No NBA team has gone through more plans in recent seasons than the Orlando Magic. Turn back the calendar just two-plus years, and the Magic was considered a possible Eastern Conference contender behind All-Star Tracy McGrady and promising forward Drew Gooden. That 2003-04 season, however, turned into a 21-61 disaster that got Coach Doc Rivers fired. New Magic GM John Weisbrod blew things up, trading McGrady to Houston for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato to put around #1 overall pick Dwight Howard and Grant Hill, able to return after his troublesome left ankle cost him basically his first four years in Orlando. Under Coach Johnny Davis and Assistant Coach Paul Westhead, the Magic looked to run, run, run. That worked for two months, as Orlando started a surprising 15-10, but a perceived defensive deficiency led Weisbrod to deal Mobley to Sacramento for Doug Christie. When Christie's own left ankle began acting up, he was able to play only 21 games for the Magic. The team fell apart, with a six-game losing streak in mid-March costing Davis his job. Inexperienced Chris Jent was promoted as interim head coach, but he couldn't stop the slide and Orlando ended the season 10 games below .500 and in disarray.
This summer, Dave Twardzik and Otis Smith took over the Magic as co-assistant GMs and attempted to right the ship. Brian Hill, the most successful coach in franchise history during the team's mid-1990s heyday, was brought back as head coach. Orlando was dealt a blow when first-round pick Fran Vazquez decided to remain in Spain instead of coming over to join the team. The Magic did add free-agent point guard Keyon Dooling, giving them more flexibility to use Francis at off guard.
Hill's biggest change was to slow down the Magic, who played one of the NBA's fastest paces under Davis and fast-tempo guru Westhead. Orlando's pace was the slowest in the NBA in terms of possessions per game for much of the first two months, leading to a belief that the Magic's defense was better. In reality, while Hill slashed his team's points allowed per game, on a per-possession basis the improvement was marginal. Orlando is currently 19th in the NBA in Defensive Rating, down from last year's ranking of 18th. (This SI.com column goes into more detail on the discrepancy between points per game and per possession.)
On offense, the Magic has slipped from 21st in the league in Offensive Rating to 25th. The big reason for this change has been the health of Grant Hill. While his ankle is okay, Hill missed the first 19 games of the season after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia and has missed three of the last four with a strained groin. He is not expected to play tonight. With Hill on the floor, the Magic's Offensive Rating has jumped from 102.5 points per 100 possessions to 109.1, which would put them in the NBA's top ten in offense.
One-time Magic Assistant Coach Bob Hill (who worked under his namesake, though the two are not related) makes his KeyArena debut as Sonics head coach this evening. Getting back home will be good for the Sonics, who made progress towards playing Hill-style basketball on the road but were done in by fatigue after several hard practices during their five-game, nine-day trip. Look for the Sonics to try to impose their style of pace on this game by pushing the ball and looking for the fast break when the opportunity is there.
G U A R D S
In Hill's absence, the Magic has gone small, inserting point guard Jameer Nelson into the lineup. It's a temporary move, but Nelson clearly deserves more playing time in his second season. In five starts, Nelson has averaged 16.0 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds. For the season, he's posted a solid 54.5% True Shooting Percentage. The consensus National Player of the Year as a senior at St. Joe's, Nelson is developing into a very solid professional. Luke Ridnour should have a quickness advantage on Nelson that he may be able to exploit. Ridnour had nine points, six assists and three steals Monday at Philadelphia in a solid performance.
Francis continues to be something of an enigma in Orlando. Is he a point guard? Is he a shooting guard? As it did when Jeff Van Gundy slowed down the pace in Houston, Francis' scoring average has plummeted this year to 17.0 points per game. But Francis is still playing well; his 44.9% shooting from the field is nearly a career high. Francis has eschewed the perimeter more than ever before, hitting only 10 3-pointers all season. But he had 35 against the Sonics last January in Orlando as the Magic won in a rout. Ray Allen topped 30 points in both matchups with the Magic, including 38 points in Seattle's home win in March.
