As important as Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis were in navigating Orlando to the Finals last season, the Magic may not have even been in position to run through the Eastern Conference were it not for Jameer Nelson.
After four seasons of promising, but inconsistent, play the Magic point guard put together an All-Star season last year, averaging a career-high 16.7 points per game while dishing 5.4 assists. Equally important, Nelson connected on 45.3 percent of his three-point attempts, helping expand a Magic offense that began the season 36-11. Less than two weeks before joining Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and friends in Phoenix, however, Nelson separated a shoulder, sidelining him until the Finals. The rust he had accumulated during rehab, and a Lakers team that won 65 games last year, sent Nelson and his teammates home on a losing note.
Next season, Nelson will direct a new-look Magic featuring recent additions Vince Carter, Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass. The Magic face the challenge staying atop the East with a retooled Cleveland and a healthy Boston breathing down their neck. Still in the midst of the offseason, Nelson took a few moments to assess the season that was and the possibilities of the campaign to come with SI.com.
SI.com: What did you and the Magic learn from last season's Finals run?
Jameer Nelson: That you have to believe to achieve. You can't go out there and do something if you really don't believe you can. No one thought we were going to make it past the Sixers when we went down in the series. No one believed we could beat Cleveland. And if you look at the Lakers series, you've got two plays -- one in which I didn't close out on Derek Fisher and the one where Courtney Lee missed the alley-oop -- that would have made a different series. If those plays would have been turned around, the series would have been 3-1 us.
It takes a big commitment on and off the court. People don't understand that we go through the same things the normal human being goes through off the court.
SI.com: Many of us in the media debated whether or not coach Stan Van Gundy should have played you coming off of an injury or Rafer Alston. How did you deal with the constant speculation?
JN: It didn't bother me at all. I don't listen to the media. That's not a knock, but they are not why I am playing basketball. I'm playing to win a championship, to win a lot of championships. Playing time and who gets shots that's not up to me. If coach puts me in for 30 minutes I play 30 minutes; if he puts me in for three minutes I play three minutes. I can guarantee you I'm not going to come out of the game complaining about any one minute that I didn't play.
SI.com: What was the hardest part of coming back from the injury in the Finals? The stage, the competition, something else?
JN: Mentally, when you're injured and they tell you you're out for the year, you sort of check out. Physically, I look at myself as an elite athlete, a guy who can pretty much do anything, so athletically I was fine. Basketball-wise, I just had to get my mind prepared. I knew I wasn't going to be the guy who made the All-Star team. You just have to face reality and do what you can. I don't think I played badly; I think I did what I could do under the circumstances.
SI.com: In previous summers, you've organized team workouts near your home in Pennsylvania. Will it be business as usual this summer?
JN: We're trying to piece it together because our team was in transition. For the most part, the big guns have committed -- Vince [Carter], Dwight [Howard] and Rashard [Lewis]. After those guys have committed, no one can really back out unless they have some type of serious issue.
This year we're doing it from the 16th through the 22nd of August. We do it at the same facility every year, same gym at Haverford College. We'll work out with my trainers -- conditioning drills, weightlifting, stuff to get your body right. The basketball stuff we do is later in the afternoon. We do that for about 2-3 hours.
Afterward, we'll mix up the nightlife. We always do a dinner. Other days we'll do paintball or bowling, maybe go to the movies.
SI.com: As you said, the Magic were in transition this summer, and no change was bigger than losing Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto and bringing in Carter. Are you surprised that Hedo didn't return?
JN: We all wanted him back, but we all know this is a business and we wanted Hedo to make the best decision for him and his family. I support his decision. He'll be a friend to me no matter what, and I'm going to support him, other than when we play him.
SI.com: How will the team look different with Vince in and Hedo out?
JN: It won't really be different. Both of those guys have the ball in their hands a lot. They both make plays. Vince is probably a better athlete, but they're both great shooters and great passers. So it's not like we are losing skills. They are pretty much equal in terms of their style of play. I think Vince will be that one player that we always needed.
SI.com: Adding Vince wasn't the only change. What will bringing Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass in mean?
JN: Matt spaces the floor out because he's able to shoot the three and he's also able to put the ball on the floor and handle his position [defensively] pretty well. At times I think we lacked that toughness. And in this case toughness means blocking out, toughness means taking charges, toughness means doing the dirty things, but in a legal way. I think those two guys bring that.
SI.com: How essential was it to bring back Marcin Gortat?
JN: He's a big piece to our puzzle. He never gets out of line. Obviously, he wants more playing time and wants a bigger role, and one day he's going to get that role. Right now, though, he's on a team that needs him to do a service. We're all out there getting paid to do something. Ultimately, the goal should be to win a championship; after that everybody should be satisfied and happy and ready to go win another one.
SI.com: Coaches often ask their players to work on improving some aspect of their game over the summer. Did coach Van Gundy ask you to work on anything?
JN: He wanted me to continue to work on my shooting. And he wanted me to know the player that I was in the championship wasn't the player that I am. He gave me some film assignments to watch to make sure my confidence didn't go away. I told him my confidence would never go away.
SI.com:Shaquille O'Neal made some headlines when he criticized your coach last season. And throughout the Finals, coach Van Gundy appeared on TV to be perpetually upset. What is it like to play for him?
JN: He's passionate in what he does. There are a lot of guys playing basketball just for the check and not for the passion. So for people to get mad or say he's silly, some of them need to look in the mirror. He's doing it because he wants to win. There are certain things you're not going to like. But if you have a coach who didn't yell and scream at you, you're still not going to like some of the things he's going to say. Our coach is not going to let you become complacent as a team or as a player. It's never good enough. And for me, he's a big part of why I became an All-Star.
SI.com: With the changes Boston and Cleveland made, do you foresee that Orlando will have to change its approach next season to defend the East crown?
JN: We're not concerned with any one team; teams are going to have to matchup with us. As we get better individually, our team gets better as a unit; that's the most important thing. It's not about what other teams have; it's about what we have and how we use it.
SI.com: Before you concern yourself with defending the Eastern crown, will you take any time for vacation?
JN: I went to the Bahamas and Cabo San Lucas with the wife and family. Even when we went on vacation, though, I was still lifting weights; you can't vacation forever.