Dwight Howard defined the Orlando Magic’s decade

Dwight Howard started the decade as a dominating force for the Orlando Magic. He ended it still casting a shadow over the team. (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dwight Howard started the decade as a dominating force for the Orlando Magic. He ended it still casting a shadow over the team. (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic started the decade with one of the best players in the NBA. They finished it still trying to move on from his departure.

The Orlando Magic spent the 2010s trying to redefine themselves. They were trying to find a new identity and a new center of gravity.

That is what happens when a team trades one of the best players in franchise history and a surefire Hall of Famer. They are trying to fill a massive hole in the franchise’s future.

The team spent decades trying to get out of Shaquille O’Neal’s massive shadow as he won NBA titles. The scarring from Shaquille O’Neal’s departure still hurt the team throughout the 2010s as they dealt with Dwight Howard and his desire to leave Orlando.

The Magic’s search for a defining star was the biggest part of the last 10 years. Finding a way to create success and get back on a championship path again has been the overriding theme of the Magic’s rebuild.

Orlando started the decade getting a taste of what it means to truly contend. The 2010 season was as close as it has ever been to a championship. The Magic have tried to chase that high and fallen woefully short.

In many ways, Dwight Howard still defines this team. Or the absence of him still defines this team.

The Magic simply have not found their footing or their identity to move on. They have not transitioned to a new era quickly as they did when the Tracy McGrady era moved to Dwight Howard.

The decisions the team makes still seems to have a tinge of fear of what happened with Howard. The decision to play the Lottery to find their next star was born out of the success in moving on quickly with Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson as the centerpieces.

It has all fallen short.

Plenty of talent has come through the Amway Center in the meantime. But they never seemed like enough as the Magic chased the singular talent that was Dwight Howard.

Nikola Vucevic continues to put up strong numbers for the Magic and earned an All-Star bid last year, not to mention leading the team to the playoffs.

But in the pantheon of Magic centers — especially as the center who directly followed Dwight Howard — Nikola Vucevic has always never been enough for fans’ liking. He has always fallen woefully short by comparison — as someone would expect when compared to a Hall of Famer and the Hall-of-Fame legacy of Magic centers.

Everything in the 2010s comes back to Dwight Howard. Even with the team’s first playoff berth since his departure, the team still feels in his shadow. And it may still be a while before the team can finally let go of the pain and frustration with his exit.

A strong start, a hard finish

The decade started with the Magic at the height of their powers. They finished the last half of the 2010 season going 33-8 and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs. This might have been the best team in Magic history.

But they made key mistakes at home in Games 1 and 2 and fell to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. The NBA began to change around them with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami to start the Miami Heat’s dynastic four-year run, the Magic struggled to catch up.

The entire decade was spent catching up to James and the whole NBA world revolved around him for 10 years, the Magic were victims of his gravity well.

The Magic started 2011 at 13-4 but something was clearly off with the team. A strange illness only made things worse and the team clearly had chemistry issues. Orlando knew it had to keep up with the power that was the Heat and did not have enough.

In an odd December move, the Magic traded Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark. They swapped Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas.

None of it worked out. And after a first-round exit in the playoffs, the clock was ticking on Howard with his contract status uncertain.

Perhaps the Magic suffered from bad collective bargaining timing again. The Magic did not have restricted free agent rights as they usually would have when O’Neal left in the summer of 1996. In the summer before Howard’s early termination option, the team faced a lockout that prevented them from having any contact with Howard throughout the offseason.

Late attempts to appease Howard failed miserably. And then Orlando let Howard twist in the wind of his own indecision throughout the 2012 season.

That season was painful as fans both adored and hated Howard. Nobody came out looking good and Howard’s sterling reputation was ruined by his indecision as much as his immaturity.

It should have been clear from the moment Howard publicly announced his trade request in December (and credit to Howard for still playing extremely hard in that season — 20.6 points per game and a league-leading 14.5 rebounds per game), the Magic had to move on.

But Howard never really left. Not fully.

The long rebuild

The Magic organization had tasted what it truly meant to contend again and were determined to get there again. Despite the Magic having to start over, management talked about winning and competing for championships constantly.

The pressure to win and perhaps win too quickly was always present. The Magic figured a few years to build up some draft capital would be enough to push forward.

Here, Magic history likely played against the team. They did not get the top pick that had lifted them in 1993 and 2004. Orlando had to actually build and develop young players.

More from History

The young general manager Rob Hennigan carefully collected promising young talent. But none of them reached stardom. A lot of that came from the poor infrastructure. The Magic seemed to view rebuilding not as a continuing process but as a checklist.

It was easy with Howard, it seemed. Trade the star. Draft the next big player. Everyone grows in kind and free agents follow.

The Magic lacked the patience it took to grow the talent they drafted. And they failed to grow those players.

Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and even Domantas Sabonis were sacrificed for a quick fix to try to force the team into the playoffs. That ultimately failed. And Howard’s shadow grew.

The Magic finally returned to the playoffs last year for the first time since Howard departed. They finally began to move out of his shadow and define their own legacy.

Vucevic, unlike the cavalcade of centers the Magic used before finding Howard, was a keeper and capable of holding down the center spot. Although he will probably never live up to Howard’s legacy. That is a tough guy to compare to.

But even the playoff bid last year comes with Howard’s shadow. Coach Steve Clifford was part of Stan Van Gundy’s staff that led the team to the 2009 Finals. He would often talk about what the team and city was like when Howard was leading the charge.

Orlando needed to bring a piece of Howard back — or the mentality of those teams — to get the franchise back on track on the court.

Moving on from a superstar is never easy. A generational talent like Howard does take a lot of time to move on from. In many ways, judging by the boos Howard still receives when he comes to town, the Magic have not fully moved on.

And so no figure had a hold over the Magic in the last 10 years quite like Dwight Howard.

He remains the most important figure in the Magic’s 2010 history. The man and the legacy the Magic are still trying to shed and move past.

Magic must continue to be patient in rebuild. dark. Next

How long it takes to do so will depend on how quickly the Magic find their next star and advance in the playoffs.