Two weeks ago, I wrote that the history of similar teams meant good things were in store for the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic, two of the NBA's most surprising teams over the first 10 games of the season. I did so with a little trepidation. Strong as the numbers were, I wasn't totally sold on the Magic.
Twenty games and 16 wins into the season, I'm convinced, and so is everyone else around the NBA. ESPN.com's Marc Stein ranked the Magic as the top team in the league in his weekly power ranking; colleague John Hollinger now has Orlando second in his statistical-based ranking.
After stopping the Golden State Warriors' six-game winning streak in an OT thriller at Oracle Arena on Monday night, the Magic returns home after a 4-1 road trip with a league-best 11-2 road record. Orlando leads the Southeast Division by 6.5 games despite playing more road games--and more games, period--than anyone else in the league. That's heady stuff for a team that was 40-42 a year ago and wasn't expected to be a whole lot better this season.
The key player in the Magic's strong start is obviously center Dwight Howard, who has sparked early MVP talk, deservedly so. Howard leads the NBA in double-doubles and rebounds per game, ranks second in shooting percentage, and is third in blocks per game. More advanced stats tell an identical story; Howard ranks second only to LeBron James in Wins Above Replacement Player as measured by my rating system.
What hasn't gotten as much attention is that while Howard certainly deserves credit for his step forward, as he has matured physically and mentally in his fourth season, the Orlando front office and coaching staff have also played key roles in putting Howard in a position to succeed.
"Everything we did this summer, we did for Dwight," Orlando General Manager Otis Smith recently told Yahoo!'s Johnny Ludden.
I don't think people understood that when they criticized the contract Smith gave to lure Rashard Lewis, the prize of the free-agent market, away from Seattle in a sign-and-trade deal. I know I didn't see Smith's vision.
For years now, Howard has drawn comparisons to Phoenix's Amaré Stoudemire because of how both players have a prodigious combination of size, strength, and athleticism. The comparisons break down at some point, because Howard is a far better rebounder and defender than Stoudemire, but the Magic clearly learned from how the Suns accelerated Stoudemire's development by pairing him with Steve Nash and surrounding him with double-team neutralizing outside shooters.
Barring major advances in the field of cloning, another Nash isn't available. Shooters are. In Lewis, Orlando got one of the best. It's no coincidence that Lewis was once one of the players frequently linked to Phoenix in trade rumors involving Shawn Marion. At small forward, Lewis would have been an upgrade for Orlando over incumbent Grant Hill, but it was when the Magic made the decision to go small and play Lewis at power forward that everything clicked into place. That allowed Hedo Turkoglu to play at small forward, his natural position, and opened up a spot in the starting five for shooting guard Keith Bogans.
In Turkoglu, Lewis, and Bogans, the Magic start three players defenses must account for at all times. All three have averaged at least two three-pointers a game, and they have combined to hit 7.0 threes a night--more than 19 of the 30 NBA teams. Orlando's 9.3 three-pointers per game as a team lead the NBA.
We're trained to recognize that those kind of outside shooters help beat double-teaming of a post player, a style so popular in the NBA in the 1990s that was perfected by the Houston Rockets around Hakeem Olajuwon. However, the Suns of recent vintage have demonstrated that deep threats can be just as valuable when it comes to running pick-and-rolls. Even though Magic point guards Carlos Arroyo and Jameer Nelson are not on Nash's level, the Orlando pick-and-roll is still difficult to defend because teams can't leave the outside shooters to provide help and because Howard is so good at going up and getting the ball on lobs to the rim.
The biggest difference this has made for Howard is getting him the ball in better position to score without having to create his own shot by putting the ball on the floor. Combine that with opponents less willing to swarm the post, and turnovers, Howard's bane last season, are no longer as much of an issue. In 2006-07, he turned the ball over on 21.4 percent of his possessions, the highest mark amongst players who averaged at least six points a game. This year, that's been cut to a more reasonable 16.2 percent turnover rate.
Stoudemire was never nearly as turnover-prone, but he too saw an improvement in turnover rate, from 14.4 percent to 10.1 percent, that accompanied the arrival of Nash and shooter Quentin Richardson as well as Marion's move to power forward. While players tend to improve their turnover rates as part of their natural development, the Suns and Magic aided the process by reducing the defensive pressure on their standout young big men. The revamped lineup has also helped Howard increase his share of the Orlando offense. He used 22.9 percent of the Magic's possessions while on the floor last season, and has bumped that up to 25.9 percent this year.
If this sounds a tad dismissive of Howard's play, remember that the synergy runs both directions. Few teams could afford to play Lewis full-time at power forward, given his poor rebounding--Lewis has grabbed only 7.1 percent of available rebounds this season, about half the league average for power forwards (14.0 percent). The Magic can get away with it in large part because Howard is such a good rebounder.
This column has focused on offense, because that is where Orlando's improvement has primarily taken place. Twenty-second in the NBA in Offensive Rating a year ago, the Magic has improved all the way to eighth so far this year. Make no mistake, however: this team still wins with a defense ranked third in the NBA on a per-possession basis. It was strong defense that allowed Orlando to win consecutive games in the Pacific Northwest last week despite shooting a combined 42.3 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from three-point range. The Magic also rode its defense to victory against the Warriors; even though the 123-117 final doesn't make the game sound like a defensive struggle, the powerful Golden State offense shot just 37.8 percent from the field and misfired on 31 of 40 three-point attempts in that game.
The success of the Magic defense is remarkable, given that Howard is the only Orlando starter with a good defensive reputation and that the team is giving up size at power forward on a nightly basis. It's a testament to Howard coming into his own on that end of the floor (he's averaging a career-high 3.0 blocks, up from 1.9 bpg a year ago) and to Stan Van Gundy's system, which has proven to be an improvement over that of the defensive-minded Brian Hill. (Strictly looking at defense, backup big man Adonal Foyle also deserves some rare love; while the Magic plays 4-on-5 on offense with Foyle on the floor, there is very little drop-off on D with Foyle in the middle in place of Howard.)
Most of all, a quarter of the way into the season, it's time to give credit to Smith. There's still the chance that injuries could derail the Magic, which has precious little depth up front behind Howard and Lewis even after making a useful 2-for-1 deal last month that brought in forward Brian Cook and guard Maurice Evans for forward Trevor Ariza. Barring that, however, Orlando should cruise to the Southeast title and is a legitimate threat to win the East this year. Smith saw how the pieces could fit together when virtually no one else agreed. Smith has helped his superstar center along and turned his team into a contender in the process, and he deserves to be pleased with the results.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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