Posted May 11 2010 10:09AM
No need for Dwight Howard to make any more cell phone commercials. The folks he needs most are right here with him.
Shooters? Tough point guard? Ego-free No. 2 scorer? And more shooters? Howard has all that with the Magic. They've reached the Eastern Conference finals, in devastating style at that, because their big man is surrounded by the right players in the right places. If he makes them better, then the opposite is true, too. Everything fits, everyone plays a part.
"We're here for each other," said Jameer Nelson. "Everyone feeds off one another, but obviously it starts with Dwight. That's the way we're built. Hopefully built to last."
Howard is surrounded by four capable shooters who spread the floor. He gets the first touch. What happens next depends on the defense. If Howard gets single coverage, then he uses his quickness and muscle to overpower his man and get inside baskets. If the double team arrives, then he finds the open man. The formula isn't a complicated one, or even original.
But it's not simple, either. Building around a big man takes time and luck. Wilt Chamberlain didn't win a championship until his seventh season because he demanded the ball and consumed the offense. After winning a title in Milwaukee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't get another until Magic Johnson joined the Lakers seven years later. And so on.
Much depends on the center and whether he's willing to use his teammates wisely, able to pass from the post, and suppress his ego at times. And his team must find the right pieces as well.
After reaching The Finals last summer, Orlando took a small gamble by essentially swapping Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter. Turkoglu had a solid postseason and assumed a good portion of the ballhandling duties, so there was some risk. And Carter's shooting percentage began to dwindle. But Otis Smith, the Orlando general manager, thought he was getting Carter at the right time. No longer did Carter demand to be his team's franchise player; in fact, he appeared quite content at this stage in his career to ride shotgun. This was important because Howard clearly relishes the idea of the Magic being his team, and Smith was careful not to add a strong personality to the locker room to clash with Howard's.
As a result, Orlando is 8-0 in the playoffs by showing balance and harmony, all made possible by the right supporting cast:
Carter: He started slow before flourishing right after the All-Star break, when the Magic, not by coincidence, began separating themselves from the pack. Carter was the best player on his team in Toronto for six years, and for 10 of his first 11 years averaged over 20 points a game. He understood the deal in Orlando, though. Some nights, he wouldn't even be the third option. And he was fine with that. Other than Nelson, Carter is the only starter willing to drive to the basket. The Magic reached the Finals with Turkoglu, and Carter's effort will be judged on that. So far, so good.
Nelson: In the same Draft that produced Howard, Nelson fell to the 20th pick, after Shaun Livingston, Devin Harris and Sebastian Telfair were taken before him. How many of those point guards would go before Nelson now, in a do-over? Nelson established himself as an All-Star, then was injured much of last season, and his rushed return to the lineup during the Finals was a disaster. But Nelson repaired his reputation quickly, and punctuated it with a brilliant performance in the first round sweep of Charlotte, with a pair of 32-point games. Nelson is the rare guard who's willing and able to do what it takes, be it shooting, taking his man off the dribble, or passing.
Rashard Lewis: Strangely, the Magic had a chance to sign either Carter or Lewis as free agents in the summer of 2007, and were cool toward Carter, even though he would've come cheaper. They gave $120 million instead to Lewis, who's never made even third-team All-NBA and only two All-Star teams. But that was necessary to keep Howard happy and give the Magic a legit 3-point shooter. Lewis gets a franchise player's salary while being Orlando's fourth option, but he did make big shots last summer and almost half his 3-point shots in this postseason.
Matt Barnes: He's with his seventh team in seven years. When the Magic signed him in the offseason, wasn't expected to start. But he played his way into the lineup and does the grunt work, guarding the other team's big scorer while helping Howard on the glass (4.8 rebounds this postseason in 25 minutes a game) and spotting up for 3-point shots. Like the rest, Barnes is unselfish and willing to do whatever to make Howard's job easier.
J.J. Redick: One of the country's top scorers as a Dookie, he's strictly a niche player in the Orlando rotation whose job is to make the open 3-pointer. Redick struggled heavily at first, mainly because of an inability to score off the dribble or do anything else. But he's found a role in this system, with the open looks he gets when Howard is doubled. He's in the Steve Kerr-John Paxson mold.
Mickael Pietrus: Like Redick, he's on the floor to shoot open 3-pointers. Occasionally, Pietrus will surprise with a driving layup, but as with virtually every surrounding Howard, it's all about the three.
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