Dwight Howard and the Magic have had their toughness called into question since Howard’s rookie season. Most considered the Magic a finesse team in the 2009 season, forgetting that they were one of the best defensive teams in the league ranking 2nd behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in defensive efficiency. When I think of toughness in the NBA, I think of guys boxing out to get rebounds, players backing down their defenders on offense and not letting their opponents do the same to them. I see players who refused to be pushed around, won’t take anything from anyone else and will fight back when they are challenged. You see a team with an enforcer possibly in the mold of an Anthony Mason or Bill Lambeer. The Magic need to improve on some of these qualities, but they did show that they are an extremely mentally tough team.
The Magic proved that they had a mentally tough team by continuously battling back during the regular season and especially during their run in the postseason. The Magic lost All-Star PG Jameer Nelson midway through the season but wound up winning 59 games and advancing to the NBA Finals without Nelson. They lost games 1 and 3 in their opening round series with the Philadelphia 76ers on buzzer beaters by Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young, but the Magic won the next 3 games, including game 6 in Philadelphia when they were without a suspended Dwight Howard or injured Courtney Lee. The Magic then lost game 4 to the Boston Celtics on a Glenn “Big Baby” Davis buzzer beater and were beaten by the Celtics in game 5 after blowing a 14-point 4th quarter lead to fall behind 3-2 in the best of 7 series. The Magic came back from a 10-point 2nd half defecit to win game 6 and then dominated game 7 in Boston, a situation in which the Celtics were 32-0 before Orlando’s win. The Magic trailed game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals by 15 points at the half but won on a Rashard Lewis 3-pointer. The Magic also trailed by double digits in games 2 and 4, but came back to take the lead in each of them and even won game 4. After an NBA Finals series in which Orlando lost 2 overtime games to the Champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Magic must once again prove their mental toughness and get over that series in time for the 2009-10 season. I don’t think anyone doubts that they will.
This so-called “finesse” team won’t be considered one anymore. Not after the acquisitions they have made during the 2009 offseason. These picksups will join fellow tough guys Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard. Jameer Nelson should also should be back to 100% after recovering from an injured shoulder. The Lakers did indeed out-tough the Magic in the Finals. Their frontcourt (namely Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom) dominated the paint for the most part during the series. The Lakers exposed some of the Orlando’s problems in the paint. Gasol and Odom had way too easy of a time down there. A lot of that has to do with the foul trouble of Dwight Howard, but more so it has to do with Orlando’s lack of toughness and interior defenders.
The absence of Jameer Nelson from last year’s team from about the halfway point of the season up until the Finals really hurt. Nelson proved his toughness by making a return in the NBA Finals against the Lakers but he looked nothing like the player that lit up LA during the regular season and lead Orlando to a 2-0 record against the champs. Jameer has the type of attitude that the Magic need. He thinks that it’s him against the world and he even has a tattoo that says “All Eyes on Me,” so Jameer is constantly trying to prove himself in order to overcome the obstacles that he’s faced being an undersized PG throughout his basketball career. A healthy Nelson should provide the Magic with more toughness, attitude and leadership.
The Magic bring back their two toughest players in starting Center Dwight Howard and his backup Marcin Gortat. Although Dwight missed a game (3 to be exact) for the first time in his NBA career, he once again lead the league in dunks and rebounds and made good on his preseason promise to the lead the league in blocked shots. He averaged 13.8 RPG and 2.9 BPG. He became a much stronger inside player both on offense and defense. The Pistons took advantage of Dwight’s lower body, which didn’t look nearly as defined as the rest of his body. Dwight hasn’t completely solved this problem but he’s definitely improved. The Theo Ratliffs of the world can’t push him around anymore. He is just too hard of a worker and has too much natural strength. Dwight used to let things go on the court but now he retaliates. After thinking 76ers Center Samuel Dalembert was constantly fouling him hard, Howard responded with an elbow to Dalembert’s head that wound up getting him suspended for game 6 of that series. The Magic need other players to retaliate in Howard’s defense to keep him from suspensions and flagrant or technical fouls, but it’s good to see that Howard is not going to take anything from anyone and stands up for himself.
Howard is trying to get even bigger, stronger and tougher during the offseason. Howard has really gotten around this offseason, doing interviews, promoting for EA Sports as the NBA Live cover boy and responding to an incredible amount of tweets through his twitter (@DwightHoward), but he has brought along two trainers – Bryan Meyer and Korey McCray for the ride. McCray comes along to work on Howard’s free throw shooting, but that’s another story. Meyer is a trainer from the RDV sportsplex and should help Howard become an even stronger player.
