Every year about this time, the NBA's statistical community ponders the meaning of the preseason. On its face, the exhibition season tells us very little. Coaches frequently give fourth-quarter minutes to training-camp invitees who will be overseas or in the D-League by the time the season tips off, while veteran players throttle down their effort level in favor of staying healthy and conserving energy for the grind of the regular season.
Still, despite the obvious reasons that preseason performances should be discounted, studies continue to find that there is something to them. The most recent addition to the literature was authored by Scott Sereday of Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell, who found that teams' Pythaogrean winning percentages during the preseason were highly similar to their ultimate regular-season Pythagorean performance when grouped by performance the previous year.
Sereday's study expands the work done by Dallas Mavericks analyst Roland Beech on 82games.com back in 2006. Beech found that preseason records tended to spotlight breakout teams who had improved after lottery campaign, though he found less predictive value among teams that were already successful. That's why it is interesting to note, as Sereday pointed out, that last year's three top preseason teams were Boston, Orlando and Utah, all of them established veteran clubs. All three ended up winning at least one playoff series.
The Magic's preseason track record stands out from the rest of the league. Last October, the Magic went 8-0 to finish as the NBA's only unbeaten team in the exhibition season. Orlando is on pace to do something similar this preseason. The Magic has started 6-0 in spectacular fashion. Half of Orlando's wins have come by at least 29 points, giving the team a +25.1 point differential that dwarves what any other team has done (Memphis ranks second at +8.1 points per game).
Surely, the Magic has benefited from its incredible depth. All 11 players who have seen regular action are rotation-caliber players, and Stan Van Gundy might have to find a way to get all of them minutes at some point. Even Orlando's 12th man (Jason Williams, who has not played during the preseason because of knee surgery) is overqualified for the role. So preseason lineups, which feature extended minutes for the second string, benefit the Magic.
Beyond that, the team added few non-roster players for camp. Invitee Malik Allen and second-round pick Stanley Robinson are the two players the team is likely to cut before the regular season; they've combined to play 95 minutes thus far. Last year, Van Gundy's preseason rotation was the most similar of any coaches to the players he used during the regular season. That will likely hold true once again.
That noted, one aspect of Orlando's preseason performance in particular bodes well for the Magic's chances in more meaningful games. Van Gundy has been using training camp and exhibition games to experiment with using Rashard Lewis at small forward to clear more playing time in the frontcourt for reserves Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat. So far, that effort has been a smashing success.
Orlando has used these bigger lineups in five of its six preseason games (the exception came last Thursday against Charlotte, when Lewis and fellow stars Vince Carter and Dwight Howard got the night off; the Magic still won by 13). Going through the play-by-play for those games, I found that Lewis has played small forward for 82 of his 125 minutes. During those 82 minutes, Orlando has outscored its opponents by an incredible 75 points--a +43.7 point differential per 48 minutes. The Magic has been strong in the preseason no matter the lineup, but has gone supernova with Lewis at the three.
I've been dismissive of the notion of moving Lewis back to small forward in the past because of my belief that it takes away some of what makes Orlando special (the ability to spread the floor around Dwight Howard) and because I'm not sure Lewis is as effective defending the perimeter as the post at this stage of his career. However, it's impossible to argue with the results. Lewis has played well individually (he's made eight three-pointers in 15 attempts) and the backup bigs have all taken advantage of the increased opportunities.
The Magic's depth in the frontcourt might be the best argument for going big. At this point, Anderson, Bass and Gortat are as deserving of minutes as Orlando's small forwards, meaning the Magic is sacrificing nothing in terms of overall talent by moving Lewis out to the perimeter. Beyond that, Anderson maintains Orlando's three-point shooting and Bass is good enough from midrange to keep his defender honest. Only when Gortat and Howard play together does Orlando really suffer in terms of keeping the floor spaced, and even Howard has displayed improved range during the preseason.
At worst, the bigger lineup gives Van Gundy more strategic flexibility. He doesn't need to change anything, since MickaŽl Pietrus and newcomer Quentin Richardson are perfectly capable of handling the minutes at small forward. If Lewis continues to thrive at small forward, however, that could become a big part of the Magic's identity and give the team a different look against bigger opponents.
In Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, I wrote that Orlando saw its last best chance to win a championship slip away last spring by losing to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite the super team assembled to the south in Miami, one of my friends who helped proofread the book took exception to that characterization, finding it excessively dire. October's results so far have supported his perspective. While Dwyane Wade's hamstring injury has provided a reminder of the fragility of the Heat's lineup, the Magic quietly continues rolling along. If preseason results are telling, Orlando's new look could be a difference-maker.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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