’ve got to play well enough to beat those teams in a seven-game series. Everyone on the board is a pretty tough team. Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, those are tough teams.’’
Of course, the fate of the Magic lies largely on the hulking shoulders of Howard, whose numbers are down from a year ago, including his shots per game (from 12.4 to 9.6). Howard, potentially the game’s most dominant force, is being stymied by his team’s offensive inconsistency. Van Gundy has allowed the reserves to play more, and they have taken shots away from the starters. That has led to the inconsistency because Lewis, Carter, and Howard aren’t getting their usual touches.
“If you look at the depth of our team and our bench, we are playing a lot better than we did a year ago, so we are having to rely less on those guys in those situations,’’ Smith said. “[We] rely on the [depth] of our team rather than just 1-2-3-4 guys.
“I think there are guys who are probably playing better basketball than they’ve played all year. J.J. Redick is having a fine year. Ryan Anderson is having a fine year. Those guys actually help strengthen your team and not necessarily keep it to one or two guys.’’
Bench production is vital in the NBA, but when it takes away from the production of the starters, there’s a problem.
The Magic need their All-Star-caliber players to play like All-Stars, and Howard has to take a more commanding role in the offense; whatever happens with the Magic this season, he will get the brunt of the blame or the majority of the credit.
“The thing is, he is capable of doing a lot of things,’’ Smith said. “He’s capable of controlling the paint on the defensive end and he’s capable of having a heck of an offensive game as well.
“He’s starting to balance things out where he is doing a little bit of both. When he needs to be a strong force on the defensive end, he is, and when he needs to be a strong presence on the offensive end, he’s doing that, too.
“So you ask a lot from your best player. That’s why they are called your best player. You ask him to do a lot, and most of the time, 99.9 percent of the time, he delivers in one way or another.’’
With so many changes in the offseason, Smith is not inclined to make any moves before the trade deadline. He is still waiting for his adjustments to come to fruition.
“It’s kind of hard to write the conclusion of the book without getting to the end,’’ he said. “If we win, we can say the changes were good, but if we don’t, then we can probably look back and say the changes were bad.
“The objective is to compete for a championship year in and year out. So by making some of the changes, it was to have the opportunity to compete for a title, and I still think we have that chance.’’
“We just have to continue to grow,’’ said Wade. “Right now, we have a fairly young team. The core of our team is young, and we have to continue to keep building. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“You look at Boston and say it happened overnight with them in getting players with trades. It really didn’t. It took years for them to get back to their winning ways.’’
When asked if he had that kind of patience, Wade said, “We’ll see.’’
Meanwhile, second-year forward Michael Beasley continues to grow after a difficult experience last summer, when he entered rehabilitation following alarming Twitter posts that suggested he was suicidal. He has remained drama-free this season, averaging 16 points and nearly 7 rebounds as a starter entering last night’s game. His shooting percentage is slightly down, but the season has been refreshing considering what he endured as a rookie.
“I just don’t think about it,’’ said Beasley. “When you get on the court, that’s all you need to think about. The better you play, the better your off-court life is going to be. All the things I went through, just put it behind me, put it in the past.
“I want to be one of the greats in this game. I would like to start sooner than later.’’
Perhaps Beasley’s growth is linked to Wade’s return.
“I would love to be more consistent,’’ said Beasley. “As good as I have been playing, helping the team, I feel like I can do a whole lot more. I feel like I am more than just 16 points and 6-7 rebounds a night.
“When you look at fellow second-year guys like Derrick Rose, guys like that who are All-Stars, you just get to thinking that I could be there, I want to be there. It’s just being patient.’’
“When total chaos hits, it’s deflating,’’ he said. “We were primed to get back to the conference finals, get over the hump, and actually challenge for an NBA championship, and then all hell broke loose. I can only imagine what that [Washington] locker room is like.’’
Since the Brawl, the Pacers have lost in the first round of the playoffs twice and missed the postseason the last three years. They were 18-32 entering last night, and are an afterthought.
“They still haven’t recovered,’’ said Miller. “Look at them now. It’s a joke. I hate to put coach [Jim] O’Brien down, but they got some contracts that are ugly. And they play hard, but the Pacers have never, never recovered from that night at the Palace.
“Things will never, ever be the same until they get lucky from the draft. It’s just not the same.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.