Howard’s backup Marcin Gortat isn’t built like Howard, but he still has the potential to become a very tough player. He’s a good rebounder and has shown flashes of being a very good defender. He averaged 3.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and .8 BPG in just 12.6 MPG showing that he could be a very effective player when called upon. After a pretty good first round of the playoffs (He averaged 4.7 RPG) where he earned a start during Howard’s suspension and had a double double, Gortat virtually disappeared by Orlando’s finals loss to the Lakers, playing just 10.6 MPG in that series. Gortat has shown signs of being an aggressive rebounder and a dominating shot blocker, but he has a long way to go. He needs to bulk up to become a tougher player so that he can better defend against bigger, stronger players like Shaq who Marcin coincidently had a very funny quote about.
“I got to be honest with you, when he stepped onto the court, this dude is huge. I just realized that I’ve got to go home and eat like five chickens and put a lot of weight on. It’s going to take a couple months, but seriously.”
I don’t know if eating 5 chickens will make Gorat a tougher player, but he’s got the right idea. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-11, but he needs to bulk up from his current 240 lb. stature.
The biggest moves that the Magic made to address the need to get tougher were the signings of PF Brandon Bass and SF Matt Barnes. With the use of the mid level exception, Bass signed a 4 year, $18 million deal while the Magic used the rest of the MLE to sign Barnes for 2 years. It’s likely that one of these two acquisitions will be a starter. It depends on whether Head Coach Stan Van Gundy wants to leave Rashard Lewis at PF and start either Barnes or Mickael Pietrus at SF or move Lewis back to SF and insert Brandon Bass into the starting PF role. These are two of the players that could fill the role of enforcer on the Magic, those who will protect Howard when other teams rough him up and try to get into his head. These 2 also have the ability to get into the heads of Magic opponents.
Bass isn’t the tallest player at just 6-foot-8, but don’t let that fool you. Bass plays big. Bass has a very wide build to his body, weighing in at over 250 lbs. He is a powerful basketball that averaged 4.5 RPG and .7 BPG in just 19.4 MPG, all statistics that he should improve on this season. Magic General Manager Otis Smith showed that he shares my sentiments when he discussed the signing of Bass.
“Brandon is a physical, athletic frontline player,” Orlando general manager Otis Smith said in a statement. “He will fit in well with our young core and we are excited to have him join the Magic family.”
Matt Barnes doesn’t have the big body that Brandon Bass does, but he’s no slouch at 6-foot-7 and 224 lbs. Barnes is a very good and tough defender and can join Pietrus in a joint effort to guard the other team’s best wing player. According to Tim Povtak at NBA Fanhouse, Barnes thinks that he is tough enough to be an NFL player.
“I’m tough. I’m a tough player with a football background. I think teams appreciate that,” he said Friday afternoon at the Magic’s practice facility. “Football is a physical game. I think that fits with some of the things they were looking for.”
Sounds like Barnes is just what the doctor ordered. Or at least just what Dwight Howard, Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy ordered. He also has that enforcer attitude that the Magic so desperately need. In fact, as a member of the Phoenix Suns last season, Barnes got his team into a brawl with the Houston Rockets. Former Magic PG Rafer Alston, who was on Houston at the time, credits Barnes with starting the skirmish after Barnes tried to force his way through an Alston screen.
“Yeah, they hit us with a couple of hard screens, so… they’re not going to screen me hard, so I ran through a screen, and he didn’t like it,” Barnes said. “You always gotta kind of watch out for your team, especially for your star point guard. They hit Steve (Nash) with a hard screen, they hit me earlier with a hard screen, so I just tried to run through his screen. I mean, the refs didn’t call a foul on me initially.”
When Nash was told that Barnes was basically sticking up for him, he smiled and said, “Matt’s a good teammate.”
Dwight Howard and the rest of the Magic will be thinking the same thing that Nash said once this season starts up. Combining these two with Dwight, Gortat, the return of the Magic’s own little tough guy, PG Jameer Nelson, and the rest of the Magic, is a recipe for success.
Toughness is what it takes to win a championship. With the veteran laden Spurs adding Richard Jefferson, the Lakers signing Ron Artest and retaining Lamar Odom, Boston getting Kevin Garnett back and signing Rasheed Wallace and the Cleveland Cavaliers acquiring Shaq, Orlando’s toughness will be tested. Barnes thinks that with Orlando’s new acquisitions, the Magic will pass these tests.
“I hope to be part of the toughness this team can have,” he said. “Brandon Bass is a tough player, too. I think I can be part of the difference (in winning a championship).”