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.
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."
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