By David J. Cohen
Coming into the NBA season several teams have received a lot of publicity. Out west the Suns are everyone’s favorites if F Amare Stoudemire is healthy. The Spurs and Mavericks are the other top contenders out west. And the biggest surprise last year, the Los Angeles Clippers, return stronger and with more experience.
In the Eastern Conference analysts and commentators would make you believe only two teams exist. The Miami Heat will try to defend the title with an aging core mixed with the possible arrival of several young players. The Chicago Bulls add C Ben Wallace to the best defense in the league and hope it is enough to win a championship. Everyone else in the east is pretty much invisible. However, like the Clippers last season, there is a team ready to make a huge step forward on their road to a possible title in the future. It started after the all-star break last year and will continue this year. It’s the NBA’s biggest sleeper team: The Orlando Magic.The Magic are anchored by one of the league’s best all-around players in F Dwight Howard. He averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds a game last season and has averaged a double-double per game in his short career. This is only his 3rd season, which is just scary. He is a monster on the glass and is still raw offensively. The Magic coaching staff is saying his offensive game will be unleashed this year. If he starts scoring 20 or more a contest to go with the rebounds, he will be a legitimate MVP candidate. His size and skill could make him a tough match-up for most players in the league.
Howard won’t be the only all-star on this team come February. PG Jameer Nelson has all the tools and intangibles to be a dominant guard in the NBA for years. He has built upon the skill and leadership he showed when leading Saint Joseph’s to its best ever regular season record. Last season Nelson averaged 15 points and 5 assists a game, but truly emerged after the all-star break. His play took this team to another level. He has terrific court vision, is a great slasher, a solid defender, and isn’t afraid to hit the big shot. He is the leader and the man in the clutch this team needs to take the next step. He isn’t a household name yet, but he will be by the end of the year. He could be a strong candidate for Most Improved Player.
While Howard and Nelson are important players, this team has a terrific core of solid role players. The other starters all bring important contributions to the team. F Hedo Turkoglu fits in perfectly at the three-spot, providing good mid-range shooting and passing skills. He averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists a game last year and should put up similar numbers this year. He is the perfect compliment player to Howard and Nelson. The other starting guard is slated to be rookie SG J.J. Redick, who is coming back from a herniated disk in his back. He is a great shooter from behind the arc, giving the Magic something they were really lacking last year. If he really can do more than just shoot in the NBA it will be an added bonus to the team. In this offense, his primary role will be to take the open 3’s to open up opposing defenses. And then there’s Detroit Pistons castaway C Darko Milicic. He made significant progress in Orlando and should continue to improve. Being next to Dwight Howard is certainly going to help as opposing front courts will put their best guys on Howard. The better Howard is offensively this year the more production Milicic will provide. As a Magic he provided 8 points and 4 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a game. As the year goes on his minutes should increase. If Darko gives them 12 points and 8 rebounds a game the Magic will be one of the most dynamic teams in the league. Milicic is also an underrated defender. He could have a huge growth curve and have a year similar to Nelson last season, where he takes it to another level after the all-star break. And if he can eventually live up to number 2 draft pick status the Magic will have the best front court in the league for years to come.
The Magic bench is impressive and could be the deepest in the entire league. They have solid depth at every position. Their bench is extremely versatile and can adjust to any team in the league. At PG they have Carlos Arroyo and Travis Diener. Arroyo provides another slasher type of player to rest Nelson and provided 11 points and 3 assists a game for them last year. His overall production should be less this year as Nelson gets more playing time. Travis Diener is a great 3-point shooter who can help the Magic in come from behind situations. It wouldn’t be surprising if Diener jumps Arroyo on the depth chart by mid-season. At SG the Magic have Keith Bogans and Keyon Dooling. Bogans is a tough player who could be the best defender in the league coming off the bench. He can come in and shut down a player for 20 minutes a game. He also has some good post moves for a guard. Keyon Dooling is a great scoring option off the bench and provides a spark when he is in the game. The versatility at this position allows the Magic to adjust in-game to the tempo of the game and try to dictate the tempo themselves. At SF they have Trevor Ariza, an athletic player who provides good defense and rebounding and can run the fast break. He is very raw offensively but could eventually turn into a double-double guy in this league. He is a good change of pace for Turkoglu and gives the Magic an option against more athletic forwards in the league. Backing up Milicic at C are 2 players who can be productive. Tony Battie played well in Orlando last year, averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds a game, grabbing the few rebounds Howard couldn’t reach. He provides a better inside presence then Milicic. Behind Battie is rookie James Augustine, a scrappy tough player who could progress into a solid backup by the end of the year. Even at PF, where Howard will play all but a few minutes a game, the Magic have good depth. Pat Garrity is a smart player who has a good shooting touch. The lovable Bo Outlaw provides great energy and rebounding. At every position on the floor the Magic have tremendous versatility to create match-up problems and make adjustments against anyone in the league.
The story of this team is remarkable. They have made an art of taking other team’s trash and castaways and turning them into gold. Turkoglu went from a bench player in Sacramento to an instrumental starter. Arroyo sat on the bench in Detroit and was discarded by Utah. He has improved since arriving in Orlando. Bogans was traded by Charlotte and then by Houston but has found a home in Orlando. The new management returned Bogans back to where he was drafted. He continues to play well wherever he goes. Dooling was discarded by the Clippers and then released by the Heat, but has been an important player for the Magic. Ariza was a promising young player with the Knicks, which is why they let him go. He will continue to blossom in Orlando. And then there’s the ultimate castaway in Milicic. He was left to rot at the end of the Pistons bench before the Magic brought him in. As he continues to adjust to the NBA game he will improve by leaps and bounds. He could be the ultimate steal for Orlando. The Magic continue to find players no one else wants and create a solid team.
The Magic have also drafted well in the last couple of years. They got 2 all-star caliber players in the same draft in Howard and Nelson. Diener could turn into a solid bench player. In this year’s draft they selected Redick, who has a very similar story to Nelson. He was a great college player and a proven leader but was somewhat dismissed coming into the NBA because scouts believe he lacks size and necessary skills. Many scouts believe Redick is Duke’s next Trajan Langdon, who was also taken 13th in the draft when he came into the league. Redick is more than just a jump shooter and will be in the league far longer than Langdon. If Redick becomes a productive starter the Magic will have found more value through the draft. Augustine could also turn into a solid player. The Magic have found several diamonds in the rough that have helped create a great all-around team.
This is a great team with all of the pieces in place to make a serious run this season. They will finish, at worst, 4th in the East. They are probably a year away from contending for a championship but will make great strides towards that goal this year. They started the run last year, going 16-6 after the all-star break. This is when the team truly came together as a unit. This year they will build on that success this season and be a tough match-up for any team in the league. Led by Howard and Nelson and supported by a great cast of role players, they will surprise a lot of people this year. And in the playoffs they will be the most dangerous team in the field, truly having nothing to lose and everything to gain.
It’s time for the NBA to wake up on the Magic. They’re poised for a magical run.