Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Tale Of Two Centers In Orlando

It was fifteen years ago that the Magic’s first bigger-than-life superstar packed his bags and descended to the opposite end of the country to Los Angeles.

While the destination might not be the same, a departure ticket out of Orlando might be on standby for their current franchise big man.

For the first time since becoming regulars in the playoffs in 2008, the Orlando Magic were vanquished out of the postseason by the Atlanta Hawks in six games. Even with Dwight Howard’s outstanding performance and dominance throughout the series, the Hawks proved they had the better roster and more firepower in their arsenal than the Magic’s one huge, powerful cannon.

Which begs the question for Howard: can this organization get back to being an NBA Finals contender or will that only be achievable in another uniform?

Shaquille O’Neal understood that fact after his four-year tenure with the team that drafted him number one in 1992. During that time, his team reached the playoffs in three of those four seasons, along with two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and one visit to the NBA Finals. Yet, they never captured the title despite having, arguably, the best center in the league.

It wasn’t until he left that he finally became a champion.

The Magic let their center go to the Lakers via free agency in 1996. From that point on, it seemed as if having O’Neal penciled in as the starting center gave any team instant championship credibility. He would go on to win three titles in Los Angeles and one title with the Miami Heat. His time in the Magic organization appeared to be an illusion when compared to his time with franchises he played on in his prime simply because he never won a title with them.

Orlando themselves fell into dark times during the O’Neal-dominance period in the NBA, as they frantically altered their roster numerous times from 1996-2004 in hopes of rebuilding the franchise into the contender they once were. They tried running it through Anfernee Hardaway, who never became the sensation he was projected to be. They then handed the reins of the team to Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, but both were hampered by injuries and could never get the Magic past the second round of the post season.

Then came the Howard era in Orlando.

Orlando made him the first pick in 2004 and he has now become an immense presence in the league and for his team. A specimen with a body that is only usually seen on comic book super heroes, the straight-out-of-high-school draftee has that unusual combination of size and speed that only one other player in recent history has possessed: O’Neal. As O’Neal’s labeling as the best center in the league is nearing the end of his tenure, Howard is quickly taking over the helm of that title with his improved offensive ability and post game to go along with his domineering interior defense.

Along with his look and ability on the court was the near replica of franchise production during both of their tenures. In seven seasons with the Magic, Howard has taken his team to five playoff appearances, two Conference Finals trips, and one NBA Finals. Yet, he has only been successful in winning one of the Conference Finals and losing the other, as well as getting beat by the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.

Now with this season’s first round loss to the Hawks (in which the Magic were favored and had home court advantage), the question entering Howard’s mind has got to be where does he go from here?

Now at the age of 25 and having already played seven years in the league at this point, all the seven-footer wants is to taste the glory of being called a champion in the NBA. At this point in his career, being called the best center in the league is nothing without the trophy placed next to it.

That was even more evident after the 2010 summer free agency hoopla and the rise of powerhouses in the East going for it all.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh jumped ship from the teams that drafted them to join Dwayne Wade and the Heat to form a core destined to win multiple titles. Carlos Boozer signed with Chicago to play with Derrick Rose in hopes of being a part of an upstart dynasty. Amar’e Stoudemire signed up with New York and eventually was joined by Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to create a formidable young core that will contend in their conference as well.

On the other hand, the Magic have shredded their roster time and time again since they drafted Howard in hopes of equipping their star with the right parts to win a title. Not only have their decisions done little to providing their center with a group that can win a championship, but the constant changes have given him literally no stability in developing chemistry or confidence they have a winner.

As a Magic, Howard has got to feel as if his organization resembles some sort of revolving door with the way players are brought in and quickly let out. He has seen Grant Hill, Trevor Ariza, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, and Hedo Turkoglu (who then was traded back to the team early this season) brought in as assets to aide Howard in bringing a title to Orlando. All they provided him was more concern and doubt that a championship is probably unattainable in a Magic uniform.

His time in that silver, navy blue and cement-grey uniform he has played in his whole career may be coming to an end after next season. While Howard’s contract is up after the 2012-13 season, he holds the power of a player option after 2011-12.

What does that mean for Orlando? If they don’t want to see Howard leave after next year, they had better give him more than what they gave him this season.

At this point in the season, all the Magic and Howard can do is sit back and watch how the rest of the playoffs play out. Being an observer will only fuel frustration in the big man and increase his pondering if he is in the right situation in Orlando.

If that level of curiosity reaches a boiling point, Orlando may feel a bit of déjà-vu with their second savior departing for a more golden future.

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