The Orlando Magic have been without Jameer Nelson since opening night after their first choice point guard strained his groin in the opener against Denver, but on Friday night, Orlando received a big boost from his return.
On the night, Nelson finished with 13 points, 10 assists, two steals and four rebounds in a 110-106 victory over Detroit. The win is the Magic’s third of the season and began the process of working Nelson back into the team. Orlando extended his contract in the offseason and while E’Twaun Moore stepped in and adequately filled the starting shoes during Nelson’s injury, it’s vital the Magic get a big contribution and leadership from Nelson as the year goes on.
In the absence of Dwight Howard, the Magic lineup is void of stars and is running an offensive system that depends on ball movement. Their losing record has more to do with the fact that they somehow find the open man well enough to rank eighth in the league in assists, but are 29th in scoring due to their poor shooting. If general manager Rob Hennigan can somehow acquire a solid scorer, the Magic could become a much more respectable opponent for other teams.
With the return of Nelson, the Magic get a solid ball handler and a point guard who can score as well as penetrate and kick. Without the pressure of getting the ball into Howard’s hands, Nelson is free to move the ball where he likes and with shooters like J.J. Redick (currently shooting 48% from the field) he should find a good number of assists on the perimeter.
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Orlando is a franchise that has poorly managed its money and has very few options when it comes to trades as a way to improve the team. Re-signing Nelson to a deal worth over $8 million per season was a questionable call when you consider that he’s a score first point guard who has averaged 12.4 points and 5 assists per game despite playing with the most dominant center in the game today every year of his career until now.
With Aaron Afflalo, Redick, Glen Davis and Nicola Vucevic rounding out the starting lineup, the Magic are in need of Nelson’s creativity and experience. They have held their own in his absence, but haven’t been able to get over the hump at times due to the absence of a pure scorer and athletic ball handler. Jacque Vaughn isn’t getting an all-star in Nelson, but he at least has something to be hopeful about and build around due to his experience and athleticism.
A win over Detroit is hardly top headline news, but with Nelson at the helm, all five Magic starters scored in double digits for the second time this season. The Magic drained 39 points in the final quarter, a period which has plagued them against other opponents this season.
Nelson’s return to the lineup also means that youngster Moore can take a back seat and learn the game by observing rather than a baptism of fire. He did well to replace Nelson, but ultimately he’s a pretty raw product and isn’t ready to run an offense full time just yet. He’s a good backup for Nelson, providing Vaughn with depth, an area he is otherwise hurting in.
Everyone can acknowledge that this is a rebuilding year in Orlando, but Vaughn’s job isn’t to come in and duplicate the team’s success in recent years. Management expects Vaughn to manage the team as best he can until they can add to the team’s firepower. Nelson has a crucial role to play as the most recognizable figure in the franchise and the most experienced player on the team, but in order for him to be successful, games like Friday night have to become the norm rather than anomalies.