It was bad enough that Rashard Lewis, maybe the team’s second-most important player because of his floor-stretching ability, missed the first three weeks because of suspension. But as Ryan Anderson and Vince Carter battled ankle injuries, Matt Barnes, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus got sick, Anthony Johnson had a death in the family, Dwight Howard constantly found foul trouble and Adonal Foyle underwent knee surgery, things got a little ridiculous.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we got to learn a lot about what this team is made of, and we got a chance to see this team from angles and viewpoints we wouldn’t have seen if everyone was healthy. These first ten games were like a full-on colonoscopy where every crevice and every nook of the Orlando Magic received an examination with a microscopic camera. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Magic are at their best with a stretch four. In the three games in which the Magic started an orthodox lineup — i.e. with Brandon Bass, a “true” power forward, in the starting five — Orlando got worse in shooting percentage, points per game, rebounding rate, effective field-goal percentage, efficiency and free-throw rate (HT: 3QC for those last three stats). It’s not a gimmick — the Magic are at their best with a four who can shoot the 3 and play in transition. That’s why on Monday night, in Lewis’ first game back, we’ll almost certainly see a starting five of Nelson-Carter-Barnes-Lewis-Howard, and that’s the lineup we’ll see every night until another set of injuries or health issues hit. Bass is a fine player and does a lot of things well, but I think the Magic are struggling with how exactly to use him. Bass can shoot, but his range only goes to about 18 feet and that’s not far enough away from the hoop to keep his defender from helping in the paint. And it’s not like the Magic became a better rebounding team with Bass in there, as Bass is only averaging 3.2 rebounds per game this year, and his per-36 rebounding average is down from 8.4 last season to 4.9 this season. He looks, to put it bluntly, lost on defense. I don’t really have an explanation at this point. Bass is a better player than he’s shown in the first ten games.
2. This team is not as good defensively as last year’s… yet The Magic have looked bad on defense over the last week or two, and Stan Van Gundy thinks it has to do with effort. Maybe, maybe not. At this point, I still feel the team’s defensive struggles revolve around Howard’s plague-like foul trouble and the team’s lack of playing together with a set rotation. So much of good defense relies on teamwork, cohesion, rotation and the ability to know where your teammates are going to be — when there’s a different lineup out there every night, it’s difficult for those qualities to grow. I realize these are excuses, but sometimes excuses are valid.
3. Ryan Anderson needs to be on the floor. The 21-year-old made a fantastic first impression on Orlando, averaging 15 points per game and shooting at an ultra-efficient rate through the first six games. Really, this team didn’t miss a beat with Lewis out during the first few games. Of course, that changed a little bit as the sample size got larger and Anderson’s weaknesses came to the light — he still needs work in the defense and rebounding departments. But his shooting has been so lights out and he’s rebounding more efficiently than Bass, so a major question mark on this team is how the rotation will look with Anderson, Bass and Lewis healthy.
4. Vince Carter is an offensive weapon the Magic were missing last season. While it’s unclear if Carter is better than Hedo Turkoglu at this point — to be honest, I think Carter is much better for the Magic than Turk, but you could make an argument otherwise — there’s no question Carter’s ability to create his own shot is something the Magic will benefit from later this year. When his jumper is falling, he’s an elite scorer in the same mold as the other superstar offensive players in the Eastern Conference. And he can still take it to the rim, showing nifty moves and smart cuts in the paint. Say what you will about Carter, but on the court he’s a better offensive player than any player the Magic have had since T-Mac.
5. Nothing is going to come easily. Shaq or no Shaq, the Cavs are not an easy out. Same goes for the Celtics in regards to Kevin Garnett. The Magic have their work cut out for them, and just because they connected on the majority of their free-agent targets doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically improve on last year’s Finals runner-up standing. There are going to be ups and downs this season; the key is the team’s defense and how much it can improve between now and April.