Friday, April 15, 2011

Q&A With Eddy Rivera of Magic Basketball

I answered some questions about the Hawks/Magic series for my TrueHoop Network colleague Eddy Rivera over at Magic Basketball. Here, he returns the favor.

Bret LaGree: The personnel changes are an obvious difference between the 2009-10 and the 2010-11 Orlando Magic. How have those changes changed the team and what else makes this season's team different from last season's team?

Eddy Rivera: I touched on that very topic at Magic Basketball. Here's what I wrote:
For all the scoring that Turkoglu, Richardson, and Arenas were to provide, Smith sacrificed defense, depth, and size to get it. As the Magic began to come down from earth offensively, it soon became clear that they got weaker. Even though Orlando remains third in defensive efficiency, thanks in large part to Dwight Howard and Van Gundy, when the big fella is on the bench, the interior defense has been compromised without the presence of Marcin Gortat. Depth, the Magic’s calling card last year, is nearly gone now that only J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson can be relied upon to contribute consistently. Free agent signees, Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon, have done little to help the cause. As for Orlando’s size, with Lewis and Gortat absent, they have gone from big to little. In the league, size is needed to win championships and the Magic had it with Howard and Lewis manning the frontcourt with Gortat, Bass, and Anderson coming off the bench. But the trades reshuffled things, and have put a lot of pressure on players like Howard to stay on the floor and avoid foul trouble. Earl Clark is an intriguing prospect, but he’s not a player that Van Gundy can rely upon and trust at the moment. Sure, it’s true that Mickael Pietrus, Lewis, and Carter are not playing right now due to various injuries but there’s no denying that Orlando isn’t the same team.
BL: Can Jason Collins really guard Dwight Howard effectively for four-to-seven more games?

ER: In my opinion, no.

That isn't to say Jason Collins can't guard Dwight Howard because he can. But it seems to be asking a lot from Collins to slow down Howard in a seven-game series, given that he committed a foul every six minutes in the regular season and a foul every five minutes when he played against the Orlando Magic. So if the Atlanta Hawks can only utilize Collins for roughly 20-25 minutes per game, that's going to put a lot of pressure on Zaza Pachulia to perform. The problem for the Hawks is that Pachulia can't defend Howard anywhere near the effectiveness of Collins, which means that head coach Larry Drew would have to make the calculate decision of allowing Howard to go nova or double-team him and relive the memories of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, though to a lesser degree.

And even if Collins is able to stay on the floor, Howard is probably going to figure him out sooner or later. Howard unlocked the key against Kendrick Perkins in the Eastern Conference Finals last year in Games 4-6 and didn't look back, and Collins isn't Perkins. Also, I doubt that Howard is happy to hear that Collins is the equalizer for the Hawks. Basically, there's a number of factors involved that's going to make things difficult for Collins to accomplish his task. If Collins can't get the job done and either Drew is forced to play Pachulia or his regular lineup with Al Horford at center and Josh Smith at power forward, then Atlanta is in trouble. It's amazing that the narrative surrounding the Hawks' chances of winning the series or making it competitive hinge upon Collins. Again, that's asking a lot.

BL: Related, how much of Atlanta's vastly improved defensive performance against Orlando this season is due to guarding the three-point line better and how much is due to Orlando shooting poorly over their four meetings?

ER: It's both.

Collins' ability to defend Howard one-on-one has created a trickle-down effect in which Atlanta is able to stay at home on the three-point shooters.

Even when Ryan Anderson is in the game, Horford's defensive mastery (when he's at the power forward position) doesn't necessarily give the Magic an advantage with a stretch four on the court. Collins' impact isn't so much against Howard but more so it allows the Hawks to not get burned on the perimeter.

The problem is that Orlando shot abnormally poor in the season series. In the four games, the Magic shot 22.9 percent from three-point range. Even taking into account Atlanta's improved efforts defensively, Orlando shot 36.7 percent during the regular season so regression of the mean is inevitable. Whether it actually happens is another thing altogether.

Honestly, it's quite possible that the Hawks are going to get a reality check. Nelson was absent for one loss and the Magic traded for Turkoglu, Richardson, and Arenas the day prior in another loss. In essence, two of Atlanta's three wins were contingent on a few factors that were in their favor. This isn't to say that the Hawks won't be competitive in the series because they will be. But there were a number of factors not in Orlando's favor during the season series and now that the team is at full-strength, it'll be interesting to see how things pan out.

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