With Howard onboard, Orlando ready to win
The biggest storyline - literally and figuratively - with the Orlando Magic is obviously the future of center Dwight Howard.
Staying? Going? If? When? It's been maddening to say the least.
If nothing else, Orlando fans can relax a little now. Howard waived the early termination option in his contract Thursday, just before the trade deadline, meaning he's in the fold in Orlando at least through next season... unless a desirable trade option surfaces.
But the latter won’t happen the rest of this season. Maybe in the summer, maybe next season, but not now. The Magic can go about the business of chasing an NBA title, which despite the Howard Circus, Orlando still has a shot at.
The Magic are firmly entrenched as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They likely won't win a division title (Miami is cruising along in the Southeast) but they should be able to take advantage of the NBA playoff format in which division winners are only assured a top four seed, not a top three.
That means Philadelphia, despite a first-place standing in the Atlantic Division, will likely not overtake Orlando for the No. 3 spot based on record. That leaves the Heat and the Bulls, and you can’t discount their depth, drive and determination.
But the Magic, with Howard in tow, have a shot to make things interesting.
Hanging with the big boys
Miami and Chicago have just 20 losses between them, through Thursday. Even in a shortened season, that’s pretty good. To have three wins against them is a feather in the cap and offers positive game film for Magic coach Stan Van Gundy moving forward.
Howard had 29 points and 18 rebounds as Orlando defeated Chicago 99-94 in the United Center on March 8, snapping the Bulls' eight-game winning streak. Bulls center Joakim Noah had nine points and 10 rebounds in the loss, but clearly showed that he couldn’t contain Howard in a seven-game series.
Howard stole the show again on Feb. 8, this time against Miami. He had 25 points and 24 rebounds en route to a relatively easy 102-89 victory in Orlando.
Those came before Orlando's thrilling 104-98 overtime win over Miami Tuesday.
It's easy to highlight the positives. Orlando also lost to Miami 90-78 on Feb. 19 and to Chicago 97-83 on Jan. 6. But when Howard is in the right frame of mind - and without trades dancing around his head – the Magic can battle those top two teams tooth and nail.
Delivering with depth
Give credit to Van Gundy for utilizing his numbers and somehow finding a way to keep everyone happy. That’s not an easy task in today's NBA (see the New York Knicks and former coach Mike D'Antoni).
Orlando has six players averaging double digits in scoring: Howard (21.2), Ryan Anderson (16.1), Jason Richardson (12.2), J.J. Redick (11.4), Hedo Turkoglu (11.2), and Jameer Nelson (10.3).
Richardson is out with an ankle injury, but those are quality numbers and a lot of those players are tested veterans adept at the grind of the postseason.
The wild card in all of this is Anderson, who averaged just 10.6 points last year. In his third season out of Cal, he’s enjoying a breakout. He's also averaging 7.8 rebounds and, at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he can be a disruption down low and forms a formidable tandem with Howard.
Value in Orlando
You may not get much for your buck around Orlando's tourism destinations, but you certainly can at the window. Hovering somewhere around 40-1 to win the NBA title all season, the Magic were down to 32-1 after news of Howard's decision soaked in. That's still a great price for a team that has as much balance and experience as Orlando.
But futures aren’t the only way to win with Orlando. The Magic, 24-20 ATS through Thursday, are doing OK daily as well. Heading into Friday's date with New Jersey, Orlando had covered in three of the last four games and has gone over in four straight, as well as seven of its past nine.
Not so hot versus Hawks
It's not all wine and roses with Orlando, though. There is concern that the current Eastern Conference structure will hold serve. As of Thursday, the Magic would take on Atlanta in a matchup of the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the first round.
The Hawks have had the Magic's number recently. Atlanta won 83-78 at home with Orlando as a 4-point favorite on Feb. 23. And on Feb. 10, the Hawks outlasted the Magic 89-87 in overtime at the Amway Center. Orlando was a 5-point favorite.
There's work ahead and who knows, Atlanta's not guaranteed that sixth spot. Indiana, above the Hawks now, can drop. Boston, below them now, could rise. But it's a word to the wise to monitor that matchup. Otherwise, there are plenty of positives surrounding Howard and the Magic.
Maybe that's why he's always smiling.