Behind Enemy Lines: Orlando Magic

New Orleans looks to rebound tomorrow in Orlando. The Magic are, in many ways, the Eastern Conference version of the Hornets. They have a young superstar, voted to the All-NBA team in 2008. They have an offense that runs a fair share of pick and rolls. They surround the court with sharpshooting guards and forwards. They have some front-court depth issues. Heck, they even switched to new jerseys... and included pinstripes! I talked to SBNation's Third Quarter Collapse for more on our evil twin brothers:

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At the Hive: Where would you rank Dwight Howard in the Defensive Player of the Year running? Last year he led the league in defensive rebound rate, and this year he's up there again while also posting the 3rd best block rate in the league. What more can a guy possibly do?

Third Quarter Collapse: Nothing. Barring some unfortunate and unforeseen drop-off in performance, the award should be Dwight's. I understand the argument that Marc Stein and Tas Melas have made for Kevin Garnett--the Celtics are the best defensive team in basketball once again, and Garnett brings more intangibles than Dwight does--but the biggest difference is that Garnett has some well above-average defenders around him. The only above-average defender in the Magic's starting lineup is Mickael Pietrus. Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis aren't bad, but Hedo Turkoglu has, um, regressed at that end this year.

And yes, I acknowledge this line of thinking is what lead to Marcus Camby's unjustly winning the award in 2007. The reason it shouldn't have gone to Camby is that the dude just can't guard anyone one-on-one. All his blocks came from the weak side, and he benefited from Denver's fast pace (96.2). Yes, the Magic play at a fast pace (93.4), and yes, Dwight swats his fair of shots from the weak side, but the difference is that Dwight is a shutdown one-on-one defender. And at the end of the day, the Defensive Player of the Year should be able to guard his own man.

Basically, rewarding Garnett for the Celtics' defensive dominance discounts the contributions of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kendrick Perkins. The award should go to Dwight Howard.

If we're talking about perimeter players, Rondo, Chris Paul (steals streak), and Dwyane Wade (2+ steals, 1+ blocks) deserve love too. So there is the love, as it were.

@tH: Staying on the subject of Dwight, his assist rates make the case that passing is one of his weaknesses; I'd expect it to be a lot higher, given the double team he probably attracts. What's your take on his passing?

3QC: No, Dwight's not a good passer. He still has trouble figuring out some double-teams, but I imagine--there's no way to verify it--he gets a ton of hockey assists. Usually, the guy doubling Howard leaves either Nelson or Turkoglu, because those two guys are the ones who make the entry passes. If Dwight has to, he'll get it back out to one of those guys, who then makes the extra pass for the assist. That's how I think it happens. Again, there's no way for me to verify it statistically.

Passing-wise, Dwight's at his best when his defender has forced him well away from the paint. When he's facing the basket and has time to think, he can usually make a decent, frequently one-handed bounce pass to a cutter. He and Maurice Evans connected on a lot of those plays last year. But Brad Miller he ain't.

@tH: Courtney Lee was one of the guys I wanted in this draft.. how's he treating you so far?

3QC: Very well. So well, in fact, that Brian Schmitz, who covers the Magic for the Orlando Sentinel, believes the team should lobby the NBA to include Lee in the Rookie/Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend. He's awesome.

It didn't start out that way, though. The Magic essentially played 4-on-5 offensively when he was in the game because of his abject refusal to do anything with the ball once he got it. But he's seen the light--the turning point was when he dropped 19 on Minnesota--and since then he's playing aggressively, yet still in control.

Lee's the sort of player the Magic needed. He combines athleticism, a sweet shooting stroke, and great defense with a high basketball I.Q. He simply does not make many mistakes. What I especially like about him is his ability to finish on the break. Even if there's a man back, Courtney is usually able to get to the rim against him, and finish with either hand. Tremendous, given the otherwise lacking athleticism in the Magic's backcourt. Sure, Pietrus can jump out of the gym, but he's not a heady player. Lee is.

Pietrus is the team's long-term investment at shooting guard, but Lee's got the backup job locked up tight.


@tH: What the heck has gotten into Jameer Nelson? A seven percent increase in eFG% and a four percent decrease in turnover rate in his 5th year- is this sustainable?

3QC: His shooting is bound to cool off eventually. Of course, I thought it would after the Magic beat the Lakers over the weekend... and on Monday he shot 9-of-9 for 22 points against the Warriors. Oops.

I'm not sure what the difference is, exactly. He seems much more comfortable in the offense than he did last year. Not forcing the issue, taking what the defense gives him, etc.

And what the defense is giving him is the 15-to-18-foot jumper off the pick and roll. That might not be the best strategy. as John Hollinger points out, Nelson is shooting nearly 60% from that distance this season.

But if they fight through the screen, Nelson can always turn the corner and drive to the rim for a layup and/or shooting foul, or draw defenses away from Lewis, Turkoglu, and Pietrus on the perimeter.

Pick your poison.

@tH: Cruising through Orlando's numbers, I see that you guys are the 3rd most efficient defense in basketball. Specifically, you're allowing just 46% eFG to opponents, down from 48.4% last year. What has helped create that change?

3QC: Based on the numbers, it looks like the Magic are just forcing their opponents to beat them off the dribble. And beating them they aren't. Last season, Magic opponents assisted on 62% of their jumpers and 58% of their field goals overall. This season, both those figures have dropped to 50%. How they're doing that exactly, I'm not sure. I'll keep an eye on it.

(Note: If you're a cynic or a longtime Magic fan, you'll instead choose to believe the improved defense has something to do with the level of competition; to date, the Magic have the league's second-easiest schedule. Whatever the reason, I'll take it.)

Thanks to Third Quarter Collapse for the answers. Head over there for the Magic perspective. At this point in the season, I'd have to consider the Magic the slightly better team- especially if Peja opts to sit out again. Either way, it shouldbe a great contest. Geaux Hornets!!!

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