The Orlando Magic finished with the second-best record of any team in the league. They are the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. Furthermore, the old cliches go that defense and dominant big men win championships. The Magic lead the league in defensive efficiency, and have easily the best big man in the league on their roster. For some reason, the Magic are still regarded as a “gimmicky” choice to take home the Maurice Podoloff trophy come finals time. Maybe it’s because the Magic have never won a title before. Maybe it’s because they take so many threes. Maybe it’s because their coach has a goofy mustache. I don’t know the reason why the Magic still don’t seem to be getting taken seriously as championship contenders, but I do know a bunch of good reasons the Magic can win it all this season. Without further ado:
Defense wins championships, and the Magic play defense as well as anybody. Stan Van Gundy has the league’s best defensive player, and he knows how to use him. Dwight Howard shuts down the paint (no team gives up fewer points in the paint than the Magic), and the rest of the players on the Magic are adept at showing hard on the perimeter and funneling opposing players towards Howard. With Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes functioning as perimeter stoppers and shutting down opposing wings, the Magic managed to lead the entire league in defensive efficiency this season.
2. Dwight Howard
Yes, he’s not quite a dominant one-on-one scorer with his back to the basket. Yes, his free throw shooting is still a serious issue. In spite of all that, Dwight Howard is still easily the best big man in the league. He’s capable of overpowering almost any center that tries to guard him one-on-one with his combination of strength and speed, and he’s improved his low-post game this season. If Howard is making his hook shots on a given night, it’s game over. No low-post player commands more double-teams. Howard is completely unstoppable when he catches the ball around the basket in dunking range, forcing teams to sag on the pick-and-roll and free up the Magic’s perimeter players. Pundits will focus on what Howard isn’t, but opponents will focus on what Howard is — and be completely terrified.
3. Three-Point Shooting
The Magic love the three-ball, and for good reason. Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Pietrus, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Jason Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Matt Barnes are all more than willing to pull the trigger from deep, and they’re all capable of making those threes when given the slightest bit of daylight. When the Magic are making their threes, they’re all but unstoppable. When they’re not, they still have the league’s best defense and Dwight Howard working inside. The Magic’s love of the three-ball makes them seem like a feast-or-famine team, but really they’re more like a feast-or-five dollar chicken plate from Ralph’s team. And five-dollar chicken from Ralph’s can be pretty darn tasty.
4. Perimeter Scoring Options
Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson are both dangerous options as primary scorers. J.J. Redick has matured into a complete offensive player capable of handling the ball and draining open shots. Rashard Lewis is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league. Mickael Pietrus can get hot at any time, and certainly isn’t shy. When opposing teams double down on Howard, the Magic have plenty of guys more than willing to make teams pay for doing so.
5. Stan Van Gundy
Van Gundy is perpetually hoarse, and does not look like a basketball course. He also has a knack for creating a system that allows his personnel to thrive, finding matchup problems, and isn’t afraid of making a risky choice if he thinks it will benefit his team. He might not look the part, but Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league and definitely helps the Magic’s chances of winning it all.
6. A Chip on Their Shoulder
Too many teams play the “no respect” card in the playoffs, but the Magic really seem to believe it. Van Gundy has been fueling their fires all season in this regard, and the Magic certainly seem eager to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously as championship contenders. This postseason, they’ll have their chance. I’m eager to see what they can do with it. No team blends old-school values with new-school effectiveness better than the Magic do. We’ll see if that can be a championship formula.