Well, Christmas Day has come and gone. And no matter what kind of gifts Orlando decided to leave under our tree against Boston (or not), the team has started to become who they are, settle into their identity and become what type of team they will be for the final two-thirds of the season.
This is the part of the season where tendencies and habits are established, continued and reinforced. It is also when mistakes are (hopefully) subtly corrected and prevented for the rest of the season.
I think it is safe to say Orlando still has a long way to go if it is going to lift the gold trophy at the end of the season.
Recently, Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop took inventory of a few teams at Christmastime. He wrote, “The Magic’s first third of the season was largely about appraising to what extent they could replicate last season’s efficiency given the turnover in the roster.”
A lot of the first third of the season was about filling in the pieces and figuring out where they fit.
There were plenty of hiccups along the way. Injuries and Rashard Lewis’ suspension kept Orlando’s full complement from seeing the court. The lineup of Jameer Nelson/Vince Carter/Mickael Pietrus/Rashard Lewis/Dwight Howard played only three games total together in the first 30 games.
For the Magic to be sitting at 22-8 and within shouting distance of the top of the Eastern Conference is a testament to how talented and deep they are. It also shows how successful and innovative Stan Van Gundy’s system is that Orlando has been able to replace numerous losses from last year and integrate the new players so quickly, yet still play at a high level.
It has not been without its hiccups for sure.
The defensive effort has been inconsistent. Orlando made it to the Finals on the wings of its defense and it has not always been there as the team has overwhelmed some opponents with its devastating offensive efficiency. Part of this has been caused by Howard’s foul troubles throughout the early season.
Turnovers have also been a concern as teammates are getting used to each other and where they like the ball on the floor. Hedo Turkoglu and Vince Carter are indeed very different players.
The good news is, there has been plenty of progress. Last week, Howard has really reasserted himself as the most dominant defensive force in the league. Even when he struggles offensively, Howard has started to lock in defensively and that spells trouble for most teams.
Take what you want from the Boston game Friday. There is plenty to glean from that one game (which should always be taken with the few games before it and the previous game against the Celtics). But remember, despite shooting 33 percent and struggling offensively all night with their usual ball movement, the Magic still had a chance to win. That is a testament to how well they played defense Friday and how could the team could be when the offense is rolling like it can.
That is not the kind of defense you can expect every night, but the last week has seen Orlando improve their defensive effort dramatically. So the Magic still have that in reserve.
The offense is still a work in progress, but it can be absolutely devastating. When Howard is rolling offensively, the Magic are more or less unstoppable. There are just too many good shooters on the floor. As long as shots are going in and the ball works its way into Howard — for his still rudimentary post moves — the Magic will score with the best of them.
A big concern so far this season though is playing in the big games. In the Playoffs, the wins against the good teams will matter most. Against Boston and Cleveland, Orlando is 1-2 and did not play particularly well in any of the three games against the team’s chief conference rivals.
This is still partly because of teams really gunning for the Magic — they are getting every team’s best shot — and their need to integrate new players into high-intensity games. But even with Orlando’s struggles in those games, some positives have been found. Carter has asserted himself as an instant offensive option (despite his inefficient performance in Boston, he was instrumental to Orlando pulling that one out) and should be key in crunch time in April, May and June.
Obviously the Magic will continue to improve and round into shape through the next part of the season. But who the Magic are going to be has begun to take form in the first third. And the reviews are decent if not spectacular. The title is still a long way off.