Saturday, January 10, 2009

At Center Court with Ben Q. Rock

Ben Q. Rock, The first ever participant in our "At Center Court" series, returns today to answer a few more questions about a Magic team that has looked better and better as the season has progressed. Let's get down to business:

GG: Jameer Nelson is nasty. When did that happen? Is he an All-Star?
BQR: We got a glimpse of what Jameer could do in last year's playoffs, when he posted a true shooting percentage of 62.7 and an effective field goal percentage of 59.3. He more than held his own against the Raptors' fairly intimidating point guard duo of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, blowing by them on offense and sticking with them on defense. He also played very well in the second-round series against Detroit, but it was against Toronto that he made a bit of a name for himself.

Unfortunately, he got off to a rocky start this season, and some of us Magic fans wondered if the playoff performance was an aberration. Through the team's first 7 games, Jameer shot 39.1% from the field, 15.4% from three-point range, and averaged 10 points, 5.1 assists, and 2.6 turnovers per game. In the 25 games he's played since then--he missed 5 games due to injury--Jameer has shot 53.5% from the field, 50.5% from three-point range, and averaged 17.96 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.8 turnovers per game. He's back at the top of his game.

It looks like Jameer's slow start was incidental. His stellar play this season, and his coming-out party in the playoffs, has me convinced that this is the real Jameer.

Jameer isn't a more worthy All-Star candidate than Devin Harris, but I have a lot of trouble putting any other Eastern point guard ahead of him. Rajon Rondo's having a great year also, but his play has slipped lately. Ultimately, only two of those three players will make it, and I'm afraid Jameer will be the odd man out. Still, he's emerged as one of the game's best point guards, and nobody can take that away from him.
GG: I saw the Bulls get crushed by the Magic at the United Center last week and a funny thing happened. J.J. Redick actually played. I checked his stats and supposedly he averages 16.7 minutes a game this season. Is that true and if so, why?

BQR: Yes, it's true: J.J. Redick is actually playing this year. It's actually been pretty rocky for him, actually, but he's gained his footing in the last week or so. He won everyone over in training camp and Stan Van Gundy assured him the backup shooting-guard job, behind only free-agent signee Mickael Pietrus. He responded by missing all 8 of his shot attempts in the Magic's first 3 games, of which they only won one. With the Magic's defense struggling, Van Gundy turned to Keith Bogans. J.J.'s shooting woes continued, even in his diminished role, and he didn't make a field goal until the Magic's 11th game (his 7th), which was his first career start; with Pietrus hurt, Van Gundy opted to start Redick to keep Bogans' energy on the bench. Yup, that's J.J. Redick's career: keeping Keith Bogans fresh.

In all seriousness, though, J.J.'s really turned it around of late. With Pietrus out and Bogans limited due to injury, Redick has returned to the rotation, albeit behind rookie Courtney Lee. He's shooting the ball more confidently, and it's showing in the box score: in the last 5 games, J.J. has made 18 of his 31 field goals and 10 of his 18 three-point attempts for 49 points. And, although he'll never be mistaken for Raja Bell on defense, he's made great strides on that end of the floor thanks to an offseason spent in Duke University's training room.

If he can keep it up, there's a good chance J.J. will retain his spot in the rotation once Pietrus returns, almost certainly at Bogans' expense.
GG: Obviously Dwight Howard has always been an excellent basketball player but he seems to have crossed a threshold this season, particularly on the offensive end of the ball: Rather than merely unleashing an endless array of dunks he seems to have developed a rather sophisticated offensive arsenal. How, in your opinion, has Howard developed between this season and last?

BQR: I'm not sure if I'd use "sophisticated" to describe Dwight's offense just yet, but he has gotten better. He can finish with either hand around the basket, he has added a few more spin moves to his repertoire. For the most part, though, Dwight gets his points thanks to his wicked athleticism.

The biggest change in Dwight's game is his attitude. Yes, he's still a clown--witness his pre-game routine with the shoe mat at midcourt, his blowing on his hands after making clutch plays, his rubbing the ball affectionately during some dead-ball situations--but his overall approach to the game is more serious. He takes the game seriously and appears more focused. Coach Van Gundy has described that the change is even more pronounced in practice, which indicates that Dwight still takes a lot of pride in being a showman during games.

Let's be frank: he's not Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. But when he wants to make a play--swoop in for a put-back dunk, set a bone-crushing screen, or swat a shot at the rim--he's going to do it. And he won't be sorry, either.
GG: In general, this team seems to have crossed a threshold. I would argue they are a legitimate title contender for the first time since the Shaq years. What, in your opinion, is different about this season's squad?

BQR: Another year of experience for Dwight and Jameer, plus the added athleticism on the wings (Pietrus and Lee finish the fast break better than any Orlando swingman since Tracy McGrady), makes a lot of difference. What's most encouraging, though, is the team's improved play at home. One year after they enjoyed more success on the road (27-14) than at home (25-16), the Magic have won 11 straight at Amway Arena and own the Eastern Conference's third-best home record, at 16-3. Last year was great, but I was a bit deluded when I thought to myself the Magic had a contending team. Now? There's not a single team in this league that I don't think the Magic could handle in a 7-game series. They wouldn't be favored to win all of them, but they wouldn't be counted out, either. That's huge.

Meanwhile, Dwight Howard and Courtney Lee are 23, Jameer Nelson is 26, while Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are won't turn 30 until August and March, respectively. Lewis will be on the books for a while, and at a high price, but sweet-shooting tall guys who don't rely on their athleticism to score age fairly well, so there's not a lot to worry about there. Turk handles the ball a lot, and maybe that skill will diminish with age, but he's also not a guy who needs to be able to jump out of the gym in order to be productive. I like this team's chances over the next several seasons, especially with Stan Van Gundy--a criminally underrated coach in this league--at the helm.

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