Back in the States

The Bees are in Florida for a two game set, featuring one of the East’s best (Orlando) and one of the East’s worst (Miami). It’ll be a Tuesday/Wednesday back to back, one of four such schedule events we still have left on the table. To preview the Magic matchup- which we lost early in the season- I talked to the Magic blog Third Quarter Collapse

At the Hive: What’s your take on the Rashard Lewis contract? I realize he’s been shooting 40%+ from three, but do you see him aging well enough to be worth the the guaranteed 90 mil over 5 years?

Third Quarter Collapse: Right now, I’d say he’s worth the $15.6 million we’re paying him this year. His scoring is down 4 points from last season, but Hedo Turkoglu’s is up 6 points and Dwight Howard’s is up 3 points, and much of that has to do with Lewis’ presence; he spaces the floor for Dwight to work down low, and for Hedo to drive to the basket.

But let’s not delude ourselves here: Lewis hasn’t shown he’s versatile enough to be a reliable number-one option on offense, and if Hedo leaves via free agency — he can opt-out after next season — the Magic may find themselves paying $120 million for a guy who can only create his own shot when the team’s franchise center is off the floor. That’s not exactly bang for the buck.

AtH: Let’s talk about Hedo Turkoglu. He’s been playing like a man possessed, hitting on more than 40% of triples, dishing almost 5 assists, and most impressively to me, getting to the line 5 times a night. What did he change about his game over the offseason?

TQC: To be honest, I don’t think Hedo has changed his game; rather, his improvement has to do with Stan Van Gundy recognizing his skills and trusting him to make plays. In Brian Hill’s unimaginative offense last season, Turk was a spot-up shooter who wasn’t asked to put the ball on the floor. The data, courtesy 82games.com, support this claim: 77% of Hedo’s shots in 2006/2007 were jumpers, and he was assisted on 62% of them; this year, jumpers account for just 69% of his shots, and he’s been assisted on 50% of them. The decrease in jumpers means an increase in “close” shots in the lane, and he’s converted on them. As a result of his successful penetration, opposing defenses have to collapse on him, which then enables him to pass the ball to an open three-point shooter — Lewis, Maurice Evans, and Jameer Nelson are the usual beneficiaries — on the perimeter. It’s fantastic, and Stan deserves a lot of credit for freeing Hedo.

AtH: Where would the Magic be if they played in the Western Conference?

TQC: Probably scrapping with Golden State, Denver, and Dallas for that final playoff spot. The Magic are a respectable 14-14 against the West this season, including some impressive victories in L.A. (against the Lakers) and in Oakland. But .500 doesn’t mean diddly out West, so it’s hard to imagine we’d do much, if anything, in the superior conference. Then again, we are 9-6 on the road against the West, which would put us somewhere in the top-four if extrapolated over the course of the season.

AtH: Let’s say you were the GM of the Magic. With guys like Howard, Nelson, Lewis, and Turkoglu on board, it’s clear the team has a nice window to make a great run at a championship. Which players might you target in the offseason(s) to be the role guys that would complement that core?

TQC: Rebounding and perimeter defense are our biggest needs, and it’s hard to find any one player who can help us with both of them. Athletic two-guards with three-point range — like Mickael Pietrus of Golden State or, to a much greater extent, Corey Maggette of the L.A. Clippers — fit Stan’s system well, and both would be improvements over the Keith Bogans/Maurice Evans duo currently manning that position.

However, I’m much more interested in adding a big-man, which is why I like Hakim Warrick of Memphis and Ryan Gomes of Minnesota. Both rebound fairly well, and Gomes has the added bonus of being able to hit the occasional three-ball. Basically, any rebounding-oriented power forward with decent range on his jump shot (i.e. whose presence won’t crowd Dwight Howard on offense) would work well here. Those four guys, in no particular order, are the ones I’d target with the mid-level exception this offseason.

AtH: Last, give me your prediction on how the East shakes out: does Orlando have what it takes to unseat a Detroit or a Boston? Are there any teams in the East nobody’s talking about that we should know of?

TQC: No surprises here: Boston, Detroit, and Orlando will finish 1-2-3, which any NBA observer could have told you back in January. It’s really hard to imagine anyone stopping Boston at this point, though. We’re so caught up in admiring the Rockets’ unbelievable 22-game win streak, and in following the incredibly tight Western playoff race, that we ignore the fact that Boston has beaten each NBA team at least once this season, and has one of the best defenses in recent memory, and has three future Hall-of-Famers in its starting lineup…

But…

The Magic would give the Celtics a tougher time than the Pistons would. If we can somehow get past Detroit in the second round — assuming we make it that far — to face Boston in the Conference Finals, we’d certainly give them more difficulty than most people would expect.

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