Re: ESPN Insider Magic Stuff
Biggest Strength: Defense
I can't emphasize this enough -- everybody focuses on the 3-pointers, but that's a distraction. Orlando wins because it defends, and this year it should again rank among the league's top defensive units.
However, Orlando may struggle to keep its perch at No. 1 in defensive efficiency. Howard remains the linchpin, but the trade of Lee, Alston and Battie to New Jersey removed three of the team's best defensive players. The replacements at those spots -- Barnes, Bass and Williams -- are much more offensive-minded and will be hard-pressed to match their predecessors' contributions.
The hope is that Orlando can offset the losses in other ways. Carter, though he takes many barbs, is certainly a better defensive player than Turkoglu, while the increased playing time for Pietrus could provide another boost at the defensive end. Additionally, J.J. Redick has vastly improved as a defender -- as he showed when shadowing Ray Allen in the second round of the playoffs -- and could prove more useful on that end this year.
That said, the biggest variable may be this one: How will they respond to another year under the hard-charging Van Gundy? He squeezed the maximum out of this unit's potential a year ago, but the unanswered question is how long they'll respond to his prodding before the message grows stale.
Biggest Weakness: One-On-One Scoring
Look, we have to choose something. The Magic start four All-Stars, play airtight defense and go 12 deep, so we're talking about fairly small ****** in the armor here. But against opponents with the size to play Howard straight up, this weakness becomes more apparent, as it did during last year's Finals.
Orlando didn't have a great one-on-one scorer a year ago, forcing them into pick-and-rolls with Hedo Turkoglu that often didn't yield much in the way of open looks. This year the prospects are better with Nelson back from injury and Carter replacing Turkoglu, but each comes with an asterisk. Nelson is coming off a shoulder injury and had put up numbers that vastly exceeded his career norms. Carter, meanwhile, turns 33 in January, and although he played very well a year ago, he has a history of knee trouble and there's no guarantee how long he can keep playing at this level.
Surprisingly, the Magic have managed to stay under the national radar despite making the Finals a year ago and loading up the truck with talent over the summer. It's partly a perception issue -- Turkoglu became a "name" player with the Magic's run to the Finals last year, while Carter has been largely forgotten about in New Jersey and has been criticized much of his career for underachieving.
But there's no comparison between the two players: Carter creates more shots with the same shooting accuracy, defends better, and -- despite the renown for Turkoglu's passing skill -- also achieved a higher Pure Point Rating. He's just a much better player.
The Magic also are much deeper in the frontcourt with Bass, Barnes and Anderson, and should be better in the backcourt with a full year of Nelson and the addition of Williams. Additionally, they have assets left in reserve in the form of a $9 million trade exception and the potentially tradable Gortat contract. Using either of those to bring in a marquee player at the trade deadline could swing the balance toward a championship.
All of the above make the Magic a formidable player in the East. But it doesn't necessarily mean they repeat as conference champions. A lot of things had to happen for them to win a year ago, and it helped that Cleveland was more focused on matching up against Boston than against Howard -- otherwise Shaquille O'Neal probably would have been a Cavalier in last year's conference finals.
Shaq will be in a Cleveland uniform this time around, however, and that could change the dynamic of a Magic-Cavs matchup considerably. All told, the Magic are one of three teams I'd put at the top of the list as far as championship favorites, but it's very possible they end up with a better regular season and a worse playoff outcome than a year ago.
Prediction: 62-20, 1st in Southeast Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference