There is no room for moral victories in the NBA. There are no almosts, no what ifs, no stat lines for nice tries.
There are only wins and losses.
In the first 41 games of the regular season, the Orlando Magic have lost 13 more games than they’ve won.
Their 14-27 record includes some highs, such as beating both the Clippers, who have the third-best record in the league, and the Lakers, who have — well, you know who they have, in Los Angeles.
It also includes some lows: A 10-game losing streak following a 12-13 start.
The great news is there still another 41 games left to be played. So rather than take the Magic record at face value, let’s dive a little deeper.
What can the Magic take away from the first half of the season to improve in the second half?
1. Share the ball, but be more physical
One of the positives the Magic can build on going into the next 41 games is the way they are able to move the ball. The motion offense provides quality shots for a variety of players. As a result, the team is fifth in the league in assists, averaging 23.3 per game.
Their success in the area is so impressive because it stems from the offensive set and not the point guard dominance of the ball. You’ll see other teams — the Celtics (sixth in assists), the Clippers (3rd in assists) — who are very point guard-driven. These types of teams run a lot of isolation plays and pick and rolls allowing their point guards (Rajon Rondo in Boston and Chris Paul in L.A.) to work in space, creating either assists for the team or baskets for themselves.
The Magic are structured differently. Though Jameer Nelson has been playing well all season, averaging 7.2 assists per game, his assists come more from transition and extra passes.
Which indicates two things: the Magic are running the floor well (at least to the offensive end), and the ball is leaving Nelson’s hands early in the offense. Ten Magic players are averaging more than one assist per game. The only other team to have more is the San Antonio Spurs, who are first in assists per game and have 11 players averaging one or more per game.
While the Magic are fifth in assists, they are 20th in points scored. That disparity is because the Magic are last in the league in free-throw attempts. The team needs to be more physical and more aggressive on the offensive end in the next half of the season. A physical team has the power to decide the outcome of games just by getting to the free-throw line.
2. Individual accountability
Though basketball is a team game, it also requires individual play. You can have the best strategy in the league, but without individual players making the shot or getting the stop, it’s only X’s and O’s. The question is: Who has been able to raise their level of play, and who needs to step up?
J.J. Redick has been invaluable off the bench for the Magic this season. Averaging 14.9 points and 4.5 assists, he’s been so good they’ve almost used him as a crutch, relying on his instant scoring to overcome many slow starts from the starting unit. He’s able to give the team a pick-me-up because he’s such an energetic player. For Magic opponents, Redick is a nightmare to guard. As far as efficiency goes at the shooting guard position, he’s won 17 matchups. There are, of course, some nights when shots are just not falling, but Redick is never lacking in effort.
Nikola Vucevic may be the only Magic player to participate in the NBA All-Star festivities (if he’s not voted to the Rookie-Sophomore game, someone will have made a huge mistake). Vucevic is tied for third in the NBA with 11 rebounds per game. That is only 1.3 rebounds a game behind Dwight Howard’s efforts for the Lakers this season.
For those who thought the Magic would have a gaping hole in the center postion with the loss of Howard, Vucevic’s consistent play has proven otherwise. He is currently on a 20 game streak of nine rebounds or more. On New Year’s Eve, he set a Magic single-game record grabbing 29 rebounds against the Miami Heat. But the big guy is not only rebounding for the Magic; he is also averaging 11.6 points per game.
One area the budding center can improve is his aggressiveness on offense and defense. He’s only averaging 1.5 free throws per game. Likewise on the other end of the floor, he can be more physical with centers by pushing them out of their comfort zones.
Hedo Turkoglu has been set back with an injury to his left hand in the season opener against the Denver Nuggets. At the start of the season, Orlando was hoping that Turkoglu could provide a version of his play in 2008-09, when he helped lead the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, averaging 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists.
Turkoglu’s skill set allows him to fill up a stat sheet. When he’s playing well, he’ll force teams to put a quality defender on him, someone that’s his size. This would cause matchup advantages for guys like Arron Afflalo, who would benefit from being guarded by a shorter player, and Glen Davis, who would benefit from matching up with a less athletic big. Turkoglu should be back by the second half of the season. If he can get back to Turk of old, his versatility may be the difference in some of these close losses the Magic have suffered.
Afflalo has played well, leading the team in scoring with 17 points per game. That is to be expected. He’s a good player. But he has the ability to be great. He showed it in the 30-point game he had in the win over the Lakers. He showed it again in the 30-point game he had in the win over the Clippers, both close games.
Close games are where players establish their greatness. It’s reffered to in the advanced stat sheet as “late and close.” What are your numbers when the game is on the line? In the 18 games the Magic have been in the game at the end, Afflalo has scored a total of 8 points on of 2-of-14 shooting from the floor and 3-of-4 shooting from the free-throw line. To put the numbers in perspective, the 16 times the Oklahoma City Thunder have been in the same situation, Kevin Durant has scored a total of 48 points off of 12-of-27 shooting from the field and 23-of-26 shooting from the free-throw line.
This is not to say that Afflalo should be directly compared to Durant. The point is: great players – whether they’re a 6-foot-5 combo wing or a 6-foot-10 combo wing — have two responsibilities in close game situations: make shots and get to the free throw line. Afflalo will need to make more of an effort to capitalize in both areas.
3. Show more consistency
It’s almost naïve to think in an 82-game season teams will bring their “A” game every night. But the best teams learn how to stay consistent throughout the 10-day road trips, the back-to-back home-and-aways and the diverse level of competition they face.
This season’s Magic have been compared to the 1999-2000 team nicknamed “Heart and Hustle” because of the level of hard work and effort they brought to every game. But there have been games when the current Magic players have not lived up to the comparison. In the 21 games the Magic have played projected lottery teams, they have lost 11, and only two have been close; the rest have been blowouts.
The Magic have been playing to the level of their competition, a common flaw in a lot of NBA teams. But teams make the playoffs by winning the games they are supposed to and getting some key victories along the way.
4. Getting healthy
Nothing has plagued the Magic more than injuries.
Had Glen Davis not gotten hurt in the middle of December (the Magic were 12-13 at the time) that lengthy losing streak may have been avoided.
The good news is their players are coming back. Davis, sidelined for a month with a shoulder injury, has come back to the starting lineup. E’Twaun Moore, out for almost two weeks from an elbow sprain, is back in the regular rotation. Nelson, who has sat out sporadically throughout the season, looks to be healthy. Gustavo Ayon, who’s been inactive for close to three weeks with a thigh contusion, made his return Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons.
What the Magic are waiting to see is the return of power forward Al Harrington. He could be a game-changer. The Magic would greatly benefit from his size and grit on the defensive end. On the offensive end, the 6-foot-9 power forward has the ability to play inside and outside. Harrington’s return will automatically make the Magic a more physical team, and his versatility will give them an added threat on both ends of the court.