Believe in the Magic

Orlando and the rest of their division are bringing a little Southern exposure to the NBA.

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Very quietly, the Southeast Division is making an uprising in the NBA.

Long thought to be the weakest of the six divisions, all five teams are turning heads. In the last week, the two worst teams in the division, the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards, have pulled stunning upsets. Last Sunday, the Wizards downed their hated rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 80-77. Then on Tuesday, the Bobcats slaughtered the NBA Champion Boston Celtics—ahem, the slumping Boston Celtics—114-106. The Miami Heat, a team that won only 15 games last season has won 18 already, and their victims include formidable teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Teams used to look forward to some fun and relaxation on a road trip into the Southeast; clearly they will have to hunker down harder when playing at Charlotte, Miami and Washington. But all the “focus” in the world may not be enough when their itinerary includes Atlanta and Orlando. As the season nears the midpoint, the Orlando Magic (28-8) and the Atlanta Hawks (22-12) are looking like the fastest up-and-comers in the NBA. A lot of hoops fans have circled Friday night’s Cavaliers-Celtics battle, but they shouldn’t sleep on the Orlando-Atlanta matchup. The tenor of the Southeast Division race will be decided this weekend, and both teams figure to play deep into the playoffs.

It’s not as if we shouldn’t have seen this Southern uprising coming. The Magic went 52-30 last season and their point differential—always a good predictor of future performance—put them on par with a team that won 56 games. Their nucleus features the best young big man in the game, Dwight Howard, two lanky forwards, Hedo Türkoğlu and Rashard Lewis, who are still in their prime, and a bevy of young backcourt players. In other words, all indicators pointed toward improvement.

Unlike the Lakers and Cavaliers who are highlight-clip machines with their high-powered offenses, the Magic are the kind of elite team that must give producers at ESPN and NBA TV fits. Aside from the occasional thunderous Howard dunk or last second shot by Türkoğlu, there isn’t anything flashy about Orlando. They win with defense, and it isn’t the sound-bite-friendly variety. Instead, the Magic smother opponents, getting in their grill and forcing them to take bad shots, which Howard usually rebounds. The Magic lead the league in opponent’s effective field-goal percentage (a metric that factors in the risk/reward ratio of shooting three pointers). And they are among the top five in fewest free throws allowed per 100 shots, and you have an incredibly unsexy but lethally effective defense.

On offense, the Magic are very predictable yet hard to stop. They spread the floor with Lewis, Türkoğlu, point guard Jameer Nelson spotting up along the perimeter daring teams to double Howard in the paint. If they don’t, he punishes defenders. If they do, the Magic marksmen take aim. The only chink in the Orlando armor is that they aren’t an elite offensive rebounding team. This means they should be active at the trade deadline for someone like Oklahoma City’s Joe Smith or Philadelphia’s Reggie Evans.

Orlando is going to get tested this weekend with games against Atlanta and at San Antonio, but the Magic passed their last test with flying colors. In mid-December, they won four out of five on a west coast road trip then came home to beat the Spurs and Lakers before demolishing the New Orleans Hornets on Christmas Day. While the attention in the Eastern Conference is focused on Cleveland and Boston, Orlando might be the team to represent the conference in the finals.

The biggest obstacle to Orlando’s ascendancy is their new-divisional rival, Atlanta. Whereas all basketball fans should have forecast Orlando’s rise, only Hawks fans—there used to be few, but now Philips Arena gets really loud—could have forecast Atlanta’s upward mobility. Yes, the Hawks took the Celtics to a game seven in their first-round series last year, but few thought that to be anything but a fluke. The Celts won four blowouts at home, and the Hawks nipped Boston three times in Atlanta. Last season, the Hawks (36-46) didn’t so much make the playoffs but were included, since the rules dictate that eight teams from each conference get to go. Only Hawk die-hards would have claimed that their team was one of the top 16 in the league. Most analysts would have been hard pressed to rank Atlanta higher than 20.

This year is different. Despite losing super-sub Josh Childress to a more lucrative contract with a team in Greece, Atlanta has improved markedly. They won 20 games before January for the first time in more than a decade, and a new offensive design is entirely responsible for the change. The Hawks now spread the floor effectively, and they shoot threes. Last season, the Hawks took the third fewest three-point shots in the league, averaging just over 13 per game. This season they rank among the leaders, with more than 21 per contest. Kevin Pelton’s excellent recent article at Basketball Prospectus illustrates a strong correlation between shooting threes and winning. After all, your offense is a lot more efficient when you’re scoring three-point baskets every three or four possessions while keeping the other team to two-pointers.

Although the Hawks are for real, they don’t look like an elite team just yet. Their defense is still porous, and the ownership situation needs to be resolved so that the team can make long-term personnel decisions. Right now, they look like a tough first-round matchup for the Detroit Pistons and a tough out in the second round if they win. No one will call it a fluke. Earlier this season, the balance of power shifted in the NBA from west to east; now the South is on the come-up.