Thursday, January 22, 2009

Third Quarter Collapse on Orlando-Boston

Ahead of tonight's monster Boston-Orlando game, we decided to do one of those "blogger/fan of one team chats with blogger/fan of another team" about the game, the season and two of the three teams with a chance of winning the Eastern Conference. Ben Q. Rock, the brains behind the Magic-themed blog Third Quarter Collapse, agreed to answer our silly questions about the Magic (and we did the same about the Celtics on his genius site, though his questions aren't silly). Celtics Blog is also taking questions from Ben today ahead of the game, so check that out as well, and read my answers at TQC. 

BTT: Hedo Turkoglu's numbers are down across the board. Have you picked up on why that might be? Are fans just assuming he'll get back to his normal production?

TQC: The most obvious answer might be the correct one: last year was a fluke. It's rare for players of Turk's age to sustain huge increases in shooting percentage, so he was bound to regress to the mean. The problem is that he's below the mean now, although he's been better lately. 

Shot selection is a bit of an issue, I think. Last year he was more assertive in his forays to the rim, attempting 32% of his shots from "close," according to 82games. He also finished there at a 58.6% clip. This year, only 27% of his shots are in close, and he's converting only 49.7% of them. More jumpers means more lower-percentage shots, obviously, and he's not making the so-called high-percentage shots at a good rate. That's not a recipe for success.

At least he's still handling the ball okay. His assist rate of 20.2 ranks him 5th among small forwards,  while he's managed to trim his turnover rate form 12.0 to 11.3. 

Also encouraging is that his field goal and three-point shooting percentages have increased each month this season, so he's getting better. We won't see him back at last year's level, but as long as he's shooting around 43% and handing out 5 assists, the Magic are in great shape.

BTT: The Magic have improved most noticeably in defending the three-point shot. What, if anything, explains this?

TQC: As far as I know, there's no way to track this stat, but I suspect a lot of that improvement is due to not allowing as many wide-open threes. They've contested nearly every shot not taken by players named Vladimir Radmanovic (wake up, Hedo!). They're rarely out of position on defense, which probably accounts for the improvement in three-point defense. The downside is that they don't don't force many turnovers. Then again, they didn't force many turnovers last year, either.

BTT: Dwight Howard has spoken highly of the contributions of Battie and Gortat, and you've written before about the Magic being set when it comes to back-up bigs. What in particular are these guys bringing, and what makes Gortat such a good per-minute rebonder?

TQC: I'm allowed one cliched answer, right? Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat are bringing their hardhats and lunchpails. Har har har. 

Seriously though, these guys are tough. They aren't aggressive/enforcer types (Hello, Jason Maxiell), but they hold their ground defensively and pick their spots offensively. Adonal Foyle, the Magic's only backup center last year, excelled at the former, but failed at the latter. Battie is a pick-and-pop option due to his reliable 17-foot jumper, and he also sneaks free to snipe from the left baseline on occasion. Gortat, meanwhile, has a relatively sophisticated post game for a backup center, and is relentless on the offensive glass.

We can probably attribute some of Gortat's excellent per-minute rebounding to a natural instinct for the ball, but sheer size and strength has a lot to do with it. Once he gets a rebound, he makes sure to secure it with both hands at around the chest area, which is a wordy way of explaining that he doesn't flub many away. The downside is that it'll kill transition opportunities, but he's usually running with a lineup that features Anthony Johnson at point guard. So it's not really a concern.

BTT: Two categories in which the Magic are in the middle or lower half of the league are overall rebounding and forcing turnovers on defense. Are these concerns? How could the Magic fix them?

TQC: Maybe they are concerns. I think, though, they're necessary sacrifices. If the Magic want to rebound more, they'd have to acquire another backup big man. Leaving aside that they'd have to give somebody up if they were to make a trade, rearranging the rotation would be a bit of a hassle, especially with the team playing so well. Dwight is going to play 38 minutes at center. Hedo is going to dominate the small forward minutes, and Rashard Lewis will pick up all the extras. Rashard also will play most of the power forward minutes. As you know, part of what makes the Magic so lethal is their ability to spread the floor. They can't do that as well with a guy like, say, Joe Smith playing power forward alongside Dwight. Players who can rebound at a strong rate as well as convert three-pointers are few and far between; only Rasheed Wallace comes to mind...and Detroit (probably) won't unload him during the season. He will be a free agent this summer though. Hmm...

I believe I addressed the turnover issue in my response to a previous question.

Right now, my attitude is that the Magic shouldn't worry too much about these deficiencies, given how well they're playing otherwise. If it becomes a problem in the playoffs, Otis Smith will address it this summer.

BTT: Is Dwight Howard a serious MVP candidate? And who taught him that Duncan-style bank shot from the wing?

TQC: If the Magic somehow finish with the best record in the league, he's an MVP candidate. Right now, he's a no-brainer pick for Defensive Player of the Year and for the All-NBA First Team, but LeBron James has a pretty firm grip on that MVP trophy. It'd take a big statistical drop on LeBron's part and a disappointing second half of the season for Cleveland for him to lose that award. 

While we're on the subject of Dwight's legitimacy as an MVP candidate, I'd like to dispute the notion that he can't win the award if he shoots 60% from the foul line. Obviously he should worry about shooting better, but free throw percentage is a pretty arbitrary measuring stick for MVP-dom, no? If you want to quibble about percentages, why not LeBron James' 28.7% clip from three-point range? It's silly.

Dwight's worked extensively with Magic assistant Patrick Ewing on a lot of offensive moves, but the bank shot might be the most notable addition to his repertoire. It still needs improvement, but I believe he's committed to refining that shot. And once he does--and I'll paraphrase Doc Rivers here--it's over for the league.

Thanks to Ben for his time, his thoughts and his outstanding work every day at TQC.

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