How the '09 Magic ignited the 3-point revolution

Published August 18, 2023, 8:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

The Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic thrived in the late 2000s using a strategy that involved a lot of spacing and shooting.

Several teams get credited with revolutionizing the game to usher in the pace-and-space era. The “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns are recognized for playing small ball at a time when the biggest and baddest ruled the paint. The Golden State Warriors and their vaunted “death lineup” with no traditional center pushed the boundaries of how the game can be played. The “Greatest Show on Earth” Sacramento Kings and Nellie Ball Dallas Mavericks also come to mind as game-changing teams.

One team, though, is forgotten.

For a couple of years in the late 2000s, the Orlando Magic ran a system conceptualized by Stan Van Gundy that was radical at the time but seems so normal in today’s NBA.

State of the NBA

The Eastern Conference in the late 2000s was going through a transition. Traditional contenders like the New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons were getting older. Teams led by younger players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were slowly creeping into the championship picture.

Having a superstar like Wade and James was like a cheat code out in the East. Players with All-NBA talent were more often than not the best players in a series during a playoff run. And any team that has the best player in the series usually ends up advancing.

The Orlando Magic had their own stud in Dwight Howard, who was drafted in 2004. In only three years with Howard leading the way, they went from a lottery team to sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed.

What really supercharged the Magic and vaulted them into title contention was when they brought in Van Gundy in 2007. 

The lineup

In only three short years, Howard had developed from a promising rookie to a fringe All-NBA player capable of leading his young team to greater heights. It was clear that Howard had grown significantly and that Van Gundy needed to give him more room to expand his skill set.

That’s why Howard became the fulcrum of the Magic offense. He was the main target in all of their actions. With all eyes on their dominant big man, Van Gundy needed to find a way to give him all the space to operate without additional defenders getting in the way. That’s why he planned to surround Howard with capable shooters to help pull the defense away from the paint. 

The first option to surround Howard with was Hedo Turkoglu. The versatile forward wasn’t a dead-eye shooter by any means, but he was respectable, hitting 38.8 percent of his 3-point shots in the ‘06-’07 season. What made him so invaluable to the Magic was his ability to be a connector on offense. At 6’10”, Turkoglu could see over the defense from the perimeter and create opportunities for the rest of the team. He didn’t need a shot to make an impact offensively.

Next on the list was Jameer Nelson. The feisty point guard fought his way up the depth chart and became a starter alongside Turkoglu and Howard heading into the 2007 season. While he only hit 33.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, he made up for the inefficiency with his gutsy play and tidy playmaking.

The final piece of the puzzle wasn’t supposed to be a starter. The big man that was supposed to play next to Howard was supposed to be Tony Battie. But when Battie got injured before the 2007 season, Van Gundy rolled the dice on new acquisition Rashard Lewis to be the starter. 

Lewis was a proven scorer. He averaged 22.4 points on 39 percent shooting from 3-point land in the season before he joined the Magic. What was surprising was how he was able to hold the fort defensively playing the power forward position that wasn’t intended for him.

In the 2007-2008 season, Van Gundy’s first year with the team, these four combined for more than 69 of the team’s 104 points per game average that year. 

Howard, of course, led the way with 20.7 points, shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. Turkoglu was second in scoring, raising his average from the previous year by more than six points to 19.5 per game. Lewis’ numbers took a hit but he still scored 18.2 points, hitting 40.9 percent of his 3s. Nelson scored nearly 11 points while dishing out more than five dimes per game.

The aftermath

Just like Wade did in 2005 and James in 2007, the Magic led by their young superman in Howard made a surprisingly deep playoff run, which was ahead of even their own schedule for themselves. They knocked off a 62-win Celtic team in the second round of the 2009 playoffs before eliminating the league-leading Cavaliers who won 66 games that season.

In the end, they just couldn’t sustain their run. They lost a close five-game series to the eventual champions, the LA Lakers. But, even with that Finals loss, it seemed like the Magic had just announced their entry into the elite tier of the league.

Unfortunately, that Finals run was the highest they would reach with the same core. They were still a 50-win team in the next three seasons but key departures to their team, as well as a decline in play due to the age of some core players, led to disappointing eliminations in the succeeding playoffs. In 2012, the Magic effectively ended the Howard era in Orlando after they traded their All-NBA big man to the Lakers.

Looking back, that iteration of the Magic had a stellar run in the East. They made several solid playoff runs with the core of Howard, Turkoglu, Lewis, and Nelson. That was proof that the Four-Out system of Van Gundy worked. 

That’s why this Magic team has to be remembered. They took the baton from the SSOL Suns and ran with it to give Howard his most dominant run in the NBA by surrounding him with four perimeter players. They passed off that baton to the Curry-led Warriors who took it to a whole new level.