For the first time in 14 years, the Magic will take the court this season set to defend their Eastern Conference championship. After an inspired run to the NBA Finals last spring, the Magic are poised to take on Boston, Cleveland and the rest of their East foes in search of another June rendezvous.
But if they can't defend their title, they'd probably settle for just defending.
When the Magic took the floor for preseason training camp last week, coach Stan Van Gundy was quick to criticize star newcomer Vince Carter for his commitment to defense in practice sessions. Van Gundy said early in camp that Carter "did not play well defensively today. He didn't do a good job out there. He's capable of doing a lot better, and that's what I want to see. As a matter of fact, we'll talk to him about that and show him some [film] clips."
With all due respect to Stan Van, it's unlikely that screening a few clips will do anything to change a decade of shoddy defense.
Basketball teams, like any other employer, do background checks on the high-profile men they bring in. And the Magic, who pulled a blockbuster trade with the New Jersey Nets this summer to bring Carter south to Orlando, had to know going into this that they weren't getting a defensive wizard.
Orlando rearranged its roster to bring Carter in, shipping Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee to the Nets for Carter and Ryan Anderson. And in taking on Carter's contract, the Magic ensured that they would have no free cash to put toward re-signing Hedo Turkoglu, who promptly skipped town and signed a $52.8 million blockbuster with the Toronto Raptors.
In making this deal, the Magic were making a bold statement: They were willing to scrap everything for Vince Carter. They were willing to adopt a whole new identity.
Last season, the Magic were defined by their moderate pace and commitment to defense. They had the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, anchoring the team on the defensive end, and with his ability to swat shots and dominate the glass, the entire team fed off of his energy.
The numbers reflected that. The Magic were the No. 1-rated defensive team in the NBA last season, allowing just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, edging out Boston, Cleveland and Houston for the top spot. This year? Don't expect that to happen again.
Howard is still there, and he's only getting better, but the supporting cast around him has been gutted. With Alston and Lee gone to New Jersey, the Magic are without both of their old starting guards; with Hedo in Toronto, that's three-fifths of the team's starting five gutted, just to make room for Vince Carter.
The results? Well, so far this preseason, they're 3-0. But it's a different kind of 3-0. Rather than win with their defensive prowess, they're running teams into the ground and scoring in boatloads. They've beaten three good teams — Dallas 110-105, Miami 90-86 and Houston 113-104. All three teams could easily make the second round of the playoffs this season, but the Magic took down all three.
Carter, despite having the high-scoring Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson around him, has averaged 16 points per game. And there's a good chance that this trend will keep up well into the regular season.
These aren't last year's Magic anymore. They've found a new business model, and if it pays off, we might finally see Vince Carter in an NBA Finals.
But if not, there are a couple of teams up north that would love to dethrone them. Boston and Cleveland both are drooling at the opportunity.
It's time to defend, Orlando. In more ways than one.
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