Saturday, April 11, 2009

Problems in the Paint

Photo from Credit NBAE/Getty Images.

The NBA playoffs are approaching and one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference is the Orlando Magic. However, they are not yet suited for playoff basketball and are sure to struggle if they are matched up with either Detroit or Boston.

Dwight Howard is the face of the Orlando Magic, but he is not the focal point of their offense. There is no argument that he is a physical force in the NBA but his shortcomings, coupled with the team’s deficiencies, can hinder the team in a long series against tough, lock down defenses.

The Magic are a shooting team. Howard is the team leader in scoring, but as a unit, they rely on their shooters. They are second in the league in both 3-point shots attempted and 3-point shots made. The problem is that shooters can have bad nights. There are times when nothing is falling. Howard can pick up some of the slack, but cannot carry the offense. When the shooters are off, the defense can then focus on stopping Howard in the paint. If it’s close, Howard struggles at the free-throw line, which makes the team resistant to give him the ball in clutch situations. The Magic also have a very limited post game, with Howard being the only real presence in the paint. That leaves the Magic with no other options if the shooters are cold or Howard is struggling.

Boston and Detroit recognize the flaws in Orlando’s game and use their own strengths to exploit them. Orlando does not match-up well with either squad.

Both Boston and Detroit are clubs with a winning attitude and great veteran leadership. What both teams do extremely well is play tough, physical team defense. They also have very deep frontcourts. The first thing those teams can do is throw a number of big bodies at Howard. Boston can trot out Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins and Mikki Moore. Detroit has Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Amir Johnson, and Jason Maxiel. Without an effective low-post partner for Howard, the Celtics and Pistons can rotate their big men guarding Howard and allow each to rough him up, without fear of collecting a lot of fouls on one single player. For one, fouling Howard is like deploying the old “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic; Howard leads the league in free-throw attempts, yet shoots only 60% from the line. Letting him shoot free-throws is better than letting him dunk. The physical play also tires Howard so he cannot get up and down the court as quickly, and plays into Boston and Detroit’s half-court, slow down strategies. Howard gets visibly upset when teams play him as physical as these two.

With Howard locked off, the defense can now focus on the Orlando perimeter. Shooters get hot when they get into a rhythm. These physical defenses ensure that that does not happen. The teams lock off on the perimeter and the physical play disrupts the shooter’s rhythm. Without a rhythm, the shooters fail to get off the shot they want and start forcing bad shots.

Orlando has no answer to these teams. Against these types of defenses, Howard is locked down by physical play in the post and the perimeter shooters have been knocked out of sync and go cold. Where does the team go to get its points? There are no other post players that are productive offensively for Orlando, so the space on the court opened up by the shooters goes for naught. Orlando also doesn’t have a slasher-type player on offense. They struggle to dribble, penetrate, and get their own shot off. Guys like Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Courtney Lee, and J.J. Redick do better moving off ball and receiving open looks off of screens. So players begin to force things in order to get some sort of offense moving. They play beyond what they are capable of. This causes turnovers, and adversely, easy lay-ups and more possessions for the other team, and it’s a snowball effect. The more the offense stalls, the higher the frustration level is, the more the team tries to force something that isn’t there, and more turnovers or bad shots are created.

The Magic have a decent shot of avoiding the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs this year. If the season ended today, Orlando would be matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, another young team that likes to run, but doesn’t have the size to deter Howard. However, they will most likely not be so lucky if they reach the second round, with a potential square off with Boston looming. By then, Boston also anticipates to have a healthy Garnett, which wasn’t the case the last time the teams played on March 25 and Orlando won by two points.

Orlando is a young, developing team with a lot of promise for the future, but they are still an inside partner for Howard, a playmaker, and an improved free-throw shooting Howard away from seriously contending from the NBA title.

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