If Boston is healthy, they’re Orlando’s toughest competitor in the East. Even without Mike D’Antoni, the Phoenix Suns are a team no one wants to play when they’re running. Brandon Jennings is freak nasty. The Toronto Raptors can’t play defense. The Charlotte Bobcats can’t play offense. The New Jersey Nets might be the worst team in NBA history. Joakim Noah has made the jump and is playing like an all-star. The Cavaliers have no idea how to integrate Shaq into their offense. The list goes on and on.
But the Orlando Magic? They’re good; there’s no question about that. The question is how good.
Are they better than last year? Are they better than Los Angeles? Are they better than Boston?
You’ll hear a hundred different opinions about the Magic, ranging from “they were stupid to give up Turk” to “they’re a lock to win the NBA Finals.” The truth lies somewhere between those two statements. Here’s what we do know: The Magic are 12-4 through the first month of the season, including wins over Boston and Atlanta, who are both tied with Orlando atop the Eastern Conference at 12-4.
The Magic, even while not full strength, can play with and beat the NBA’s best teams on a consistent basis. They’re legitimately one of the premier teams in the NBA and, whether most Magic fans will admit it or not, the Magic are respected and revered right up there with the other foremost teams in the league.
What’s equally confiding and worrying is that virtually every player on the Magic is having a worse statistical season than last year. Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis are all averaging fewer points than last season. Howard’s blocks and rebounds are down. Lewis is shooting 20.6 percent from three-point range. Those numbers will go up, and as those numbers deviate toward the mean, the Magic should put up some pretty memorable offensive games.
On the same token, the supporting cast is stepping up. Ryan Anderson, Jason Williams and JJ Redick have been outstanding. Matt Barnes, while inconsistent and a little flaky at times, has been a solid utility man. Marcin Gortat is the best backup big in the NBA.
The biggest reason for optimism is the way Orlando has subtly improved over the last couple weeks. They were 21st in the NBA in defensive rating a couple weeks ago, drawing ire from Stan Van Gundy as he lamented the team’s effort and focus defensively after a loss to Cleveland. And while Van Gundy’s grumblings ultimately led to a closed-door meeting with Howard on ways to create a more positive atmosphere, the message was clear: the Magic need to get better on defense.
The team has responded — as of today, the Magic are sixth in the NBA in defensive rating. The Magic have the pieces in place for an unforgettable season, and all Magic fans can hope for our subtle improvements like that one.
While we all want to see victories, individual wins and losses don’t matter as much as how the team looks and the way everyone comes together and finds their role. The Magic’s complete team hasn’t played a game together yet, and it will be some time until that happens with Jameer Nelson out with an injury. When the final team does come together, these guys are going to be good.
How good? We’re all excited to find out.