The 2009 Orlando Magic’s legacy is tied to Dwight Howard’s memory

Dwight Howard and his teammates are starting to fight for his legacy and the legacy of the Orlando Magic teams he played for. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard and his teammates are starting to fight for his legacy and the legacy of the Orlando Magic teams he played for. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports /

This year’s edition of NBA 2K24 is a celebration of Kobe Bryant.

The number just made it the right time to celebrate him. And so as part of the game, you — yes, you — can play some of Kobe Bryant’s best games and moments to honor the Hall of Fame guard.

One of those moments very well may be one of the more painful memories in Orlando Magic history — his Game 4 masterpiece in the 2009 NBA Finals when he tallied a 32-point, eight-assist effort that included an assist on the go-ahead 3-pointer from Derek Fisher in overtime.

If this is how the 2009 Magic finally become a playable team in the NBA 2K series, so be it.

Because despite how vital the 2009 Magic are to the Magic’s history and, yes, even the league’s history as one of the first teams to use stretch-4s and rely on shooting to win meaningfully in the league, the Magic are still a team on the periphery of the league’s story.

The question of legacy is still a big one for any great team to think of. How will history remember them? Especially if they did something profound.

And the 2009 Magic are a team that has lost some of its legacy despite how incredible their run to the Finals was. That all relates to Dwight Howard.

The 2009 Orlando Magic are quickly becoming a forgotten team in the league’s pantheon. That all has to do with Dwight Howard and his perception around the league, something his former teammates are campaigning to fix.

Howard’s legacy has needed some defending though.

He was controversially left off the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team and time has been spent debating whether he earned a place on it. Howard has certainly said his piece, believing that it was egregious he was left off the list. And fans have at least considered Howard’s case.

A lot of that has had to do with Howard’s personality — his gregariousness and his sometimes unserious mood on the court. He never looked the part of a bruising center, often smiling and beaming with every blocked shot. He never developed the post-game critics wanted him to develop, even as he dominated the league in the process. Then there came his sojourn through the league after his messy exit from Orlando that only made his downfall more prominent.

But there are plenty of his former teammates and coaches from those Magic teams ready to take Howard’s cause.

Jameer Nelson was the latest to do that joining former Magic guard Quentin Richardson on the Knuckleheads Podcast:

Nelson was drafted alongside Howard in the 2004 NBA Draft and saw him rise into the superstar he became.

Howard was the scrawny high school senior and Nelson was the senior college basketball player of the year from St. Joseph’s. They formed an unlikely partnership for Howard’s eight years in Orlando, peaking with Nelson’s All-Star bid in the 2009 season.

Nelson said Howard had the highest defensive IQ of any player he had played with — and Nelson played with quite a few strong players throughout his tenure in the league. To Nelson, Howard does not get enough credit for his basketball prowess as everyone was focused and obsessed with what he could not do rather than appreciate his dominance at his peak.

To give a better picture of how good Howard was defensively, Richardson related that his first few weeks playing in Orlando he got in trouble for reaching in and trying to help when his man got past him as he would on other teams. The Magic’s defensive principles were essentially to stop their man as long as they could and then let Howard handle the rest.

Most teams at that time started subscribing to Tom Thibodeau’s “ice” philosophy of directing players to the wings and away from the middle. The Magic were happy to invite players into the middle of the paint where Howard was waiting for them.

That is why Howard won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

As Jameer Nelson further elaborated on the Road Tripping Podcast with Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, Dwight Howard was one of the faces of the league at his peak. He was the leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game for several seasons while he was with the Magic.

Everyone who played with Howard has gone to bat for him in his bid to get recognized as one of the league’s all-time best. That includes former coach Stan Van Gundy, whom Dwight Howard notably clashed with on his way out of Orlando, who campaigned for Howard’s inclusion on the NBA 75 list over Anthony Davis.

There are plenty of people who played with and against Howard who are speaking out about his legacy and his place in the league. Still, Howard did not get that ultimate recognition and it has peeved Howard it would seem as he has noted publicly.

This question about legacy for Howard often seems to be because Howard gets in his own way. The things that endeared him as a younger player — his joy as he played — got him in trouble with public perception.

That famous Sports Illustrated cover that read, “Too much fun: Can the Magic’s dunk machine get serious for a moment?” with Howard smiling before the 2009 Playoffs was both an introduction for Howard to a national statement and quickly a framing for how the vicious national media talked about the league’s best center.

It did not help that he never got settled down after an underwhelming showing with the Los Angeles Lakers (and another infamous Sports Illustrated cover with him, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash). His star run ended shortly after a stint with James Harden and the Houston Rockets blew up.

That disappointment that he could not ever match or exceed his clear talent and potential after his messy exit from Orlando has colored his overall perception and perhaps even his legacy.

That messy exit from Orlando is part of his story too. And a big one among Magic fans, who should be his greatest defenders.

Howard should not have much of a complicated legacy in Orlando considering he anchored the most sustained run of success in team history with playoff runs from 2007-12 and trips out of the first round in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Whether you believe Dwight Howard’s teams or Shaquille O’Neal’s teams were ultimately better or even who is the greatest player in Magic history, Howard is in that discussion. He is that important to the telling of the Magic’s history.

When he is done playing, Howard will go into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. If the team retired jerseys, his No. 12 should hang in the Amway Center rafters.

Howard was the essential piece of those runs in the 2000s and early 2010s. And if those teams are going to carry the weight they deserve as conference champions and a truly influential team in the league’s offensive revolution, then it starts with recognizing Howard and everything he did for the team and the franchise.

That is something his peers and teammates are starting to campaign for as the memory of Howard’s peak has faded, replaced only with the frustration of the end of his career.

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Howard indeed deserves that recognition. The guardians of his legacy are trying to remind everyone of it now.

If the 2009 team gets its due, it starts with recognizing Howard for his greatness.