Magic need better plan vs. zones

Struggling vs. zone defenses, the Magic is off to a stumbling start.

Updated: November 13, 2003, 11:46 AM ET
By Dr. Jack Ramsay | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Each week during the NBA regular season, Dr. Jack Ramsay makes a house call with an ailing team.

This week's team: Orlando Magic.

The Symptoms

The Orlando Magic stumbled out of their Friday night 100-71 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 1-5 record. Only the winless Miami Heat separate the Magic from the basement of the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division.

The Magic went 42-40 last season -- just good enough to make the playoffs, but erratic enough to lose to the Detroit Pistons after gaining a 3-1 lead in their opening-round series.

Howard
Howard

Lue
Lue
To prepare for this season, general manager John Gabriel signed free agents Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue, re-signed Andrew DeClercq and picked up draft choices that he liked (Reece Gaines, Zaza Pachulia and Keith Bogans -- from Milwaukee for cash). The Magic also allowed three free-agent point guards go to other teams. The popular energizer, Darrell Armstrong, signed with New Orleans; Chris Whitney returned to Washington; and Jacque Vaughn was picked up by Atlanta. But resident All-Star Tracy McGrady put his stamp of approval on the roster moves and expectations were high.

Coach Doc Rivers' team struggled from the outset, going 1-7 in the preseason and scoring only 83.5 points a game. Then, after winning the season opener 85-83 in New York -- an overtime game which the Knicks appeared to have salted away in regulation -- Orlando have lost five straight at home.

The preseason scoring woes have continued into the regular season. Prior to Friday, the Magic were averaging 87.2 points per game, shoot 37.6 percent from the field and are outrebounded 44.6-39.2 per game. Superstar two-guard Tracy McGrady scores 26.7 points per game, but is shooting just 38.6 percent from the field (including 28.6 percent from 3-point range). The hustling Lue does a satisfactory job handling the point and is a pesky defender (13 ppg, 2.8 assists to 1.6 turnovers per game). But Gaines has been a bust so far as his backup.

Howard, expected to give the team a much-needed inside presence, is scoring 12.8 ppg. But he's shooting blanks from the field (35.8 percent) and leads the team in turnovers. Drew Gooden (13.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg) joins Howard at forward, giving the Magic good size but limited speed inside. Rivers started rookie Britton Johnsen at center for the first three games but came back with 7-footer Steven Hunter (a 22-year-old in his third year) for the next two games. Neither is getting the job done.

What about the bench? With the exception of 19-year-old rookie Zaza Pachulia, the reserves are lacking thus far. At 6-11 and 250 pounds, Pachulia performed quite well against Chicago in his first NBA game (3-of-5 from the field, 7 points and 6 rebounds in 16 minutes). But reserves DeClercq, Gaines, Donnell Harvey and Shammond Williams have been glaringly unproductive (shooting less than 35 percent from the field).

The Diagnosis

Hill
Hill
Injuries are a factor. There was some wishful thinking that Grant Hill would play. But Hill, still rehabbing his damaged ankle, probably won't play this season ... or possibly ever again. Long-range bomber Pat Garrity has yet to play. And Gordan Giricek, an All-Rookie second-teamer last season, appeared in only the first two games.

But the plight of the Magic is due to more than a lack of personnel. There is an absence of purpose and energy at both ends of the floor. The offense has a sluggish flow and shuts down completely when teams focus their defenses on McGrady -- which all of them do. Some use zone alignments, others double-team him on the catch from their man-to-man sets. The result is that T-Mac if forced to take difficult shots and his passes to open teammates don't yield scores. Then, when Rivers rests his star for as little as five minutes a game, there's no one he can count on to score.

Team defense has also been inconsistent. The Magic's rebounding weakness turns into opponents' fast breaks and transition scores. Even Chicago, which was having as much difficulty scoring as the Magic, put 106 points on the board, shot 54 percent from the field and had 30 fast-break points.

The Magic had hoped for a strong start because of a favorable early-season schedule. But now, after Friday's home game with Minnesota, they face the challenge of playing six of their next seven on the road.

The Cure

Getting Garrity and Giricek back on the court will help, but the biggest factor in changing the course of the Magic's season will be to tighten their game on both offense and defense. Rivers and McGrady have blamed the NBA rules that allow zone defenses and free double-teaming for the team's lack of scoring -- but this is the third season those rules have been in effect. They aren't going away anytime soon.

It's time to stop complaining about them and to work out a system that can score. Other teams do it with good ball and player movement, without relying exclusively on jump shots. Doc Rivers must find an effective offensive scheme against all defenses.

If they turn their season around, as Rivers thinks they can, there will be a special satisfaction in the task accomplished.
The Magic must rebound better. There's enough size and ability among Howard, Gooden, DeClercq, Hunter and perhaps Pachulia for them to at least hold their own. Better rebounding would help the Magic in several ways. It would keep opponents from scoring second-chance points and, along with a renewed emphasis on quick transition defense, enable them to cut down on opponents' fast breaks. Stronger board work would also afford the Magic opportunities to run and get easy scores of their own.

Lastly, the Magic need to be mentally tough. Rivers, who has taken sharp criticism from the media, knows that he's on the hot seat. The players have heard boos and derisive catcalls from disgruntled fans. Unfortunately, that's part of life in professional sports. Rivers and his players must be strong enough to rise above that negativity. It can either destroy them or force them to bond together and focus on the challenges they're facing.

Nobody says that's easy to do. But if they turn their season around, as Rivers thinks they can, there will be a special satisfaction in the task accomplished.

Some smoke and mirrors might help the Magic, too.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Legendary coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay served as lead game analyst for The NBA on ESPN Radio. He also contributed to ESPN.com and ESPN The Mag.

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