Off the top of your head, can you guess which team has the best record in the Eastern Conference? If you guessed any team that made the playoffs last year, youre wrong. The correct answer is the Orlando Magic, who have posted a surprising 13-5 record so far this season. With almost every player returning from last seasons 36 win team, the Magic have seemingly come out of nowhere. With a strong mix of veteran leadership and young talent, they appear poised to keep their spot at the top of the Southeastern Division and earn their first playoff appearance since the 2002-2003 season.
The Magics success in this venture is partially dependent on the play of young superstar Dwight Howard
and point guard Jameer Nelson
. However, this teams success is rooted in its balance and the contributions players have made off the bench cant be overlooked. Head coach Brian Hill has relied on a number of young players to round out his rotation and has gotten some quality minutes from the likes of Darko Milicic
and Trevor Ariza
. With a deep rotation and a well balanced scoring attack, the Magic are one of the leagues most improved teams.
35.8 Minutes, 17.1 Points, 13.30 Rebounds, 2.06 Blocks, 59% FG
When watching Dwight Howard
play it becomes obvious very quickly that he is on another level athletically than most everyone who he is matched up with. Very few players, if any, boast his incredible combination of strength and quickness. At this point in his career, Howard uses his immense physical gifts to score. When he faces up in the post, he has no trouble going right by his defender towards the rim. If his defender happens to stay in front of him, he muscles right through him. Howard shows a solid drop step move that he goes to occasionally to get to the front of the rim. Howard, on all fronts, is very good at finishing at the rim. He dunks the ball when he has the chance and uses the backboard effectively. However, his scoring average doesnt seem as robust as some other physically dominant post players.
The reasons for this arent something you can pick up on without watching Howard for an entire season. There is no question that he is already a great post scorer, but there are some little things that he could improve on in the short run to become even more effective. For instance, one of the reasons Howard doesnt score more is because he often finishes with his body going away from the basket. When he faces up, it is almost too easy for him to create a good shot. He often finds himself in positions where he is shooting with his arms away from his body, or using running hooks. Many people compare Howard to a young Shaq, but there is one thing that Howard almost never does that Shaq did: use pump fakes to create better shots.
Howards ability to get by his man in the post is amazing, but if he added some fakes to his arsenal he could become an absolute terror in the paint. Not only would his man be unable to prevent him from driving to the rim, but he would also have to worry about staying on his feet. Right now, defenders can just run along side Howard and try to contest his shot. They would be helpless if he used pump fakes. His size and strength would make it impossible to keep him from getting where he would want to go underneath the basket. There arent many players that can get by in the post without a hook shot, up and under move, or any other type of go to move. However, Howard seems to manage. What makes his scoring even more impressive is that he is often double teamed as soon as he makes a move.
The thing that people tend to forget about Howard is the he will be turning only 21 next week. Given his age, there is no reason to think that he will not develop some new moves on offense in the near future. He is still learning the game on many levels, let alone fully comprehending its nuances. The raw offensive skills he is displaying right now will only be augmented by the up fakes and step-through moves that he should develop over time.
On the defensive side of the ball, Howard uses his superior athleticism to challenge shots from the weak side and uses his strength to prevent his man from getting good position on the block. Even with his raw ability, he still has a bit of trouble defending big men with good post skills. For instance, Chris Kaman
saw a good amount of success against him when the two were matched up. Kamans hook was falling and Howard couldnt position himself properly to stop it. As Howard matures as a player, hell become more adept at taking away space and defending short shots. Fortunately for Howard, he is easily able to make up for his lack of experience defending the post with his league leading rebounding skills.
Players like Howard dont come around very often. He has such incredible gifts that he cam put up great numbers without having great technique. As he gets older, he is only going to get better. With some extra practice on his footwork and ball skills in the post, the sky is truly the limit for Howard.
28.8 Minutes, 13.6 Points, 3.9 Assists, 3.2 Rebounds, 1.22 Steals, 51% FG
Nelson has looked pretty good this season splitting time at the point with Carlos Arroyo
. His stats are roughly the same as last season, but he has looked more efficient in the Orlando offense. He is shooting over 50% from the field which is pretty astounding for a short point guard. Although he isnt shooting the three as well as he did last year, his range has clearly improved since his rookie season. He doesnt hesitate to pull up from twenty feet and knock down deep jumpers.
Nelson brings some pretty unique skills to the table offensively. His ability to make floaters over much taller players makes him difficult to defend once he has a step on his man. As his range has increased, and as Dwight Howard
has grown to require a double team, he has had more opportunities to play to strength: driving to the basket. Nelsons compact frame and lightning fast first step have made him a terror for taller point guards to keep out of the paint. As his range has improved, so too has his shooting percentage. Nelson has clearly recognized that the further defenders have to play him from the basket, the easier it will become for him to get good looks.
