As I write this, there are three undefeated teams in the 2010-11 preseason — the Orlando Magic (7-0), the Utah Jazz (7-0) and the Memphis Grizzlies (6-0). Everybody knows that preseason records don’t mean anything, but the way the Magic are winning is probably worth noting. There is only one team outscoring their opponents by an average of more than 10 points per game this preseason, and that is the Magic.
There is also only one team outscoring their opponents by an average of 25 points per game, and that is also the Magic.
Orlando started out slow this preseason with single-digit wins over Houston and Indiana, but then they kicked into high gear with a 54-point win over the Hornets, a 13-point win over the Bobcats, a 38-point win over the Bulls, a 29-point win over the Hawks, and last night’s 25-point win over the Mavericks. Those are monster wins over quality competition. This raises that question: What the hell is going on down in Orlando?
Defense is happening, my friends. The Magic are shooting 49.8 percent from the field after seven preseason games while they’ve held their opponents to 35 percent shooting. Thirty-five percent! That’s like playing against an entire team of Rafer Alstons every game!
It’s common knowledge that two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard is the backbone of the team that finished third in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) last season and first in that category the season before. But this season, it looks like the entire team has bought in to the importance of playing hard on D. Yes, even Vince Carter.
“We’re playing tougher than we were a year ago,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel after Monday’s blowout win over the Hawks. “Vince steps in and takes another charge tonight. I don’t think sometimes people understand what that does. He doesn’t have to say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to be tougher.’ He’s out there doing it. That’s the currency in this league.”
Scoring is also valuable currency in the NBA, and Vince is also providing that like he’s rediscovered his “Half-Amazing” side. He leads the Magic in scoring this preseason while shooting 60 percent from the field and 59 percent from beyond the arc. If they gave out an award for preseason MVP (which, thankfully, they don’t), Carter would probably win it this year.
Can Vince rediscover his old magic (pun intended) and be Dwight’s All-Star sidekick this season? It seems unlikely, but the man is a physical freak and — perhaps more importantly — he’s in a contract year. Besides that, if you look at the rest of Orlando’s 10-man rotation (Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, Quentin Richardson, Brandon Bass, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Chris Duhon), you could make the case that they’re as deep as any other team in the league.
So with all this in mind, why does it seem like nobody’s taking them seriously as a title contender? Everyone knows they’ll be in the mix, but how many people have you heard proclaim that the Magic should be favored to make it to Eastern Conference Finals? It’s like a Heat vs. Celtics matchup is preordained — to consider another team in that picture would be ridiculous.
I’ll tell you what’s ridiculous: the way the Magic are curbstomping the competition so far. Not only do I think the Magic should be taken seriously as contenders, but I’m picking them to finish with the best regular season record in the East this season. Whatever you think of their chances to beat the Heat or Celtics in a seven-game series, I predict they’ll have homecourt advantage in both of those series.
Of course, playoff basketball is a whole different animal from the regular season (much less preseason) so let’s not start printing up those “STAN VAN GUNDY WILL HAVE HIS REVENGE ON SEATTLE MIAMI” t-shirts just yet. Then again, there’s some saying about the relationship between defense and championships that I can’t quite recall, but seems relevant here.