As the NBA regular season approaches, we preview the upcoming campaign with the “Highs and Lows” system — predicting the respective ceiling and basement for each team.
Added: Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon, Daniel Orton, Malik Allen
Lost: Matt Barnes, Anthony Johnson
Ceiling: NBA championship
If big men win championships, and the Magic have the best big man in the world, then they can’t be counted out of the championship picture, right? Even if Dwight Howard (18.3 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 2.8 bpg) didn’t really infuse pieces of summer tutor Hakeem Olajuwon‘s game into his own, he’s still going to be an MVP candidate and front-runner to win a third straight Defensive Player of the Year … As dominant as Dwight is, though, Orlando brings more to the table than just its franchise beast. The core of the team that fell two wins shy of a second straight NBA Finals appearance is back mostly intact, with only Matt Barnes out of the picture, replaced by Quentin Richardson … Offense won’t be a problem. The Magic were 6th in the League in scoring and again led the NBA in three-pointers made, and added another shooter in Q-Rich, re-signed J.J. Redick in free agency, and Stan Van Gundy has been tinkering with some lineups where Rashard Lewis would get more time at his natural small forward position. Jameer Nelson (12.6 ppg, 5.4 apg) is coming off a postseason where he had multiple big-time performances; if he can stay healthy and play close to 75 games, Orlando will be a Top-4 team offensively … Defensively, the Magic were 4th in points-against and tied for the League lead in field-goal percentage defense. Losing Barnes hurts them in guarding the perimeter, but Mickael Pietrus may be able to fill that designated stopper role. And at the same time, Orlando should be stronger rebounding and defending the paint with Brandon Bass getting more PT … More than any other team, Orlando may be the most motivated by the excess hype bestowed upon the Miami Heat. The Magic are a legit title threat, and are being overshadowed in their own state by LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh’s star power. Dwight has already been a little snippy during interviews whenever he’s asked about Miami, and remember this: He is the one player in the League for which Miami doesn’t have an answer.
Basement: Conference semifinals
I don’t know what to make of Vince Carter right now. It was understandable that his scoring would drop (16.6 ppg) due to playing on a better team than he had in New Jersey, but his percentages (42.8% FG, 36.7% 3PA) weren’t supposed to drop as well. Was he taking a step back and being a good teammate, or is he losing some of his skills at 33 years old? With whatever he has left, Vince needs to play more aggressive this year; more like the guy who dumped 48 points on the Hornets, less like the one who couldn’t figure out the Celtics’ defense in the Eastern Conference Finals. When Orlando’s shooters aren’t hitting and Dwight is being denied the ball, VC’s job should be to take over and make things happen offensively … Have the refs figured out how to call games involving Dwight Howard yet? Has Van Gundy figured out how to put some muscle alongside Dwight on the front line without sacrificing too much scoring? Has Dwight improved enough over the summer to at least not be an offensive liability in crunch time? … Jameer’s health is always a question mark, and again the cast of backup PG’s in case he does get hurt isn’t great. Duhon couldn’t hack it with the Knicks, and Jason Williams is a stop-gap starter at best … Just like their Finals run in ’09, this will be a year of exploiting matchups for the Magic, and whether they’ll be on the positive or negative end of those exploitations. In a seven-game series, Miami has to find a way to neutralize Dwight. Against Boston, the Magic are the team that needs to adjust. Van Gundy has to find a way to keep “Superman” from being locked in a phone booth while opening up looks for Vince.
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10/19 — Oklahoma City Thunder
10/19 — Detroit Pistons
10/15 — Golden State Warriors
10/12 — Chicago Bulls
10/12 — San Antonio Spurs
10/5 — Toronto Raptors
10/1 — Sacramento Kings
9/28 — Atlanta Hawks
9/27 — Portland Trail Blazers