Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
|2010-2011 regular season||Dwight Howard|
And so here we are.
Dwight Howard‘s evaluation.
Will he stay or go?
This time last year, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers had to endure the agonizing process of sitting around, waiting, wondering if LeBron James would stay with the team or go elsewhere. A week after free agency began, James made “The Decision” on July 8, 2010 and chose to sign with the Miami Heat, teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the process while leaving the Cavaliers to pick up the pieces. Only now, after finishing with the second-worst regular season record in the league and thus earning two of the top four picks in the 2011 NBA Draft, is Cleveland in a position to move forward and rebuild.
Soon it will be Howard’s turn to make a decision.
Don’t expect a public relations disaster from Howard any time soon when he eventually announces his intentions to the public concerning his future with the Orlando Magic. Up to this point, Howard has said all the right things when asked if he’ll remain a member of the Magic beyond 2012. Howard loves the city of Orlando but he wants to win, and ultimately he desires to align with a team that gives him the best chance at winning. Needless to say, general manager Otis Smith hopes that he is able to put the right pieces around Howard before it’s too late, so that the big fella wins with the Magic and stays. The Cavaliers tried to appease James at every turn and failed, witnessing him leave in the process.
Will Howard do the same thing to Orlando?
No one knows.
How did we get to this position in the first place? There’s an answer to that.
Let’s flashback to the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. Heading into the series, the Magic had home-court advantage and were favored to beat the Celtics and advance to the Finals for a second consecutive year. Questions about whether or not Smith made a mistake by making several personnel changes to the roster that made it to the 2009 NBA Finals were erased for the time being, as Orlando steamrolled through the second half of the regular season with a record of 33-8 and swept the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It was generally understood that the Celtics would offer stiff resistance to the Magic. Boston had Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace to throw at Howard, which allowed them to stay at home on Orlando’s shooters. Nevertheless, many believed that the Magic would persevere. That didn’t happen.
What did happen was a series loss that not only changed the direction of a franchise, but also the direction of a player.
A franchise changed
The direction of Orlando as a franchise didn’t change right away. However, losing to the Celtics laid the groundwork for an inexorable transformation.
Vince Carter, after a valiant effort in Game 1 in which he scored 23 points and kept the Magic afloat for most of the game before a fourth quarter comeback by the team fell short, choked in Game 2. There’s no other way to put it. Orlando had a chance to cut Boston’s lead to one point with 31.9 seconds left. All Carter had to do was make two free-throws but he missed both of them and the Celtics were able to escape with a victory, winning the first two games on the road and creating a mountain that was too tall to climb for the Magic in the series. Carter wasn’t the same after that, making a minimal impact for Orlando during the remainder of the Conference Finals.
Carter’s failure was the beginning of the end for him as a relevant player and for the Magic as a championship contender and an elite team. Carter would bounce back this season and post nearly identical numbers from his first year with Orlando but when push came to shove and the team needed to rely on him to give them a bucket in crunch-time situations, he couldn’t do it. Not for a lack of trying, mind you, but because Carter wasn’t the same guy he was with the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets. As such, Carter’s fall with the Magic was complete when Smith made the decision to undo the experiment, trading him to the Phoenix Suns in a seven-player deal, and bringing Hedo Turkoglu back.
As for Rashard Lewis, the Boston series did him in too. After torching the Bobcats and Hawks offensively, Lewis could do next to nothing against the Celtics thanks in large part to Kevin Garnett’s defensive efforts. Lewis did his fair share on defense and slowed down Garnett, which goes overlooked when looking back at that fateful series. But Orlando needed Lewis to bring it on offense and he didn’t. It was going to take a team effort to beat Boston in seven games. Unfortunately for the Magic, Lewis was unable to do his part.
Exacerbating the issue for Orlando was that Lewis carried over his offensive struggles into a new year, while also regressing on defense as well. Lewis contended that a lack of shots was the issue and while he had a valid point, given that his usage rate during the 2010-2011 season with the Magic was the lowest it’s been since his second year in the NBA, it’s a make or miss league and he was missing a lot. As such, Lewis’ regression as a player forced Smith to gamble and traded him to the Washington Wizards for Gilbert Arenas.
With Carter, Lewis, and other players like Matt Barnes gone, it’s easy to point to the Celtics series as the beginning of the end.
A player changed
The direction of Howard as a player didn’t change right away either.
Prior to this year, the most common criticism of Howard was that he didn’t have a post game. Howard’s performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals cemented that idea on a national scale, after getting criticized off the court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for having a predictable repertoire offensively while at the same time struggling on the court to score against the frontline of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Howard began to shed that label during the 2009-2010 season, relying more on his ability to score with his back to the basket than ever before. There were many games where it was clear that Howard was turning a corner on offense. But critics were skeptical and Howard didn’t do himself any favors when he struggled offensively against the Bobcats in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs, in large part because he was in foul trouble for a majority of the time during the series. Howard acquitted himself nicely against the Hawks, making mince meat of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia.
Then it was time for Boston.
At that point, Perkins was wildly seen as a Howard stopper because he had the requisite lower-body strength to push him away from his comfort zones in the paint. Howard didn’t do himself any favors by trying to score against Perkins with his strength rather than his athleticism. To aid Perkins in his efforts defensively was Wallace, another proven Howard repellant dating back to his days with the Detroit Pistons. Wallace was more crafty and used veteran savvy to quell Howard’s efforts. It’s no surprise then that, because of Perkins and Wallace, Howard struggled mightily in two of the first three games in the series against the Celtics. The critics were not surprised. As a result, the Magic were down 3-0 and staring at a sweep.
However, before Game 4, Hakeem Olajuwon offered words of wisdom to Howard during a phone conversation and from that point on, everything changed. The years of waiting for Howard to tap into his seemingly limitless potential as a player were over and Boston got a first-hand look.
It was too little, too late for Orlando in the series but not before Howard went down swinging. In Games 4-6, Howard finally began to figure things out on offense and there wasn’t much Perkins and Wallace could do to stop him. Howard’s mental block was gone and he played free and easy from that point forward.
Howard used his athleticism on Perkins, his strength on Wallace, and they were helpless to offer any resistance. The Magic eventually lost to the Celtics in six games but that series changed Howard forever, and he would further make use of Olajuwon’s assistance during the offseason.
Fast forward to now
There’s not much else to say that hasn’t already been said.
Howard improved leaps and bounds offensively, providing elite offense to go with his already-elite defense. Howard won his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, a feat never before accomplished by an NBA player, and a strong case can be made that he deserved to win MVP over Derrick Rose as well.
Howard had a season for the ages and it’s a shame that it was undermined by the inferiority of his teammates.
Magic fans — enjoy Howard while he’s still around.