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Stan Van Gundy's Star Search

10/20/2009

An early theme of these Finals has been bad Magic guard play. The needs are many -- Rafer Alston's shooting, J.J. Redick's finishing, Jameer Nelson's timing and Courtney Lee's aggression -- could all use improvement.

All have looked skittish compared to how they played just a week or two ago. There could be a thousand reasons for this, but the most obvious one has a mustache and prowls the sidelines. As has been written, Stan Van Gundy's improv comedy guard rotation could give every guard a victim complex, after sitting when they would normally play -- even while watching the team lose two in a row.

For instance:

  • Jameer Nelson took baby steps towards regaining his regular season All-Star form, but sat a little after half-time and never returned.

  • Rafer Alston, the starting point guard, has been fully randomized throughout the first two games.

  • Courtney Lee sat for 38 of 48 minutes before being asked to go from deep bench to maximum intensity, walking into Finals crunch time on the road. Had Mickael Pietrus not fouled out, it seems Lee wouldn't have played another minute. Instead, he's the guy with the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

  • Meanwhile, Anthony Johnson has been solid in the playoffs, but has yet to play in this series. Tyronn Lue, as a Laker, was a key contributor to the Lakers' 2001 title -- he was the Iverson-stopper -- but isn't even on the active roster for the 2009 Magic.

On top of that, the Magic have been notably effective with small forward Hedo Turkoglu handing the ball as all Alston, Nelson, Johnson, and Lue look on.

The problem of too much talent is, of course, no real problem at all. Only the best teams wrestle with this. And in this instance, the underlying cause is the Magic's brilliance and guts; When Jameer Nelson had what seemed like would be season-ending shoulder surgery, the Magic were in the mix near the top of the East. Instead of waiting for next year, they did what a lot of front offices wouldn't: They rolled the dice by acquiring another point guard, Alston, to help them take advantage of this season's championship opportunity.

It worked beautifully, as Alston played some of his best basketball, and the Magic defied Vegas to make the Finals over the defending champion Celtics and the favorite Cavaliers. There were many potential downsides to such a move: Maybe Alston would upset the team chemistry. Maybe the players would not mesh. Maybe you'd miss the assets you gave up to essentially rent another team's point guard for a time.

An irrational fear would have been: Maybe Nelson will return in the Finals, and an excess of point guards will infect the rotation with skittishness and doubt.

In other words, the Magic made good choices, but unlikely things happened (Nelson returned early, the Magic played into June). Van Gundy and the guard corps are left to juggle the excess pieces.

Some begrudge Van Gundy's unwillingness to make Jameer Nelson disappear, allowing the Magic to resume the form that destroyed the Cavaliers. When things get complicated, there's sometimes an urge to pine for simple times.

But sometimes, that urge to simplify is crazy. (For all the hassles and problems sudden riches tend to cause lottery winners, would any of them really be best advised to give the money back?)

It's a rare coach indeed who would watch Rafer Alston play poorly, and yet ignore a game-ready -- if rusty -- All-Star point guard with a knack for sticking it to the Lakers.

So Van Gundy has done something perfectly reasonable: He has experimented. It may seem like a crazy time to experiment, but how else to know how his new roster works against a new opponent?

Is it wrong?

That depends on your beliefs. Is it a player's job to be ready to play at their best at any time, giving the coach leeway to use any lineup at any time? Or is it a coach's job to build a player's confidence (for instance by playing them early if planning to count on them late) to have them playing their best?

It's worth pointing out that fairly dramatic swings in playing time have been part of the Magic's post-season thus far. (Ask Redick, who is on the "every other series" plan.) And don't tell me that Phil Jackson is the role model of stability here -- a recurring thems of his career is his willingness to try different lineups to see what will happen.

He even tinkered like that during last year's Finals. Of course, we all know how that experiment ended.