The Portland Trail Blazers have been something of a surprise this season. But to those who truly understood the potential of Weber State product Damian Lillard, their .500 record probably isn’t so astounding—at all. Lillard has emerged as the go-to choice for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, and paring the dynamic young playmaker with All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge has given the Blazers are very bright future.
The Magic hope to assemble some similar pieces to rebuild their team, but for all practical purposes we’re looking at a team in Stage II of a rebuild (Portland) and a team going from the ground up. The Magic have a few nice pieces, but nothing to rival the brilliance of Lillard or Aldridge.
What makes it more difficult is that the Magic team, which already is quite mediocre in talent, is missing several key players. The injuries to Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Aaron Afflalo have contributed to a 13 game losing streak. The futility is the worst since 2004 when the Magic lost games from Mar. 13 to April 10.
The loss to Cleveland on Friday night only accentuated the problems that the Magic have dealt with. They’ve had difficulty limiting penetration and keeping turnovers down, and the result was that Kyrie Irving and the Cavs feasted on the Magic’s weak interior defense. Nikola Vucevic is a force on the boards, but doesn’t block many shots and that will be one of the needs the Magic look to address this offseason in the draft or in free agency. The Magic rank No. 25 in the league in shot blocking, blocking just 4.7 shots per game.
And they’re just not effective at creating turnovers at all, for that matter. The Magic rank last in the league in forcing turnovers, with only 12.8 percent of defensive plays resulting in an opponent’s turnover. They rank last in the league in steals, too, with just 5.5 percent of plays resulting in a steal.
That lack of ball pressure means Lillard will likely have a big night, and Jameer Nelson has never been one known to have great lateral foot speed. The Magic experimented with Maurice Harkless on Kyrie Irving, and a similar strategy may be employed today. Harkless is emerging with potential lockdown defender abilities, and his length and speed could help to contain Lillard.
Something has to be tried. The Blazers shot 51.1 percent from the floor in the 125-119 OT victory over the Magic on Jan. 7, and Jacque Vaughn said to ESPN that “basketball…teaches you lessons every time…We complicate the game when it doesn’t need to be complicated…”
But such is the problem often with struggling teams. Struggles are over-analyzed, and while the Magic have been playing fairly well offensively, the remedies to improve their defense likely just boil down to the same things that always work: hustling for loose balls, effective rotations from double teams and playing good help-side defense.
To attribute the problems to anything bigger would run counter intuitive to Vaughn’s approach in saying the Magic simply need to simplify things to get to the heart of their struggle.
The Blazers have won four of the last five games against the Magic, and containing LaMarcus Aldridge will be key. He scored 27 in the January matchup and has averaged 24.7 points per game over his last three against Orlando. Aldridge is capable of having big nights, and his step back jumper is among the more difficult moves to stop from NBA power forwards.
Andrew Nicholson should get a lesson tonight in how difficult it can be to stop a player with a great skill set like Aldridge’s. Between Aldridge and rookie Damian Lillard, the Magic will have their hands full, and being 8-17 at home isn’t exactly intimidating to visiting teams, who often find a large portion of the Amway Center cheering for them instead of the home team.
So goes rebuilding. And so goes the Magic.
Will they lose their fourteenth straight today?