Easily the most intimidating pure physical presence in the league, the trouble with Howard is he's just as likely to notch a 20-point, 20-rebound game (as he did seven times last season and three times in the playoffs) as he is to score less than 10 points (as he did five times in the regular season and once in the playoffs).
As he enters his fifth season, the 6-11, 265-pound Howard is coming off a career year, posting career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (14.2) and blocks (2.2). Nice numbers for sure, but not so nice when you remember that the NBA's first Man of Steel, Shaquille O'Neal, was scoring about 10 more points per game than Howard is by his fifth season in the pros.
The NBA was built around dominant big men being the key to winning championships. All the way down the league's history, there's been a George Mikan or a Wilt Chamberlain or a Bill Russell or a Bill Walton or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Hakeem Olajuwon or a Shaq or a Tim Duncan anchoring the squad that lifts the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June.
This bodes well for Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy and the rest of the Magic squad. If Howard can make the leap, then a supporting cast of the versatile Rashard Lewis, emerging Hedo Turkoglu, and solid Jameer Nelson might be enough to get those guys from Disney World to world championship.
Howard spent the summer in China, starting at center on the gold-medal winning U.S. Men's Senior National Team. The experience was positive for Howard for the irreplaceable necklace he earned, obviously, and because it accelerated his return to game shape after he sustained a sternum injury in the playoffs.
At the same time, the backup center on the Olympic team, Chris Bosh, came off looking far more polished in his game in every aspect. From low post moves, to defensive agility, to foul shooting, Bosh looked like the real "Beast of the East." Bear in mind, Howard entered the league a year after Bosh and Bosh had the benefit of a year of college, but CB4's skill level appeared far more mature than just the two years of age that separate him and Howard.
The guess is that Howard will learn from witnessing Bosh's talents rather than become discouraged, in the same fashion that he came back as a stronger player last February after Van Gundy questioned his focus.
For as high as Howard's ceiling is, a glance at the rest of the Magic roster makes you wonder if this team can compete with the likes of Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia come springtime.
Orlando added free agent Mickael Pietrus from Golden State, a 6-5, 215-pound swingman who looks like he's cut from stone. There is certainly potential there, but Pietrus' M.O. throughout his career has been all show and not enough go. He looks like a star, but his averages of 8.6 points on .440 from the field and .662 from the line refute that assertion.
The rest of the squad is rounded out by hard-nosed big man Tony Battie, who is returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of last season; J.J. Redick, who hopes to crack the rotation now that Keyon Dooling is on the Nets; and also features rookie Courtney Lee, who is a talented guard who didn't garner the national recognition he deserved while playing at a mid-major.
The Magic won 52 games last year with a team that was integrating a new star in Lewis for the first time and while relying heavily on a still-improving Howard. As soon as Superman is ready to have his teammates hang on to his cape for a whole season, Orlando fans can look forward to a magical ride.
-- Dave McMenamin