Denton's Notebook: March 18, 2012

By John Denton
March 18, 2012

MIAMI – Among the myriad of reasons that Dwight Howard waived the opt out clause in his contract so that he could return to the Orlando Magic through this season and next was his closeness with his teammates.

Howard has said several times that he’s never been closer to a team than this version of the Magic, and many of those players served as a support system as he struggled with his decision of late. The scene Saturday in Miami was again proof of that as Howard and a half-dozen of his teammates went out together for dinner and, according to Magic small forward Quentin Richardson, not once did the all-star center’s future come up in conversation.

``Although it might have looked crazy from the outside, it was never like that in here in the locker room. There was never any finger pointing or anybody giving subliminal messages to media because we’re really together as a team,’’ Richardson said. ``We always have fun, we hang out and we do things off the court. As soon as we got here (to Miami on Saturday) all of the guys went to get something to eat together.

``I think the atmosphere with the guys on this team was a safe haven for Dwight because we weren’t going to barrage him with questions,’’ Richardson said. ``Our whole thing was telling him, `Do what’s going to make you happy in your life and you’ll never be wrong for that.’ At the end of the day, whatever decision he made he was going to have to be the one who had to live with it and no one else.’’

Richardson, who is in his 12th NBA season, is one of Howard’s closest friends on the team because of his veteran savvy and the respect that his toughness commands. Richardson said Howard’s mental toughness through the whole saga of the past five months should be commended. He added that he was extremely ``proud of’’ Howard because he made his own decision and ignored what others were trying to get him to do.

``All of us could see what kind of person he is and we knew what a big decision he had to make,’’ Richardson said. ``The biggest difference with him, like he said, was his decision was broadcast on ESPN. He had to do some back and forth stuff because he got some bad advice. We could tell that it was tough on him. Everybody out there was saying `He should do this, he should do that.’ And for him to come out and perform like he did while all of this was going on was a nod to the type of person that he is.’’

CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS: While many experts have already penciled Miami in as NBA champions in June, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said that the Magic should also be included in that conversation. Spoelstra said that the way the Magic have surrounded Howard with solid pieces and the way Orlando defends makes them solid contenders to win a championship.

``Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. Anytime you have a MVP candidate like (Howard) and personnel that fits, you are a contender,’’ Spoelstra said. ``You are a contender as long as he’s there and they have proven it. Through it all, they have the fifth best record in the league and that’s for a reason. They defend and they play hard and present a lot of challenges for you defensively. It’s not as simple as saying taking away one guy. They can make you look horrible.’’

Spoelstra also put in a good word for Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, one of his closest friends in the coaching business from their time together in Miami in the 1990s and 2000s. Spoelstra said Van Gundy should get much of the credit for keeping the Magic focused throughout the Howard saga that hung over the team the previous four months.

``What (Van Gundy) has shown is one of his best qualities as a coach and that’s incredible resolve. While there could be a lot of distractions this season they have not used that as an excuse,’’ Spoelstra said. ``Stan has instilled that type of resiliency in that team. Regardless of what they have been through and all of the conjecture, right now they are third in the East and have the fifth best record in the league. So they have found a way to be effective and play through all of that noise.’’

ETC: Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith said once again that he likes his team and has no plans of tinkering with the roster even though proven veterans such as Derek Fisher and Ronny Turiaf are available. Smith looked at several options prior to the NBA trade deadline, but passed because he didn’t want to upset the chemistry of the current Magic team. Said Smith: ``Once you make a trade you are looking at about 20 games to get acclimated. You have to weigh the risk-reward and nothing made sense.’’ … Van Gundy said he wasn’t necessarily ready to agree with Spoelstra that the Magic are contenders to win the championship because of their inconsistency this season. While the Magic have beaten the Heat (twice), Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers, they have also suffered bad losses to Charlotte, New Orleans and Detroit. Said Van Gundy: ``We’ll find out. Right now we are the No. 3 team in the East, but we have to get better in a number of areas. We certainly have to handle the ball better and we have to get better on the defensive end of the floor. Do I feel like we can (compete for a title) now? No. Are we capable of doing it? Yeah, we are, but we have to get better in a couple of areas.’’ … The Magic will be back at it against another Eastern Conference power when they host the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. The Magic have split two games this season with the Bulls with each winning on the other’s home court. The Bulls beat Philadelphia Saturday night in Chicago and had Sunday off to travel to Orlando.

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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