Though he hasnt put up great assist numbers, Nelson has shown the ability to move the ball efficiently and find the open man on the break. Though he wont ever lead the league in assists, or put up big scoring numbers, Nelson is an asset on any team because of his ability to draw defenders and finish his short range shots. He also brings an uncanny ability to grab rebounds, despite the fact that he is usually the shortest player on the floor.
Nelsons impact on defense will always be limited by his height. He gives up shots to taller point guards in the paint and isnt a factor when he has to close out a shooter. One the things Nelson does do on defense is keep his man out of the lane. His quickness and frame make it almost impossible for his man to get past him off the dribble. Nelson may not ever be an all-star, but he is definitely a good option as a starter. On a team that features some savvy veterans, many of Nelsons flaws can be compensated for by the intelligence and experience of his teammates.
17.7 Minutes, 5.7 Points, 3.4 Rebounds, 50% FG
Ariza is one of Brian Hills most utilized players off the bench. After missing the first few games of the season, Arizas game is finally rolling back into form. He isnt a big threat offensively, but he isnt a non factor either. He lacks great range and stellar ball handling ability, but he does the little things to get his points. He runs the floor well in transition and crashes the offensive glass. He cant take his man one-on-one, but makes good decisions with the ball in his hands.
Ariza earns his minutes on defense. He has good size and above average athleticism. When he is in the game, he usually guards the opposing teams top wing scorer. Though Ariza isnt a Bruce Bowen
type defender, he works hard, and it shows when he is on the floor. He plays passing lanes well, contests shots from the perimeter, and scraps for loose balls. Ariza wont get the opportunity to start until he shows some offensive skills, but he has found his niche on this team and is contributing as best he can.
22.0 Minutes, 8.2 Points, 5.1 Rebounds, 2.0 Blocks, 48% FG
It took a while, but Darko finally found a niche in the NBA. Though he is yet to reach the potential that made him a second overall draft pick, he has shown some flashes over his past two seasons with Orlando Magic. How close Milicic will ultimately get to his full potential is up to him. He appears to have the talent, but is yet to piece it together.
One of the things that Darko has never had is great assertiveness on the offensive end. He isnt strong enough to get to the rim, so he has developed some decent finesse moves around that he uses when he has his back to the basket. He has a decent left handed running hook than he uses on the right block and spin move baseline that he looks to use on the left block. With decent quickness for his size, Milicic is playing to his strengths. However, he is yet to finish either of these moves with great consistency. His inefficiency with his right hand hasnt helped him offensively either. If Milicic finds himself completely overmatched, he has good enough court vision to find the open man, which may prove valuable to him as he is groomed to replace Tony Battie
in the Magic lineup.
Milicic finds a lot of open looks on the perimeter because of the role he plays in the Orlando offense. His form is decent, but he doesnt hit shots from the outside when there is any sort of defense in his face. Given time, Milicic will rarely miss open jumpers, but he doesnt get the time he needs very often.
On the opposite end of the floor, Milicic has show the ability to use his size to block shots, but he isnt strong enough to have a serious impact down low yet. Looking at Orlandos roster, it isnt outside of the realm of possibility that Milicic will be starting for the team down the line. Though he hasnt lived up to his immense potential, he is still only 21 years old. While it is hard to put a finger on how he will develop over time, it is safe to assume that he will get the playing time to find his identity on the court. If Milicic can come into his own in the next few years, the Magic could have one of the most formidable young frontcourts in the league.
8.0 Minutes, 1.5 Points, 100% FG
With very little playing time available at the point, Diener has been regulated to the end of the bench this season. It doesnt help that Orlando drafted a player in J.J. Redick
who will fill much the same role that Deiner played most of last season. Diener proved last season that he can be effective as a shooter in limited minutes. However, his lack of athleticism relegates him to that role, and that role alone. He isnt a great defender, nor does he have the quickness to get to the rim. Since Diener hasnt played much with Redick out, it is hard to see him playing at all when he gets back.
3.0 Minutes, 2.0 Points, 50% FG
Redick made his debut on November 25th, but he only played for three minutes. He was hampered by foot and back injuries during the preseason and is still looking to shake off the rust. Though he hasnt played a legitimate game, it appears that he has fallen into a perfect situation. With Dwight Howard
drawing double teams in the paint and Jameer Nelson
driving into the paint and kicking out, Redick should see a boatload of open shots when he returns. On the other side of the ball, Redick isnt quick enough to keep up with most shooting guards, but Howard and Darko Milicic
will be waiting on the block to bail him out. When Redick returns to full strength, he will add another dimension to Orlandos already potent offense.
With quite a few younger players making an impact on the roster, it would seem that Orlando is bound to continue its improvement. The team has jumped out to a great start, and as the season continues well take a more in depth look at how these players have transitioned into new roles.