Magic look forward to second half


The fun is over.

The All-Stars have left. And the regular season will resume. If you are a guy like Dwight Howard, who was Mr. Everything as the All-Star Weekend’s unofficial host, it probably was not much of a break. Howard estimated Saturday before All-Star practice that he had gotten five hours of sleep since Thursday’s loss to Atlanta. There apparently were some strange goings on during that flight home.

Either way, Howard has been running around from NBA appearances at Jam Session and media availability, to promotional appearances throughout the city, to the big blowout he hosted with adidas at the Executive Airport and then the one he hosted Saturday with Kevin Durant at the same place.

Indeed, Orlando has never been like this to use Howard’s words.

There is still a lot of work to do though for the Magic. Putting the March 15 trade deadline aside, and that is certainly where everyone’s focus will go now that the potential awkwardness of the host playing for a different team for All-Star Weekend, Orlando knows there is still plenty of improvement to be had and potential to realize.

No one may noticed this with all the rumors constantly swirling about, but the Magic are third in the East at the All-Star Break. At 22-13, the Magic are 5.5 games behind Miami for the Southeast Division lead and with a .629 win percentage would be on pace for 52 wins if this were an 82-game season (in a 66-game season it is 42 wins.

For all the ups and downs Orlando has had, the team is still right in the thick of things. Now, most would agree Chicago and Miami are the clear favorites to win the East. Taking anybody else might be considered ludicrous at this point. Yet, with Dwight Howard in the middle and an offense that can ignite at any moment, this is still a team with a lot of potential to realize and a lot of danger to pose.

“I think we’re playing great basketball,” Dwight Howard said. “We’re third in the East, we have the fifth best record in the NBA and we haven’t hit our peak yet. That says a lot about our team and about the growth of the team. Despite everything that has been going around, we’ve been able to stay focused on what we need to do. We’re only going to get better.”

Ignore some of the hypocrisy — I am pushing aside the trade rumors for a moment, right? — and think that this is still a Magic team that is a good NBA team with a chance to win a playoff series. Of course, that has not been this team’s goal since that trip to the Finals in 2009. This team needs more.

Whether that comes in a trade — Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM reports the Magic plan to “aggressively” pursue Steve Nash before the trade deadline — or with players just playing better — anybody remember how well Hedo Turkoglu was playing before bruising his hip on a nasty fall? — will be the question.

As Stan Van Gundy continues to say, the team’s energy level is inconsistent and the team will not go anywhere until that changes. The Magic are uncharacteristically 12th in the league in defensive rating and are not playing anywhere near the same level on that end of the floor. That has been the staple for this team for every year of Stan Van Gundy‘s coaching tenure.

With that gone, the offensive flaws in this roster have painfully revealed themselves.

There is the over-reliance on 3-point shooting and the inability to create offense off the dribble. Not to mention Dwight’s maddening inconsistency as a post-up option.

Inconsistency reigned in the first half of the season, as Brian Serra of Magic Basketball Online clearly and eloquently put it. So what happens if, and when, the Magic find that consistency? It seems like you have a decent team. Of course, halfway through the season, you are most likely the team you are going to be.

Like it or not, this is probably the Magic as they are — inconsistent, quietly deadly, always frustrating.

“We ended with a tough loss, but I think we’re really focused and ready to have a great second half to the season,” Ryan Anderson said. “We know how good of a team we are. We haven’t even gotten close to the potential of how good we can play and we’re third in the East. I think that’s something to say about our team. We just want to come out with more energy, we want to come out and be just real focused and control the things we can control in the second half of the year. We just need everyone to buy in and get ready for a big run.”

And therein lies the elephant in the room.

The Dwight Howard thing is not going away until he is traded. Even if he is still on Orlando on March 16, I doubt it goes away. Howard did a good job keeping the focus of All-Star Weekend on his city and on having a good time. That did not stop two Howard rumors from surfacing, although neither really gained much traction. 

Early in the weekend, a rumor sprung up that would send Pau Gasol to Minnesota, Dwight to Los Angeles and Andrew Bynum and Derrick Williams to Orlando. No one gave it much credence. Then on Sunday, a rumor popped up that would send  Jose Calderon and Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum to Orlando with Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard going to Toronto. The Magic would then send one of the two Lakers big men to Toronto.

Both of those rumors seemed pretty unbelievable and are far from complete, likely something floated out there to get movement going elsewhere. Nothing will really pick up until March 1 when recently signed players become eligible for trades. That is when the Magic reportedly intend to ask Dwight Howard where he stands (likely nothing has changed) and lay out their plans for the next 15 days.

The players have claimed that it is not a distraction. Howard said he is happy that the team has not let the speculation get to the team. But we have all seen the cracks become apparent. There was a reportedly loud team meeting after the loss to Atlanta as everyone is trying very hard to hold each other accountable.

This team is getting strung pretty thin and the pressure should only intensify in the next two weeks.

“We don’t want to think about that too much. We don’t want to let that alter our focus,” Ryan Anderson said. “It’s something that’s out of our control. It’s something we can’t really think about too much or it will really throw us off. We want to focus on the team that we have right now and the team that we’re going to have in the second half of the year.”

It will be hard to avoid the story. It was hard to avoid the story at All-Star Weekend with the whole force of the NBA media contingent in attendance.

Even Ryan Anderson had to admit that everyone wants to know where Dwight Howard is going to go. It is hard for us as fans, but easy for players, to understand what Howard is going through. Although it is not to the degree anyone could imagine.

So what will it take for the Magic to pull it together and finish the season strong? Will this team be able to challenge the top teams in the East?

Surviving is going to be the key to all of that.

“The first thing is stay together,” NBATV analyst and former Magic sharpshooter Dennis Scott said. “All the hoopla about Dwight and what he said and so forth, they shouldn’t let that stop them from being a good team. I think Dwight understands now he has to dominate and let Otis and his agent take care of business.”

You hope that is right. That Dwight Howard is finally going to stop commenting and hinting and let his play do all his talking while his agent and Otis Smith work behind the scenes. It seems that it has already begun with the Nash rumor trying to gain legs shortly after the All-Star Break.

If Dwight Howard goes back to dominating the same way he did last year — his PER this year is down to a still-healthy 24.0 and he still leads the league with 3.3 defensive win shares. He is still a great defensive player… although he still seems a bit off. Is it distraction? He won’t admit that. Nor should he.

Yes, the next two weeks will shape the rest of the year and this franchise’s future.

If this team can get a consistent effort and fight through these unending rumors, there might be a chance for something to happen if the matchups break the right way.

We have always said, so long as Dwight Howard is on the floor there seems to be a chance for this team. Howard would say the same thing.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity just like every team in the NBA to win championship,” Howard said. “We just have to stay together, stay focused and go to work for the second half of the season.”