The Orlando Magic and new head coach Jacque Vaughn came down to earth on Tuesday night to the reality of life without Dwight Howard.
For the first two games of the regular season, the optimism was surprisingly high in Orlando as the Magic rolled over the struggling Denver Nuggets and the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns with dynamic offensive performances in front of their home crowd. But the truth about the Magic was exposed in Chicago last night as the team played an opponent that will not only make the playoffs, but possibly challenge for a championship.
The Magic played a solid game, losing by a mere six points to a team that has been a frontrunner in the Eastern Conference over the last few seasons with or without superstar Derrick Rose. But the fact remains that the Magic are still a jump shooting team with a front court made up of Glen Davis, traditionally an option off the bench, and Nicola Vucevic who started only the 18th contest of his NBA career against the Bulls. If anything, Orlando’s first two games were more of an aberration than a sign of their quality as they have little chance of making the postseason this year.
The games against Denver and Phoenix saw immense performances from Davis and JJ Redick. In fact, pretty much the entire team played out of their shoes statistically against the Suns, a defensively weak team that is giving up an average of 103 points in its first four games this season.
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The matchup with Chicago was their first tough game of the season and while the Magic held their own, their shooting percentage dipped from 48% in the previous two games to 41% against a team that was without their MVP.
The absence of Jameer Nelson left the team with shooting guard JJ Redick as the next best passer, but the lack of their $8 million a year point guard didn’t exactly give the Magic excuses. Backup point guard E’Twaun Moore stepped into Nelson’s shoes and provided the team with 17 points, two assists and five rebounds, a comparable output to what Nelson averages at 12 points and 5 assists per game for his career.
Aaron Afflalo rotated into a small forward role to replace the injured Hedo Turkoglu who is out with a broken hand leaving the Magic with DeQuan Jones at shooting guard. Just like that, a pair of injuries a couple games into the season and a major problem with the Magic roster is revealed.
Issues go beyond the unimpressive quality of their starters. Orlando has nothing coming off the bench outside of Redick, who came into last night’s contest playing way above his normal level shooting 62% from the floor and 75% from three point range in the first two games. Redick was grounded against the Bulls, finishing with 10 points and a team high seven assists despite receiving his usual minutes.
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Vaughn has his hands full at every position just to create a respectable lineup day in and day out and relying on players like Davis, Redick and Nelson when he’s healthy to perform every night is no recipe for success.
To add to their problems, Dwight Howard was the primary defensive force behind the Magic last season, something Vucevic and Davis just can’t replicate. Outside of Aaron Afflalo, no one on the team’s current roster is capable of playing particularly effective defense.
Nowhere was this more evident than the final quarter of the Chicago game. Orlando held a two point lead heading into the fourth quarter of this one, but shot just 37% down the stretch as they lacked a go-to guy to deliver buckets. Chicago shot 57% in the final quarter as they exploited Orlando’s soft spots, especially on the interior.
Unless the Magic can make some trades, it isn’t likely going to get better for them any time soon as they have the fifth highest payroll in the NBA and on it, some of the most ridiculous contracts to try and unload of any team in the market for new players. The players they have aren’t good enough to carry the team to anything meaningful and the opportunity to move players like Nelson and Turkoglu probably slipped away from Orlando after failing to dump them with Dwight Howard.
Last night’s loss in Chicago is just the beginning of a long season for this team. They may win 30 games. They may even make a half cocked run at the No. 8 seed, a feat that should land Vaughn a Coach of the Year Award if he can manage it. Ultimately, they will not play in the postseason and given their current lineup and options, it will be a long time before they do.