(Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Last week I talked about the impressive start of the Boston Celtics. After rattling off eight consecutive wins to start the season, the Green Machine grounded to a halt on Sunday, thwarted by the new-look Magic. An emerging young team in the extremely soft Southeast division of the Eastern Conference, Orlando looks like a lock to make the playoffs this year after finishing below .500 last season. They had just about as busy an offseason as any team in basketball outside of those Boston Celtics. Orlando made waves by signing Rashard Lewis, the marquee free agent of the offseason and a player whose outside game is the perfect complement to the interior banging of man-child Dwight Howard. They also re-upped Jameer Nelson with a big five-year deal, let Darko Milicic walk, brought in Billy Donovan, watched Billy Donovan walk, brought in vacuum-cleaner-salesman-turned-NBA-coach Stan Van Gundy, watched Grant Hill walk to Phoenix, and hired Patrick Ewing (who had a lot of success with Yao Ming in Houston) to coach Howard. So far, so good.
Orlando is now 9-2, with their only losses coming against perennial title contenders Detroit and Phoenix. They’re riding the superhuman presence of Dwight Howard on the block, who has blossomed into the best big man in the Eastern Conference at the age of 22. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 14.3 boards and 2.4 blocks on 57.5% FGs. Who said the true center is a dying animal? Meanwhile, Howard’s new partner in crime has been every bit as good as advertised. Rashard is averaging 21.2 points, 4.8 boards, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.3 threes (!) on a tidy 51.4% FGs, 85.4% FTs, 48.2% three-pointers with just 1.8 TOs a game. That’s efficiency. And with all the attention those two draw, Hidayet Türkoğlu has also stepped up as a solid option on offense, averaging 17.4 points, 6.0 boards and 3.6 assists a game while hitting 1.8 threes per.
Unfortunately, we’re not completely sold on Jameer Nelson. Orlando has committed to the young man as their quarterback of the future, but he could end up holding them back. It seemed like a mistake to give him all that money before the season when Nelson was coming off a disappointing campaign where he averaged just 13.0 points and 4.3 assists on 43.0% FGs. Nelson is a solid ballhandler who can take it to the rack and makes some nifty passes. However, he’s also a better scorer than distributor, lacks a quality outside shot and is simply too small to guard many of the NBA’s elite points. At just 6’0″ tall, Jameer gets pushed around all over the floor by bigger, savvy guards like Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Gilbert Arenas and Dwyane Wade. I’m a huge Lewis and Howard fan and I’m pulling for these guys, but I just can’t escape the feeling that they’ll only go as far as Nelson can take them.
Up and Down Game
Rajon Rondo: Rajon Rondo is shooting a putrid 47.4% FTs and that drives his ranking down, but he only attempts 2.1 free throws a game so it really doesn’t affect your bottom line that much. Meanwhile, he’s playing within the flow of the offense and not forcing his shot outside, which has allowed him to shoot a fantastic 57.5% FGs. That paired with his 4.8 assists and 1.9 steals makes Rondo a very strong PG option for teams gunning for FG%. He’s also been piling up assists in recent games, something that should continue as he gels with the new stars.
Sean Williams: Williams has undoubtedly been added in all competitive leagues, or should have been, and now that he’s in the starting lineup expect his strong play to continue. The Nets have been searching for a dynamic presence around the basket since the departure of Kenyon Martin, and the rookie looks more than capable of providing it. He’s a high-energy player who flies to the basket on both ends and will be a major source of blocks. Character concerns bumped his stock down before the NBA draft, but before his suspension Williams was the best shot blocker in the country and he has 16 rejections over the last five games. Expect the offense to come, too, because Jason Kidd makes anybody who can run and jump look good.
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