Denton: Championship Remains the Goal

By John Denton
December 14, 2011

ORLANDO – Championship windows open and close and the Orlando Magic feel theirs is still very much wide open with the roster they have intact. Of course, there’s a 6-foot-11, 275-pound factor that affects every fiber of the Magic’s legitimacy as true championship contenders.

With Dwight Howard at center, the Magic feel they have the pieces and have restocked the roster well enough to get back into the hunt at the top of the Eastern Conference. Glen Davis and Von Wafer were acquired in trades to provide toughness, while Jason Richardson was re-signed to bolster the scoring punch on the wings. All of those players are infinitely better, of course, with Howard on the low block, protecting the rim as the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and battering foes with his offensive arsenal.

But if Howard is ultimately traded – something he has requested, but the Magic have resisted as they’ve tried to convince him to continue with the only organization he’s ever played for – would likely result in the organization being in rebuilding mode.

So much uncertainty, so much up in the air for a team longing to redeem itself from last spring’s first-round faltering against the Atlanta Hawks. But if the Magic are whole – Howard’s hulking presence has a way of filling the middle – they feel they are still legitimate threats in the Eastern Conference.

``I think as long as we have Dwight here, we’re a contender,’’ Magic guard J.J. Redick said confidently.

The hope that Howard will remain in a Magic uniform all season and beyond was buoyed somewhat on Wednesday with the basketball world abuzz that Orlando was refusing to trade Howard at this time. Rumors swirled throughout the day on Wednesday about Howard’s involvement in a potential three-team, multi-player deal involving the Magic, Trail Blazers and Nets. Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of those talks, and instead stressed the positive that Howard is still in a Magic uniform for the foreseeable future.

``Nothing is true or false and we’re just at the same place we’ve always been. We don’t have a deal until we have a deal and he’s still in a Magic uniform. That’s where he’s expected to be until something changes,’’ Smith said. ``I don’t know if (the trade rumors) are false or not. You’re talking about talks and we’re going to continue to talk to every team out there, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to happen.’’

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said he and his team have almost grown numb to the daily stream of trade rumors involving Howard, forward Hedo Turkoglu and point guard Chris Duhon. Van Gundy said for the most part the Magic have done a good job of blocking out distractions and focusing on getting work done in the abbreviated training camp. Much of the credit for that, strangely enough, goes to Howard, Van Gundy said.

``There haven’t been any problems so far. I can’t tell if we’re sort of getting used to it or what, but the way Dwight has interacted with his teammates and the way he’s practiced has had a lot to do with that,’’ Van Gundy said. ``He’s come out here and been full speed ahead. There just don’t seem to be any level of distractions.

``We’ve got Glen and Von and J-Rich in here now, and it seems like our team is coming together now,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``You can tell that their enthusiasm level is picking up and this really feels like our team now. And we’re working hard to get ready for the season.’’

Van Gundy pushed for the re-signing of Richardson, who averaged 13.9 points in 55 games with the Magic after being traded from Phoenix to Orlando. The Magic were also aggressive in landing ``Big Baby’’ Davis via a sign-and-trade deal to add toughness and energy to the roster.

The belief now is that with Richardson, Redick and Wafer at shooting guard and a big man rotation of Howard, Davis and Ryan Anderson, the Magic have enough depth and firepower to challenge Miami and Chicago – the finalists in the Eastern Conference last season. Jameer Nelson is still a tough-minded play-making force, and the Magic have the right mix of veterans and youth on the bench to help the team make another deep run in the playoffs.

``I’m a lot more encouraged after watching our team practice because we have a good team and a really deep team,’’ Smith said. ``We’re better right now than I anticipated because we’re deeper at a lot of positions. Maybe we’re not deep behind Dwight, but I like our team, I like the energy and I like the way that we’re playing already.’’

Howard said the weeks leading up to training camp were especially stressful for him, to the point that he was having trouble sleeping and he was worrying himself sick. But he said that none of the off-court distractions – from the trade request, the swirling rumors or his uncertain future – will detract from his focus on trying to lead the Magic to a championship this season. It’s something he’s been in pursuit of for seven seasons and this year is no different.

``I have a big heart and nobody would understand what I’m going through. People have said some things to me and I could write a book from all of the stuff that I’ve heard,’’ Howard said of the negative fallout from the trade talk. ``I’ve made sure that I’ve stayed off my Twitter and Facebook so that I wouldn’t have to go through this. I’ve done a good job of not allowing this to affect who I am. At one point, it was affecting me. I shouldn’t allow whatever is going on to change who I have been for 26 years of life. It’s been a roller coaster, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a good ride.

``When we get out on the court we’re not worrying about who’s going here or who’s going there. Our job is to get our teammates better,’’ Howard continued. ``I’ve been more vocal this year, getting guys to step up in practice and do better. That’s me taking a step in the right direction for our team.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com

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