by Colin Powers
The decision of GM Otis Smith, essentially replacing Hedo Turkoglu with Vince Carter this past summer, reverberated across the 82-game marathon of the regular season. The contentious polemic divided the grand majority of ball fans: the ‘08-09 Magic team was an inherently tough match-up because of the size and particular skill-sets of Turk and Rashard Lewis. They could both stretch the D, they forced the opposing team to play big or get overpowered, and Turk was the perfect end-game closer for the team via his excellent decision making in the high pick-and-roll as well as his cojones as a shot-maker. The addition of Vince Carter, meanwhile, gave the team a bit of a lift athletically and he is the better scorer statistically…but he makes the team more conventional in its lineups and we are all familiar with his well-documented post-season history. After making it all the way to the Finals with their heterodox style last season, why change things up?
You could probably argue all day about the relative merits of Carter (who really struggled for a good portion of the season) and Turkoglu (who really struggled for the entirety of the season with Toronto). Nonetheless, such a focus obstructs us from giving proper acknowledgment to that which is truly the greatest change to the Magic roster: Jameer Nelson.
The 28 year-old guard just finished catalyzing Orlando toward their four game sweep of Charlotte, aggressively taking it to Ray Felton and DJ Augstin and driving the largely Dwight Howard-less Magic on in their journey for 16 wins this post-season. Nelson came into this series off of a fairly pedestrian regular season. His shooting numbers and scoring were down, particularly from 3-point range, and he seemed to have once again fallen into that trap of inconsistency that plagued his earlier years in the League. Orlando ran 12 deep all season, with positional versatility and a new sense of toughness that was certainly a progression from their ‘08-09 incarnation. But without Jameer making plays and putting some fear into opposing defenses, they just didn’t seem like a championship team.
Then suddenly, he showed up on the scene for Game 1 in Orlando in full command of his once fleeting swag. Though the series with the Bobcats was probably the most unwatchable of the Playoffs thus far, we did get the opportunity to see Jameer back in his element, talking shit to refs, other players, fans, burying late-game daggers, and reminding the casual observer that the out-of-synch, chemistry killing PG of last June wasn’t the real thing. Averaging right around 24 ppg for the series, the call to notice has been issued.
With this renewed mojo and efficiency, Nelson takes a huge amount of pressure off VC and provides Orlando with another much needed late-game play-maker to diversify their attack. As far as I see it, they go as he goes. Let us not forget he was in the midst of a career season prior to going down with that painful shoulder tear last year, an all-star shooting over 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3. Nelson was the steadying hand on an occasionally whimsical team, definitively the quiet, humble leader and the same clutch performer he made his name as at St. Joe’s. His injury threw them all out of whack, with his return from injury having almost the same discombobulating effect, forcing players (particularly Rafer Alston) out of their comfort zones and established roles. They lost their individual and team identities, in the process getting rolled over by the Lake Show.
Exorcising that tender memory may be the force that propels Jameer and the Magic to finish the business of yesteryear. Face-offs with either the Mike Bibby/Jamal Crawford or Brandon Jennings/Luke Ridnour combos will be intriguing as all the aforementioned guards bring with them a fairly unique skill-set likely to create an unpredictable and exciting dynamic when crossed with the Nelson/Jason Williams back-court. Further down the road, the Chester, PA product’s amalgam of power, shooting, and speed might also prove troublesome for the less burly Mo Williams in a potential Conference Finals match-up; that would certainly turn up the drama by perhaps necessitating a Delonte West-Jameer Nelson collision in the battle for Coach Phil Martelli’s (St. Joe’s) heart.
Of course, they’ll need Dwight to dodge a few more whistles per game, but this Orlando team is looking very dangerous at the right time of the year. It’s time to find out who the real ballers are.