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RACE TO THE MVP
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Free throw shooting and blocked shots are two stats that are down this season for Dwight Howard.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Magic's Howard still looking up at elite tier of players

By Frank Hughes, for NBA.com
Posted Dec 11 2009 3:14PM

It's been a difficult month down there in Orlando, from Tiger Woods' "transgressions" -- which The Race thinks might be the same as "confessions" -- and Shaquille O'Neal's divorce. An impressionable young kid like, say, Dwight Howard, might wonder what the heck is going on.

Fortunately for Howard, the Orlando Magic have been on an extended road trip for much of the past week. He hasn't had to see the paparazzi invade his town and loot the souls of America.

It's been the perfect opportunity for Howard to focus solely on his profession -- which has allowed him to once again be thrown squarely into the mix of the MVP discussion.

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Before Thursday night's loss to the Utah Jazz, the Magic had won seven consecutive games and were atop the Eastern Conference with the Boston Celtics, in no small part because of Howard's mammoth contributions. He is averaging 18.4 points and 12 rebounds. He has had double-doubles in nine of his past 11 games, including 25 and 12 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

That is not to say, however, that El Capitan is infallible. Believe it or not, he has a long way to go to be considered among the upper tier of players, a place reserved for Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo and Dirk.

The reason, frankly, is the folly of youth -- and not the type of follies being played out over there at Isleworth, Tiger's neighborhood.

During a trip to Golden State last week, Howard had 12 points in the first quarter against a woefully small Warriors team. He was simply getting the ball, turning and overpowering anybody around him because they were that much smaller. But then he started to pick up silly fouls. Second-year forward Anthony Randolph somehow figured out that he could draw offensive fouls on Howard by flopping when Howard motored to the basket.

Instead of making adjustments, Howard refused to believe the refs were making the calls and kept being called for fouls. He ended up on the bench for a long stretch.

Against Utah Thursday night, Howard dominated the paint in the first half, when the Magic were cruising along to what should have been their eighth straight win. Then Paul Millsap made a big block on Howard, enlivening the home crowd, and the Jazz made a run. Suddenly, Howard lost his composure and started getting in foul trouble again, picking up another five and falling apart when things went badly.

It has happened often this season, one reason that Howard's numbers are all slightly down. His 12 rebounds a game are 1.8 fewer than he had last season. His 18.4 points are 2.2 less than he averaged last year. His blocks have declined from 2.9 to two. His turnovers have increased slightly.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy says Howard's numbers are a direct result of the time he has spent on the floor. Because of the foul difficulties, Howard has been on the floor 2.2 minutes less than last season and four minutes less than the year before that. Van Gundy looks at Howard's stats on a per-48-minute basis.

"Really the only number, when you adjust for minutes, that is down is blocked shots," Van Gundy said. "I don't think he has done a great job defensive helping early on. But that is starting to come back."

Van Gundy also said that because the Magic now have added Vince Carter, and they have so many other offensive weapons, they got away from feeding Howard the ball in the post and giving him opportunities beyond those he creates himself.

"That was my fault. We have really focused on that the last five games and that has helped him come back," Van Gundy said.

His coach is realistic, though. He knows there is the tier that includes Kobe and LeBron. And he also knows his guy is one level below -- which, by the way, is not a bad level to be.

"I think he still has a long way to go," Van Gundy said. "We thought his free-throw shooting would take a jump, and that hasn't. In fact, it is down this year. So that's a disappointment. And he has some offensive development he has to do.

"But it is tough because you can work on stuff in the offseason but it takes a lot longer to show up in the season where there is a comfort level. It's going to take time. But you've got a 24-year-old guy and people tend to forget that because he has been so good for so long."

1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (17-3)
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2037.028.85.54.12.20.3.493.328.847
Last Week's Rank - 1
Kobe is the MVP race's first repeat performer at the top. Prior to this, The Race had started to feel like Liz Taylor, a different man at the alter every week. But right after Kobe was named No. 1 last week, he hit that incredible fallaway buzzer beater that he deemed lucky. Coincidence? We think not. The Race saw Monta Ellis take four steps and get called for traveling in the same situation last week. It's only lucky if you don't get the shot off. But if Kobe gets it off, it's got a chance. That's what MVP's do.

