If the Magic want to win the 2011 title,
Dwight Howard's time to dominate offensively must be now.
The discussion throughout the offseason has centered around the perimeter. Fans have wondered how the team will compete with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the perimeter. Fans have wondered whether Rashard Lewis should be moved to small forward to give the Magic the chance to bang around with the traditional power forward (i.e. Kevin Garnett) in the postseason (a debate that will surely last until April and May and has been ongoing). Can Vince Carter become the player he was in New Jersey and Toronto or at least something reminiscent of that player?
All those questions are important and will need to be answered.as the season progresses and ultimately answered in playoffs. But this season should be all about one thing. The on thing that could make or break Orlando's season:
This year needs to be Dwight Howard first, Dwight Howard second, Dwight Howard third and Dwight Howard all the time. As you may have noticed if you have been reading my analysis of the NBA blog previews, Howard factors into every potential matchup. Teams have to find a way to neutralize him in order to defeat Orlando. I think even Miami is concerned about how to stop Howard in order to defeat the Magic.
Boston showed the formula to beating Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. Namely, you have to single coverage Howard and force him to carry the offensive load to eliminate the Magic's potent shooters. And while Howard played better than he usually does against Kendrick Perkins and the Celtics -- he averaged 21.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game, but shot only 56.8 percent from the floor and 54.9 percent from the line.
During the season, Howard's raw offensive numbers took a hit. Part of that could certainly be attributed to Vince Carter's integration into the offense. But Howard saw his numbers dip to 18.3 points per game and his usage percentage dip from 26.1% to 23.9% and his PER drop from 25.4 to 24.0. Again, a lot of that can be attributed to Carter's arrival.
Howard did put up a league-high and career-best 61.2% eFG% and a career-high 63.0% True Shooting Percentage. Keep in mind those are stats that favor players who shoot and make 3-pointers and make their free throws.
Everyone in the league knows, Howard's time is coming.
For the Magic Howard's time must begin now.
Forget any concern for Vince Carter to become more assertive and effective. Forget concerns about whether Rashard Lewis can be more than a spot up shooter for $17 million a year. Forget concerns about Jameer Nelson's passing ability.
This season is all about Dwight Howard.
Howard has been the happy-go-lucky boisterous and somewhat sensitive superstar of the Magic. He has faced his share of criticism -- both warranted and unwarranted. His defense is unparalleled in this league. Everyone is just waiting for his offense to catch up.
It is time for Howard to become the offensive force the league has been waiting for him to become. Ben Q Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post did a very good job explaining Howard can be very effective in the post and be a primary option. But he will have to do more than he did last year and improve on his career-best 20.7 points per game he averaged in 2008.
This is something that has to happen for the Magic to push through and win a championship. Your superstar should be the one with the ball late in games and the one leading you in scoring and your most dependable option.
Obviously that means Howard must hit his free throws. And since his a big man, he will not be the option in all last-play situations.Orlando will also be looking to continue the balance that has been a trademark of this team.
But this is Howard's team, and he cannot let anyone forget about that. It is time to hold him accountable for the failures and successes of the season.
It seems like Howard has taken on that responsibility too. Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported Howard took the loss to Boston very personally and wants to prove he is ready to make that leap in his career.
Berger writes: "What has stung Howard all summer -- from the weight room to the practice court, where he's been known to shoot 1,000 jumpers a day -- is the humiliation he experienced at the hands of the Celtics at the end of May. That, more than anything, had Howard vowing Wednesday that his days of playing Mr. Nice Guy are over.
"'Losing the way we did to Boston, I think it kind of pissed me off to the point that I didn't want our team to be looked at as the team that lost to Boston the way we did,' Howard said. '[It was] the way we were viewed by the media, the way I was viewed.
"'I went from this nice guy to this goon or something like that. And I'm like, 'Hey, I'm playing basketball. If they're going to be physical, we're going to be physical.' People were saying our team wasn't physical and I didn't like that. I'm a physical player and I want my teammates to be the same way. If people are calling us a team that doesn't like to be physical, I don't like that.'"
Howard seems ready to shed that happy-go-lucky attitude. And become a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners player. A lot has been made about Howard's working out with Hakeem Olajuwon. A lot of people hope that will teach Howard to have confidence in some new post moves and counter moves to become a completely unstoppable force in the paint.
We all know Howard can do it. We saw him do it against Cleveland in Game Six of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. While Zydrunas Ilgauskas is not the center Howard will be going against all year, he certainly should be expected to average 20-plus points per game and be the crux of the offense.
So it is time to make this Howard's team on both sides of the ball. Orlando needs to know now whether the team can build an offense around him and through him. With Vince Carter coming off the books next year and Howard (and Rashard Lewis) due for extensions or renegotiations in two years, Otis Smith and the Orlando need to start planning their future.
Yes, a title is the goal. Yes, Orlando can still win the title.
But if the Magic fail to win a title, the franchise at least needs to learn if Howard can be that primary offensive option and change the game on that end like he can on the defensive end. It is time for Howard to make that leap offensively.
Many fans have complained that Orlando did not make a move for a superstar player through trades this offseason. One can claim that did not happen because the Magic believe Howard can be that type of offensive force and there are enough good players around him to support. So it is time to find out if Howard is that type of player.
With Carter being a free agent and the team at something of a crossroads, considering the loss to the Celtics last year and the rise of the Heat, now is the time for Howard to prove he belongs in the game's elite for something besides his defense.