F O R W A R D S
Expected to be bumped from his starting spot by either Dooling or Nelson, DeShawn Stevenson has instead held on to start all 32 games for the Magic. Stevenson is a rare NBA breed, a specialist in long two-pointers. Stevenson has attempted only two 3s all season, but is shooting 45.9% from the field and averaging a career-high 11.9 points per game. At 6-5, Stevenson can usually hold his own at small forward, but he'll have a tough time tonight against the Sonics 6-10 Rashard Lewis. The Magic held Lewis to 16.5 points per game on 41.4% shooting last year in two matchups, but that was against Grant Hill.
The rock during the last year and a half for the Magic has been the youngest player on the roster, 20-year-old Howard. The youngster has quickly justified being the third (and last) player in NBA history selected out of high school with the first overall pick of the draft. Howard averaged a double-double as a rookie and has been even better this year, posting 14.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Still not a go-to player on offense, Howard is a force in the paint. This will be the toughest matchup yet for Sonics forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who has started four games at power forward. But the Magic doesn't want Howard chasing Radmanovic around the perimeter and may match up small with the Sonics by playing Howard at center.
C E N T E R
With incumbent Cato suffering through a miserable injury-plagued season, Tony Battie has stepped in at center to start all 31 games, his first starting role since 2002-03 in Boston. A solid player who knows his role, Battie is shooting 50% and has averaged 12.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. Sonics center Johan Petro has the athleticism to contend with either Battie or Howard. Petro scored a career-high 10 points for the second time in the last three games in Philadelphia and has been very active for the Sonics since being promoted to the starting lineup.
B E N C H
Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu (right) has started 19 games this season, but has mostly come off the bench since Hill's return. A versatile forward who can handle the ball and is known for his shooting, Turkoglu is hitting 37.6% of his 3-point attempts and averaging 12.1 points per game. Veteran forward Pat Garrity tore his right ACL last April but was able to make a quick return to the court this fall. Garrity has attempted more than half of his shots from downtown and is hitting them at a 36.5% clip. Cato returned from a bruised left shoulder to play some limited minutes in last night's loss to the L.A. Clippers, while Dooling is expected back in the lineup tonight after playing just six games all season. Stacey Augmon, now in his 15th NBA season, remains Orlando's best perimeter defender and could see some action against Allen and Lewis. Bob Hill's rotations have been consistent in the first half thus far, but he's done gone small after falling behind in the second half the last two games. Ronald "Flip" Murray (left) gets plenty of run either way and could be part of a three-guard lineup to counter Orlando's three-guard attack. Robert Swift has had consecutive strong games, totaling 10 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes. Hill is looking to get Nick Collison going after a recent slump that has seen him shoot just 35.3% in the month of January.
USELESS STAT OF THE DAY
Hill and Hill have split four previous meetings as head coaches.
The Sonics hosted the Magic on Mar. 18 in the debut of Interim Coach Chris Jent. Playing without regulars Danny Fortson, Jerome James and Radmanovic, the Sonics struggled at times against a reeling Magic team, and the game was taut throughout the first three and a half quarters. The Sonics pulled away in the final five minutes, pushing their lead to 90-83 with 2:22 to play. The Magic had a chance to get back within two or three with just over a minute remaining, but Hill missed a shot and Antonio Daniels scored to give the Sonics an insurmountable advantage. Orlando got no closer than six the rest of the way, the Sonics winning 98-90. Allen tied his season high with 38 points, shooting 12-for-21. Collison, making just his third career start, had a double-double (11 points, 10 boards). Francis led Orlando with 19.
Orlando - Guard Keyon Dooling (plantar fascia, right foot) is probable. Forward Grant Hill (strained groin) is out.
For more analysis before tonight's game, listen to David Locke on the Sonics Pregame Show starting at 6:20 on KJR 950 AM and 6:30 on Sonics Radio Network stations. After the game, Robert Swift will join Locke on the Postgame Show.