As NBA All-Star weekend approaches, it seems like some minor surprises are in the air. The Spurs have kept up their hot streak, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are having monster first-halves, and the Warriors are above .300. Now if you told me that Hedo would be back in Orlando with the Guard-Forward Formerly Known As Agent Zero before January, I would have laughed. And then that very trade happened and it came as quite a surprise.
So what’s the deal? It’s what I want to write about this week. I’ll leave the salary cap and contract stuff to Pakastallion and FlyingHaque; this article will attempt to examine why the Magic are playing better after the trade from a personnel and “X’s & O’s” perspective.
I should say from the outset that I was wrong about the trade. I figured that there would be no space for Arenas and Hedo both, and even if there was, Arenas would likely be relegated to the bench, where he would complain vigorously. I also thought that the Magic traded defense for offense in losing Pietrus, but lauded them getting rid of Vince Carter. By the way, for an extended shit on Vince Carter, check out Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball.
Now that I’ve admitted ignorance – likely where you stop reading – I’ll go through a few reasons why the Magic have gone 14-6 since the trade.
Reason #1: Improved Play of Dwight Howard
Since the trade, Dwight has averaged four more points a game, two more boards a game, and averaged two more shots a game. Most interestingly, Howard is averaging almost one whole foul less per game when compared to December and almost half a foul per game less when compared to November. I think the explanation for the foul discrepancy between November and December is two-fold: (1) the Magic suffered their worst offensive stint in early December, which put even more of an offensive burden on Howard, thereby creating more foul trouble; (2) Howard may have been frustrated by the lack of production and a 3-6 record in the first half of the month. In any event, the numbers seem to indicate that Howard is playing better, and committing less fouls, which keeps him on the court longer. In fact, Howard is averaging 3 more minutes a game in January when compared to December and November.
I think that the acquisition of Richardson and Arenas directly affects how Howard plays, and is a partial explanation for this improvement. Richardson’s offensive production is a vast improvement over Rashard Lewis’ (nearly 2 more threes made, 3 points more per game, with a better field goal percentage), which allows Howard to do what he does best: rebound Richardson’s misses and operate in the post alone as defenders guard Richardson around the perimeter. In this way, Richardson’s presence allows Howard to play better; I think that Arenas helps in much the same fashion, when Howard and Arenas are on the court together.
Flat out. Orlando sent away Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat and Rashard Lewis and in return received Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas, and Jason Richardson. Let’s compare Lewis and Turkoglu. Lewis did average more points, but Turkoglu averages a higher field goal percentage and almost five more assists per game. Not only can Turkoglu control the offense and set Dwight Howard up, but he can also score if necessary – a much better fit at Forward than Lewis. What about Vince Carter and J.Rich? The statistics here are actually almost even, with Richardson scoring a few more points a game and making a few more threes, but as a matter of numbers, this is largely a wash. I think Richardson gives them the edge because of his explosiveness, which Carter has lost in his age; Richardson can spark the crowd if he gets hot, and, in my estimation, has been more productive offensively than Carter.
I can’t say enough about Turkoglu’s return to the Magic. At five assists a game, he can contribute in a way that Rashard Lewis – basically just a scorer and shooter – really could not. And he’s doing it quite efficiently too; this article from an Orlando Magic blog provides some good insight as to why, but I won’t rehearse the author’s arguments here.
Now Arenas and Pietrus: no doubt the Magic lost a defensive mainstay, but as I alluded to earlier, they were losing games anyway and were willing to sacrifice defense for offense. Strangely, Arenas’ numbers in January do not differ wildly from Pietrus’ in November – about 7, 2, and 3 for Arenas and 7, 3, and 0.7 for Pietrus. In good faith, I can’t even make an anecdotal observation about this, so I’m just going to put it to one side. I feel like Arenas is the better offensive player, but the numbers belie my sentiment.
Can the Magic Win it All?
Doubtful. First, I don’t think the personnel are capable of playing great, playoff-style defense, and I say that with full knowledge of Howard’s defensive capability. The departure of Pietrus means Arenas, Richardson, or Jameer Nelson will have to guard on the perimeter – none of those three are quite as tenacious. I can’t seem to locate how many points the Magic allowed per game in various months, which is strange; however, if anyone can find that, please do comment. Facing Paul Pierce and Ray Allen or Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, as they likely will, the Magic will need strong perimeter defense, and no doubt losing Pietrus hurts. The loss of Gortat doesn’t hurt the Magic much, if Ryan Anderson continues to come on strong. He averages one more block every three games (compared to Gortat), and he grabs one more defensive board per game.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, their style of offense is not sustainable. Yes, Hedo is a vast improvement, and yes role players like Redick are shooting better from 3-pt – the numbers do show that. But, to quote Charles Barkley, they’re just Dwight Howard and a bunch of three-point shooters, which I largely agree with. It’s difficult to sustain an offense if the 3-point shooting cools down, which it will. This is especially true if Howard starts to get in early foul trouble, which will happen more than a few times in a seven-game series. Not to mention, field goal percentages, like most things in life, regress to the mean – and nowhere is this truer than 3-point percentage. I think it’s unfair to say that the Magic live-and-die by the three, but they certainly rely on it – they attempt four more threes than even the Golden State Warriors.
To conclude, I think that the Magic’s trade has improved their roster both as a virtue of Dwight Howard’s plan and as an upgrade to their personnel. I don’t think it’s quite enough to get them over the edge though, because of their lack of quality defenders and the style of offense they play.
 Surprising, right?
 Id. at 6
 Id. at 7. This may mean, however, that I have the causality inverted and that the explanation for increased production is the extended playing time. Nevertheless my hypothesis is equally valid.
 Compare http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/orl/split/40/orlando-magic with, http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/orl/split/42/orlando-magic. This comparison is Lewis in November with J.Rich in January.
 Compare http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/players/splits?playerId=469 with, http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/players/splits?playerId=862. Lewis in November, Hedo in January.
 Purely an anecdotal observation.
 Redick had a 3-point percentage of 30% with 1 made three-pointer before the trade, which improved to 40% with 2 made threes after the trade. http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/players/splits?playerId=3024
 Compare http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/gs/golden-state-warriors with, http://espn.go.com/nba/team/stats/_/name/orl/split/40/orlando-magic. As a Warriors fan, I can tell you: the Warriors shoot a lot of threes. A lot.