Today we continue our Contender Previews, in which we look at challengers to the Lakers' throne in the upcoming season. Up today is that Florida team that suddenly no one's talking about anymore.
For the Orlando Magic and their fans, the spring of 2010 was what one might call a missed opportunity.
After two rounds of the playoffs, the Magic looked just about ready to claim the franchise's first NBA title. They'd blasted through the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks without dropping a game. The Cleveland Cavaliers, the only team seeded higher in the postseason, had been helpfully disposed of by the Boston Celtics. The defending champion Lakers, of course, loomed on the other side of the bracket, but in a Finals rematch the Magic would have had home-court advantage. Orlando was healthy and on a serious roll, seemingly kicking into top gear at exactly the right time.
As you probably know - spoiler alert! - the Magic never got a shot at that Finals rematch. The Boston defense, led by Kendrick Perkins's stellar play against Dwight Howard, shut down the Orlando attack in a six-game Celtic series victory. Howard once again came under fire for limitations in his offensive game, and rather than spending the NBA Finals listening to Stan Van Gundy bellow hoarsely at his team, we Laker fans had to spend it listening to Doc Rivers bellow hoarsely at his team instead.
That was a nice break for the purple and gold, as home court came in handy in Game Seven, but what a devastating turn of events it was for the Orlando faithful. The Magic were really pretty awesome last year: they were second in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, first in point differential and had the best record in the league (23-5) after the All-Star break. They had all the credentials of a championship team, but couldn't quite overcome a bad matchup in the conference finals. That team is back this season, virtually unchanged, but the landscape has shifted around it.
To begin with, a new superpower has taken up residence in their own backyard. The Miami Heat will challenge Orlando for the top seed in the East and will be a huge obstacle to the Magic both now and for years to come. In addition, Boston beefed up its interior defense this offseason by adding the two O'Neals, Jermaine and Shaquille. Come playoff time, if Perkins has recovered from his torn ACL, the Celtics could have three large bodies with which to defend Howard. The Eastern Conference has become rather top-heavy, making Orlando's path back to the NBA Finals more fraught than ever.
The Magic, for their part, are quietly becoming one of the older teams in the league. Howard is still only 24, which is somewhat incredible to contemplate, but many of the pieces around him are either at the tail end of their primes (Rashard Lewis, new starting small forward Quentin Richardson) or clearly in their decline phase (Vince Carter). Jameer Nelson is the only non-Howard starter under 30, and he'll turn 29 in February. It's not an ancient team by any stretch - backups J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson are quality young players - but this particular set of names is not likely to be together much longer. There's a lot of speculation in particular about Carter, whose contract is huge but only partially guaranteed for next season, possibly making him a valuable midseason trade chip.
For now, we pretty much know what to expect from this edition of the Magic. They're a deep, talented, well-coached squad that has its offensive and defensive systems down cold. On offense, they'll surround Howard with guys who take and make threes in great volume. The combination of Howard's power game in the paint, Nelson's pick-and-roll skills and long-distance bombery of Lewis, Carter, Richardson, Redick and Anderson will put them near the top of the league in shooting efficiency. Their defense will be anchored, of course, by force multiplier and reigning DPOY Howard, whose dominance around the rim transforms a collection of otherwise ordinary individual defenders into a suffocating, cohesive unit. For the last three seasons, the Magic have been in the top five in defensive efficiency, and there's no reason to think they'll break that streak this year.
So pencil Orlando in for their usual 55 to 60 regular-season wins. How they fare in the Eastern Conference playoffs will turn on health and matchups. If the three main contenders are all basically at full strength, who do you like to come out of the bracket? My own view is that there's likely to be a rock-paper-scissors dynamic at work. In head-to-head contests, I'd favor Boston over Orlando, Miami over Boston and Orlando over Miami. I like how the Magic match up with the Heat, as the latter don't have a defender who can handle Howard one-on-one, whereas Mickael Pietrus has had some success slowing down LeBron James. To get to an ECF battle with Miami, however, Orlando might need to get through Boston in a second-round series, which could be all kinds of difficult.
Let's say the Magic successfully claw their way out of the East. What kind of shot would they have against the Lakers, assuming the champs win their fourth straight Western crown? Would that Finals matchup end any more happily for Orlando than it did in 2009?
I tend not to think so. The Lakers are pretty well equipped to handle what the Magic throw at you. As he demonstrated in the 2009 Finals, Pau Gasol's length, footwork and agility can trouble Dwight Howard. If Andrew Bynum is around to help defend the big man, as he wasn't last time around, all the better. And one of the Lakers' strengths on D is guarding the three-point line, an important factor against the outside-gunningest team in the league. The chief advantage Orlando would have on offense is Nelson, who was severely limited in the 2009 Finals. When healthy, he's generally played well against the Lakers, and against a Nelson-Carter backcourt it would be difficult to hide Derek Fisher.
On the other side of the court, the Magic don't have an elite perimeter defender to run at Kobe Bryant. Pietrus has historically done OK against Kobe, but putting him on the floor sacrifices offense. The guy the Magic used last season against the Mamba, Matt Barnes, is now Kobe's teammate. Up front, Howard can neutralize the Lakers' offensive rebounding, but neither Lewis nor Anderson jump out at you as great options with which to defend against Gasol and Lamar Odom.
The Orlando front office has done some terrific work assembling something close to a championship-caliber squad. Ownership spends money aggressively - the Magic's projected payroll for this season is just a touch under the Lakers' - Van Gundy's an excellent coach, Howard is badass on the court and mediagenic off it, and the supporting parts have been thoughtfully chosen. For any franchise, let alone one operating in such a small market, there's a ton to admire here. If they do get their Finals rematch with the Lakers, they'll be a worthy adversary indeed.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.