FOR THE MAGIC to improve on last year's success, when it won the division title and advanced to the conference semifinals, no player is more pivotal than 6-foot Jameer Nelson. The departure of free-agent guards Carlos Arroyo, Keyon Dooling and Maurice Evans means that Nelson will have to bear even more responsibility in the backcourt. To that end, he spent the off-season developing his weak hand and dedicated himself to fulfilling coach Stan Van Gundy's team-wide mandate for more physical play at both ends. "He's capable of being an outstanding player," says Van Gundy. "A lot of it is just consistency and coming with a high energy level every night."
Nelson will have some help in the energy department: Orlando signed former Warriors swingman Mickaël Piétrus, whose athleticism and determined defense make up for a streaky shot. For scoring the Magic will continue to rely on a frontcourt that features the electric inside play of Dwight Howard, the perimeter precision of Rashard Lewis and the clutch shooting of Hedo Turkoglu. Though Nelson has proved to be a capable facilitator—he had the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7 to 1) of his four-year career in 2007--08—he will have to assert himself more if his team is to reach its first Finals in 15 years.
When asked about his willingness to carry a greater load, Nelson merely points to the tattoo that stretches across his back in big block letters: all eyes on me. "My team has confidence in me," he says. "I wouldn't be in this position if they didn't."
A rival scout on the MAGIC: The biggest difference is they're now the hunted rather than the hunter. Last season they caught some people off guard.... Rashard Lewis changed the way teams defend Orlando. Most teams want to double Dwight Howard, but they couldn't help off Lewis, who was able to create mismatches on the perimeter as a power forward.... Hedo Turkoglu could always shoot the ball, especially as a trailer or a pick-and-pop guy. Last year he became more aggressive about getting to the line, and that made him really hard to guard.... Early last season it looked as if Howard had improved his jump shot, but then he went back to being more of a 10-foot-and-in guy. Until he proves he can kill you with it, teams are going to give him the 15-footer.... Mickaël Piétrus gives them a guy who can run and stay with Rip Hamilton types. But Piétrus never got consistent minutes in Golden State, so something must be missing.... Courtney Lee looks like a good pick. At 6'5" he has nice size, and he can shoot off screens.
The Magic made at least five three-pointers in all 82 games last year; extending the longest streak in league history to 83. The previous record was 58 games, by the Pacers during the '07--08 season.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics