ORLANDO, Fla. — In a sense, the career of Jameer Nelson has come full circle.
When he came to the Orlando Magic in 2004, they were coming off a season in which they finished with the worst record in the NBA. Nine years and a franchise-record 3,025 assists later, he again finds himself part of a team with the dubious distinction of holding the best odds of winning the league’s annual draft lottery.
The Magic’s 20-62 record serves as a lasting and painful reminder of a season that began with Nelson straining his right hamstring and groin and ended with him missing the final nine games because of a sprained right ankle.
“Losing is tough. Nobody wants to lose,” he said. “Change is tough. And obviously the season, for me, didn’t go the way I wanted it to go in terms of winning. But through it all, I’ve had fun. It’s just a new chapter in my career and my life.”
With it being a virtual lock that the Magic will buy out what’s left of the contract of Hedo Turkoglu, Nelson could be the only link to the team that reached the 2009 NBA Finals when training camp opens in the fall. And in light of all the players moved by general manager Rob Hennigan in less than a year on the job, it’s not even a certainty that Nelson won’t be going the way of Dwight Howard and J.J. Redick, among others before him.
The expected departures of Turkoglu and Al Harrington would make Nelson, who turned 31 in February, the Magic’s elder statesman. He’s only seven years younger, almost to the day, than coach Jacque Vaughn.
“I’d like to be here,” Nelson said following a season in which he averaged a career-high 35.3 minutes in 56 games and also attempted his most 3-pointers in a season (355) but also hit less than 40 percent of his total shots for the first time. “I’ll take the challenge on in helping the organization turn back around. So hopefully I can continue to be here, and hopefully they want me here.”
Vaughn sidestepped the subject of Nelson’s future in Orlando when asked, calling it “really not an area for me.” Hennigan, like Vaughn, didn’t bring up any players by name, young or old, in discussing the Magic’s prospects for next season and beyond.
“You always want to have veterans on the team,” Hennigan said. “You have to be careful of being too young. You have to be careful of being too old. So there’s a balancing act that you have to find.”
Nelson established a single-game career high in minutes played Jan. 7 at Portland when he logged 48 minutes in an overtime loss. That was also the night in which he passed Scott Skiles to move atop the franchise’s all-time assist list.
A month later against the Trail Blazers, he made up for having trouble getting his shots to fall by dishing out 15 assists in a victorious effort.
With five rookies and three second-year players on the roster by the end of the season, the Magic were expected to struggle. That didn’t make it any less aggravating to Nelson for them to lose 13 times in games where they were ahead or the score was tied after three quarters.
“We’re not taking anything away from the teams that made the playoffs this year,” he said. “But we showed that we can compete against anybody. We just have to figure out a way to close those games where we’re leading in the fourth (quarter).”
For now, he’s trying to figure out a way to occupy himself during the first spring since 2006 that he and the Magic aren’t in the playoffs.
“I really don’t know what to do,” Nelson said. “I guess I’ll just be the bus for my kids — take them to school, pick them up and all that.”
What he did right
His assist-to-turnover ratio improved from a year ago, which was Dwight Howard’s final season in Orlando. That reflects Nelson’s ability to get Nikola Vucevic involved in the flow of the offense from early December on. He established a career-high average in assists (7.4), and his 14.7-point scoring mark was his best since his injury-shortened 2008-09 season.
Where he needs to improve
He’s not going to get any taller or faster. But after an assortment of injuries that included left Achilles tendinitis, a sore left hip, a left forearm contusion and a left patella tendon contusion, Nelson’s durability is becoming more of a concern. The Magic should be able to rely on him for at least 70 games.
Jan. 2 against Chicago. After missing the previous two games with a hip injury, he tied the top scoring output of his career with 32 points as the Magic almost knocked off the Bulls in Orlando.
If the Magic take a point guard with one of the first five picks in the NBA draft, it could be the beginning of the end of Nelson’s time in Orlando. He’s under contract for next season at $8.6 million, with the team owning an $8 million option for 2014-15.