2. LeBron James, Cavaliers (15-7)
GMPGPPGRPGAPGSPGBPGFG%3P%FT%
2237.728.06.98.21.10.7.504.344.790
Last Week's Rank - 2
LeBron almost wins this spot by default, which is a little like Penelope winning the runner-up spot by default over Gisele (which means you are wondering who won that contest as well. The Race will leave it to your imagination.) James was going to get knocked down a notch this week because the Cavs have lost two straight. But the Nuggets and the Mavs also have lost two games this week, throwing the universe out of whack but keeping The Race intact. Of more concern is whether Shaq's presence is being felt negatively on the floor again; after all, one of the losses was to Memphis.

3. Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets (16-7)
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2336.730.35.93.11.20.4.487.345.869
Last Week's Rank - 4
You could argue Carmelo and Dirk as the third and fourth best players in the league until the cows come home (which always makes The Race wonder where exactly they went.) The Nuggets dropped two games this week, though it appears through no fault of 'Melo, who had 40 points in a loss to Detroit. He did, however, score just 14 points in a victory over Philly, the first time this season Anthony has not scored at least 20 points in a game. Still, he leads the league in scoring at 30.3 per, which for now, gives him the nod over Dirk.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (15-7)
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2238.527.08.52.91.01.5.471.327.890
Last Week's Rank - 3
At 31, he is averaging a career-high 27 points a game, and also averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks, which means he is finally putting everything together on both ends. Even better, he is turning over the ball less than he has his entire career, meaning he is making the best decisions. The Race read somewhere this week that Mark Cuban will never get rid of The Big German. Umm, why would it ever be a consideration?

5. Dwight Howard, Magic (17-5)
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2233.518.412.01.61.02.0.643.000.592
Last Week's Rank - 5
Nine double-doubles in his last nine games. A seven-game win streak. A jovial personality. It's time for Howard to take the next step in career. The Race thinks that is only to going to come through maturity -- and perhaps a little heartbreak in the playoffs. But Howard is an exceptionally talented player based on physical skills alone. When the mental part catches up, he will be a force.

6. Dwyane Wade, Heat (11-9)
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20380527.15.26.01.81.3.430.240.763
Last Week's Rank - 6
Did The Race hear Wade call out his teammates recently, saying they need to get him open more often? There is a fine line between sour grapes and frustration, and sometimes it's difficult to decipher where that line lies. Wade, however, has been carrying an increasingly heavy burden, evidenced by his shooting percentage of 43, down from 49 a year ago.

7. Kevin Durant, Thunder (11-9)
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2039.628.17.13.11.80.8.464.289.880
Last Week's Rank - 7
Durant jut keeps motoring along as the league's best young talent. He is particularly highlighted now that Greg Oden is out for the year. We always thought those two would forever be linked and compared in their careers. And they will. But it may no longer ever be a comparable race. Which is too bad. Nonetheless, Durant continues to impress and recently became the second-youngest player in the history of the league to score 3,000 points, behind only the guy at the top of this list.

8. Steve Nash, Suns (15-7)
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2232.817.52.611.00.30.2.524.474.957
Last Week's Rank - 6
Only a few weeks ago, Nash was No. 1. Now, like the Suns, he has dropped dramatically. As Phoenix struggles, Nash seems to have changed his focus from distributing to scoring. He had 32 against Sacramento last week, 27 in a one-point loss to Dallas. He has double-digit assists in only one of his last five games, something that happened in 10 of his first 15.

9. Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers (14-9)
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2337.321.04.64.90.60.1.456.329.805
Last Week's Rank - 10
This is what The Race likes to see out of a candidate: Greg Oden goes down, Roy senses that his team needs something around which to rally, and he ramps up his game to accommodate. In the game Oden went down, he had 28, leading the Blazers to a one-point victory. The next game Roy had 27. Then he went for 29. Normally he allows his team to get involved. Now he is elevating his game when they need him. Wise beyond his experience.

10. Tyreke Evans, Kings (9-12)
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2036.120.15.05.11.50.2.464.262.774
Last Week's Rank - n/a
There are two different views of expectations that enable The Race to have some fun and throw Evans in the mix. First, there are the expectations of the Toronto Raptors, who should have a far better record than they do and whose record is keeping Chris Bosh from accompanying this journey on a regular basis. The Kings have a winning percentage that is similar to Toronto's, but they were not expected to be nearly as good as that. And because they are overachieving, the rookie Evans needs to be recognized for his 20.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists. Evans is a beast, and should only get better given he is playing the position most difficult to learn as a rookie.

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