Posted Jan 8 2010 9:34AM
The Hawks had their run, then the Celtics once Kevin Garnett got healthy (he's hurting again), now it's the Cavs' turn. Is Orlando next to occupy temporary residence in the penthouse of the ever-changing and wide open Eastern Conference?
Well, the basic ingredients are certainly there, when or if the hot Cavs start to slack off in the coming weeks. The Magic have a solid starting five and a few impact reserves to seize the opportunity, if one arises. But first, there are a few annoying bugs Orlando needs to work out -- the sooner, the better -- for their long-term health as a contender.
At the very top of the list is Dwight Howard and his role in the offense. This has been a weird year for Howard so far. He's still a defensive menace who makes teams think twice about sending their players to the basket. He's a good 1-on-1 defender as well as a help defender. But nearly everywhere else, he just hasn't been the same. Except for free throw shooting ... which is not an area where he wants to remain status quo.
Howard is averaging roughly four fewer points a game than his last two seasons and he isn't getting the same touches. Obviously, there are a few reasons for this. First, he still hasn't developed a money move and can be rather robotic with the ball. Howard's best chance at scoring is by simply lowering his shoulders and getting leverage against his man. Nothing has changed in that regard. The mid-range jumper and spin move are still under construction.
The second reason is Vince Carter. If you haven't noticed, Carter likes to shoot and he's often getting shots at the expense of Howard. Carter averages 15.6 shots a game and Howard is at 8.9. On Tuesday, Howard took only six shots against the Pacers and was outplayed by Roy Hibbert. True enough, Howard was in foul trouble and ended up fouling out; still, there are few circumstances where Howard should get six attempts and Carter gets 15 (which he had Tuesday, making two of them). Especially when Carter is shooting 39 percent this season.
For what it's worth, Rashard Lewis' scoring is down along with his shooting percentage. Overall, the Magic aren't humming along with the same rhythm they had last postseason, and unfortunately, there's an upcoming trip West for a team going through some angst right now.
While the Magic aren't on the verge of mutiny, you sometimes wonder how the players really feel about the coach. Of all the contenders in the East, Orlando seems most fragile in that regard. There's no chance of the Celtics turning on Doc Rivers if they falter, little chance of LeBron James blaming Mike Brown if the Cavaliers crumble, and the Hawks don't have enough strong personalities to take issue with Mike Woodson if things go wrong in Atlanta.
But in Orlando, Howard has voiced concern with the system before, and while Lewis' refusal to enter a game last month in Utah was much ado about nothing, it was still a player ignoring a coach's orders.
Stan Van Gundy seems like a nice guy who doesn't air out his players in the media, never attracts attention to himself and only wants the best for his team and the organization. On the surface, he seems like a great coach to play for. But he does have a franchise player with a strong personality and a veteran newcomer (Carter) who often lapses in shot selection and an organization that believes the team should be in the mix for another conference championship.
Another month or two will give us a better glimpse of where the Magic stand, at least in the regular season. Right now the Cavaliers are making a statement. One way or another, Orlando is up next.
Steve Nash, Suns: 35 minutes, 11-of-16 shooting, 12 assists, 3 steals, 26 points against the Rockets.
The big concern for Nash, who turns 36 next month, has always been his stamina, especially during the spring. He plays with so much energy and does so much for the Suns that his body doesn't always hold up. At least that's the perception.
Well, Nash is coming off terrific back-to-back games should put those issues to rest, if only temporarily. On Tuesday he played 39 minutes against a bigger and more physical point guard in Tyreke Evans and scored 30 points with 12 assists, making big plays in the stretch of a tight finish. The next night, he saw Aaron Brooks, a quick guard, and delivered another big fourth quarter in a 118-110 victory.
There isn't a middle-aged player in basketball performing better than Nash, and that's a credit to his dedication to the game and the Suns. Nash stays in great shape and recently swore off sugar. The Suns lead the league in scoring and are on pace to lead the league in scoring for the fifth time in six seasons, mainly due to Nash. Every player in his 30s should take notes on how to delay the aging process the way Nash does.
Tayshaun Prince, Pistons: 37 minutes, 3-of-7 shooting, 3 rebounds, 7 points against the Spurs.
Coming back from a back injury can be a slow and awkward process, as we see with Tayshaun. But as the Pistons suffer from an 11-game losing streak, you wonder if he'd be better off elsewhere. When the Pistons were winning conference championships, Tayshaun was extremely valuable as a jack-of-all-trades, someone who could drop a 3-point shot and D-up the other team's big scorer. The Pistons didn't lean on him to be great, just good enough in several areas, and he delivered on that.
Times have changed and the Pistons are in transition. While Rip Hamilton would be tough to trade given his contract, Tayshaun is a bit more marketable, especially to a contender, because he's an X-factor guy and his remaining money owed ($21 million over two years) isn't outrageous.
His numbers should improve as the season progresses and as the trade deadline approaches. The right deal could help the Pistons and another team.
• First the Nationals, then Redskins and now, the Wizards. Tough time to be a D.C. sports fan. For the record, the favorite teams of the First Fan are the White Sox, Bears (Steelers close second) and Bulls. Looks like he's having a tough year, too.
With new ownership ready to step in, it's quite possible the Wizards will get a complete housecleaning, with no one spared. Not that they don't deserve it. As for Arenas, he has talent, so he'll have opportunity, whether it's in the NBA or overseas, if it comes to that. Which I don't think it will. David Stern does have compassion and is more than willing to give guys second chances, provided they show some genuine remorse (hint, Gilbert, hint). Plus, Gilbert is one of the rare stars that people pay to see.
Speaking of Arenas and his post-incident behavior, here's some advice to NBA players and all athletes in general: Stay off Twitter if you get into trouble.
• Remember, the goals for the Celtics are health first, best record second.
• Can someone explain why NBA teams don't fully utilize the D-League? More than a handful of young players sitting the bench or getting very little playing time could use a stint in the minors. On the flip side, they could go down to the D-League and get exposed. Never mind.
• If Nash is the best middle-aged player in basketball, then Jason Kidd is in the running for second place. It's a lot tougher to be in your mid-30s playing point guard against quick players than being in the post, where you can trot up court every now and then and take a breather.
Having said this, the Spurs should overtake the Mavericks in the Southwest Division in about, oh, five minutes from now. Speaking of the Southwest, is it possible that no team in the division will finish with a losing record? That would be a first. Don't cast a wary eye toward Memphis, not as long as Z-Bo is giving 20 and 10 a night.
• Elton Brand is now coming off the bench for a losing team. Whoda thunk it? He's had some decent performances as a sub, but this isn't what he or the Sixers had in mind when he signed the big contract.
• Place a call to the Blazers and leave a get-well voice mail message for Maurice Lucas. I'm sure he'd appreciate it.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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