Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
If you were to compare the current incarnation of Dwight Howard to any other player in NBA history, at least from a narrative-based perspective, the closest parallel would probably be post-Decision LeBron James. Like LeBron, Dwight was drafted straight out of high school, developed into a dominant superhuman, took his team to the Finals, couldn’t replicate that success, and ultimately, departed on the wings of a PR catastrophe to a hated superteam in a glitzier market.
LeBron, however, made the Finals in 2007 with a team heavily featuring the likes of Eric Snow and Drew Gooden; his subsequent failures in the years after that came with far superior teams. Dwight’s Finals team — the 2009 Magic –- may not have been good enough to win it all, but they were a fascinating and successful combination of players and personalities made possible only by the fella in the middle and his friend on the sidelines.
The plan was as simple as it was brilliant.
Even three years ago, when the complaints about his post game were based in fact more than ignorance, Dwight Howard was the sort of interior presence that weighed an entire court in his direction. Strong and agile, capable of elevating from any given spot and arriving with the ball at the rim, the premise was simple –- get Dwight either near the rim or rolling to it and you immediately solicit a response from all five defenders. It was within this defensive scramble that Orlando’s offense thrived and it was this constant set of circumstances that their personnel was set to exploit.
The team’s starting lineup was a perfect reflection of that philosophy.
Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu could run the pick-and-roll with Dwight and were well-versed at either finding him diving towards the rim or pulling up themselves for a jumper on the perimeter within the space that his movement created.
Rashard Lewis, the prototypical stretch four, would spot up off the ball, ready to benefit from the chaos by releasing a wide-open three.
Courtney Lee –- as were Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick when they came off the bench –- was an athletic swingman with a good outside shot who would fill the seams created by the constant ball movement without complaining about his role.
If the offense was a Dwight-centric system, full of pieces that could react and respond to what his sheer presence created, the defense was even more dependent on his performance –- and the results were even better.
Dwight commanded the paint, and though many of his teammates were limited defenders outside of it, the direction of Stan Van Gundy would send them flying out to the three-point line, preventing opponents from making shots worth one point more, while knowing that Dwight is behind them to cover for their eager close-outs. Howard played his part to perfection –- in 2009, he led the league in blocks and rebounds per game and was second in total rebound percentage and block percentage. And to top it all off, the Orlando Magic ranked first in Defensive Rating during the regular season. All those statistics allowed Dwight Howard to take home his first Defensive Player of the Year award.
The rise and fall of Jameer Nelson
Of course, what should have been the thing to put Orlando over the top, had he remained healthy during the season, was the unlikely emergence of a third All-Star on the roster. Next to Howard and Lewis, Jameer Nelson suddenly made a huge leap. In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss as an unlikely jump in shooting numbers –- over the 42 games he played, Nelson hit 45.3 percent of his threes and 52 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet, both insane marks well out of line of his career numbers – but at the time, it was a startling addition to a lineup that wasn’t lacking in firepower to begin with.
Nelson arrived in the league with Howard in 2004 and had since been an anchor in the Magic’s starting lineup, but in 2009, the chemistry was at its very peak. Jameer was virtually unguardable once Howard set him a pick –- going under screens was not an option with the way his shots were going down and though Nelson wasn’t an elite passing point guard, Howard galloping towards the rim was a target he was adept at hitting.
Perhaps nowhere was Nelson’s impact more obvious than in two games against the eventual champion Lakers during the regular season, when a still-breathing Derek Fisher was torched to the tune of 28 and 27 points respectively as the Magic notched a 2-0 season sweep.
And yet, it wasn’t meant to last. In the third quarter of an early February game against the Mavericks, Nelson suffered a torn labrum in his dislocated right shoulder. Out indefinitely eventually became a hurried return for the Finals, as Nelson never regained the form that made him just another point guard into an All-Star contributor.
Nelson was a vital piece to the puzzle, but the Magic moved swiftly, bringing in Rafer Alston in a deal at the trade deadline for virtually nothing to serve as their starting point guard. Alston was spectacularly unspectacular with Orlando, as he was for most of his NBA career –- huge threes, quirky passes, a loud mouth compensating for the more often misses, turnovers, and Eddie House slappings.
Alston played a ridiculous 740 minutes in 23 playoff games, a roller coaster of a ride in which he displayed inexplicable dominance to go with the sort of feebleness that makes you wonder if Orlando would have been better off playing Anthony Johnson. Rafer wouldn’t have it any other way.
The playoff narrative
The narrative wasn’t kind to the Magic come playoff time. Despite the third-best record in the East, Orlando entered the playoffs as somewhat of an unknown. They were one year removed from their first playoff series win of the Dwight Howard era (a 4-1 first round series win over the Raptors) and while clearly a team on the rise, the 66-win season submitted by LeBron and friends meant Eastern Conference narratives left enough room for Boston’s Garnett-less title defense and not much else.
