The lack of balance between the Western and Eastern Conferences still exists. There are at least 11 quality teams in the West, each of whom would expect to make the playoffs if it resided in the East. As is, though, even 2013-2014 postseason teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors could find themselves on the outside looking in come April given the collective strength of their conference’s proletariat – the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, and Denver Nuggets stand to improve this season, and Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers still loom. That certainly wouldn’t be the case if the Rockets and Warriors played in the East, but such is the league’s current landscape.
Having said that, there’s still no denying the Eastern Conference improved this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are legitimate championship contenders, while the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, and Brooklyn Nets all boast talent worthy of a playoff appearance. Even the East’s bottom-feeders improved, too: The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Orlando Magic are a stage further into rebuilding processes.
But there’s still clear division between the conference’s haves and have-nots. The only teams toeing the line of mediocrity figure to be the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, and Detroit Pistons, with all three likely teetering slightly below it. The Philadelphia 76ers jon the Bucks, Celtics, and Magic as teams with no real aspirations of making anything other than progress in 2014-2015. Barring injury to many opposing stars, these franchises currently don’t have realistic hopes of postseason contention.
Just don’t tell that to Orlando’s Maurice Harkless. In an interview with Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders, the 21 year-old forward – citing his team’s poor fourth quarter performance last season – said the Magic have a chance to snag a playoff birth in the improved Eastern Conference.
“If you look at us last year we competed with pretty much all the best teams in the league, we even beat a few of them,” Harkless said. “I feel like this year, with that much more experience and guys being that much better after another summer of work, we’ll have a chance to make the playoffs.”
“I think that comes with experience,” Harkless said. “You know, just being able to learn how to close those games out. You look at our road games, we’d be in it for the first forty minutes, and it’s those last eight, last six, even those last four minutes. We just let it get away from us. I think a part of that is being young and learning how to win on the road. It’s a lot different than being at home.”
Harkless is right – to an extent. Orlando was a dreadful 4-37 away from the Amway Center last season, the worst road record in the league. It’s his contention that late-game performance accounted for those woes that doesn’t pass muster.
The main reason for the Magic’ awful road performance in 2013-2014? Bad starts. Orlando’s first quarter net rating away from home was an embarrassing -14.5, a fact made worse by the team’s second quarter mark being just a single point better. Boiling it down to more simple analysis, Orlando was outscored by an average of 6.5 points in the first half last season. The less talented, less experienced team will always have trouble winning, but especially if it puts itself in a huge hole early.
That’s what the Magic did in 2013-2014, a reality that directly clashes with Harkless’ belief that late-game struggles doomed them on the road. Unsurprisingly, however, Orlando was most effective in the fourth quarter last season. Its net rating and basic plus-minus in the final stanza was its best of any quarter, due mostly to score discrepancies so large that the opponent rested starters and lost incentive to give maximum effort.
It’s convenient to act as if poor crunch-time play contributed to the Magic’s woes last season. An old NBA adage is that green players and teams struggle with the game on the line, toils that are necessary to learning “how to win.” But that’s not at all what plagued Orlando last season, and likely won’t be what does come late October.
The Magic are still growing, and key to their evolution is confidence. Harkless clearly has it, an attitude no doubt shared by his exuberant, energetic teammates. But understanding deficiencies is just as important, and Harkless’ assertion casts doubt on whether or not Orlando’s young team does.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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