The Magic’s first round series against the Philadelphia 76ers only enhanced that feeling –- after losing two close games in the first three games of the series, a Hedo Turkoglu game-winning three prevented overtime in Game 4 and perhaps a 3-1 series deficit. Even as an utterly dominant 24 point-24 rebound performance from Howard sealed Game 5, he swung an elbow into Samuel Dalembert’s head, earning himself a suspension for Game 6. The Magic ended up winning handily without him, but it was too hard of a series against too average of a team.
Similarly, the Boston series –- though a thrilling seven-game back-and-forth Eastern Conference Semifinal that involved countless close games, Glen Davis shoving a child, and the rare occurrence of a road team winning a Game 7 on Celtics soil (in a blowout, no less) –- did little to quench the feeling that the winner of the series was playing for second place.
As Orlando was dealing with a war of attrition, the Cavaliers were already well-rested after wrapping up back-to-back sweeps of the Pistons and Hawks, eight games that each ended in a double-digit victory for Cleveland. But it was against the Cavaliers that the true strength and unique build of the Magic would truly shine.
One half in during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the theories of doom seemed warranted. LeBron James was doing whatever the hell he wanted, picking up four assists in the first eight minutes of the game before raining down a thunderous array of dunks, jumpers, and athletic defensive plays.
(Random tangent — watching the film from 2012’s lofty perch is frightening, and not just because of how LeBron dominated that game. He looks like he legitimately doubled in size since 2009, and is displaying emotion that, if you joined the NBA in 2010, you had no idea he was even capable of. An absolutely jarring transformation.)
Delonte West and Mo Williams wouldn’t miss shots. The Cavs wrung up 63 points in the first half and though Orlando were no slouches with 48 of their own, 18 of them from the capable hands of Howard, but the Cavalier firepower seemed well on its way to a ninth straight playoff win.
And then, something funny happened: it stopped. Somehow, the easy looks became scarcer and less successful, as every James foray towards the rim ended with Howard in the middle standing between him and the rim. On the other end, Cleveland still had nothing to stop Howard and it was taking its toll on their defense in the form of open Orlando shooters. First Alston, then Lewis, and then Pietrus started an aerial three-point attack upon the rim, mostly created by initial Turkoglu-Howard pick-and-roll action that often paired two overmatched Cleveland defenders together.
With Nelson out, Turkoglu was the team’s best passer and pick-and roll-option, thus his chemistry with Howard was called upon constantly. Hedo did not disappoint (remember when those words still rang true?) -– he found the big man down low and his teammates on the wing, while still calling his number enough to expose his matchup against the undersized West, a result of LeBron playing Alston to reserve energy for carrying the Cavaliers’ offense. Turkoglu registered 14 assists, a simplistic yet fitting descriptor of his control over the game.
It’s often used in a cliché manner, but in this series, the first game really did set the tone for the series. Nothing the Cavs had in their pockets could stop Howard down low and the Lewis-Turkoglu combination meant that whichever one wasn’t guarded by LeBron (again, often both, as he spent much time on Alston) would be able to either shoot above or run away from their defender. As the big man doled out punishment early on, Turkoglu was given full control of the fourth quarter offense and Lewis was the off-ball trigger, either running off screens in cleverly designed plays or sometimes just taking advantage of broken plays.
Eventually, LeBron James doing it all seemingly by himself just wasn’t enough to keep it close anymore.
At home in Game 6, with a chance to close out the series, Howard dominated in every way possible. Again and again he would drive into the too-slow Ilgauskas or the too-small Varejao, getting to the rim at will, following his own miss in the rare case that there was one. It was the embodiment of the Superman persona, a physical specimen having every tool to obliterate those who thought themselves specimen as well. As the Magic clinched their second Eastern Conference title in franchise history, Howard left the court 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists richer than he was before.
What happened next, everybody knows –- the Magic played the Lakers in the Finals, losing Game 1 in a blowout, Game 2 because Courtney Lee couldn’t convert a layup (albeit a difficult one), Game 4 because the returning Jameer Nelson didn’t close out on Derek Fisher, and Game 5 because the series was over. Howard couldn’t exert the same advantages he had against Ilgauskas and Varejao while facing Pau Gasol, at the peak of his powers.
The Magic decided that they may have been close, but weren’t close enough, and gambled on Vince Carter instead of overpaying Turkoglu. The gamble failed and the franchise fell down an Otis Smith rabbit hole that they couldn’t climb out of.
But that Finals squad, although ultimately not successful, undisputedly changed the NBA. The three-pointer finally completed a three-decade journey from new-rule gimmick to a legitimate primary weapon. Rashard Lewis, an All-Star wing player in Seattle, became Rashard Lewis, All-Star power forward, essentially cementing the stretch four as a league-wide requirement.
Yet none of that happens without Dwight, the defensive blanket and offensive focal point. He was the anchor that stabilized a structure that should have collapsed at any given moment.
As he moves on to another point of his career with the Lakers ironically enough (the team he couldn’t beat in the Finals), with questions about his back, his approach, and his entire mental makeup, 2009 stands tall as proof that a system correctly built around Dwight is a force to be reckoned with.