Published October 24, 2012
| Sports Network
The "Dwightmare" may be over for the Orlando Magic, but the franchise is still a long way from fully waking up from the horrid ordeal stemming from the loss of its franchise player.
All of last season, the Magic played under a looming cloud of Howard's pending departure. Both parties tried to walk the company line, saying they would work together until a split eventually came, and Howard put up more-than- respectable numbers while on the court.
However, a back injury held him out for the final 10 games of the regular season and all five contests of Orlando's opening-round playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Then the Jenga pieces started to fall.
It was no secret that Howard was not a big fan of Stan Van Gundy and the head coach was given his walking papers in May. General manager Otis Smith also parted ways with the franchise, but it still wasn't enough to appease Howard. His trade demands were finally met when he was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team deal that also moved Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark out of town while in return netting the Magic six players and five future draft picks, three of those first-round selections.
"A primary goal for our basketball team is to achieve sustainability while maintaining a long-term vision," new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said of the massive trade. "We feel this deal puts us in a position to begin building in that direction. In addition to the six players joining our team, we will be in a position to maximize our salary cap flexibility in the near future, as well as utilize the multiple draft picks we have acquired going forward."
Orlando certainly acquired enough bodies to replace Howard, but did they land enough talent? Guard Arron Afflalo could be the biggest return piece long-term for the Magic and rookie Moe Harkless has potential, but the likes of Nikola Vucevic (acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Howard deal) and Gustavo Ayon (picked up from the New Orleans Hornets for forward Ryan Anderson) combined don't fill the void left by the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
In fact, Magic fans have seen this script before when another dominating big man by the name of Shaquille O'Neal took his services to the Lakers by way of free agency following the 1995-96 season. Orlando was fresh off an Eastern Conference finals appearance -- getting swept by the Chicago Bulls -- and though playoff appearances still came, the Magic did not win another postseason series until the 2008 postseason.
That was Howard's fourth season with the Magic and he would help the club reach the NBA Finals the next season, where the club lost to the Lakers.
Orlando has finished .500 or better in 16 of its last 20 seasons, and its string of six straight playoff appearances is the longest active in the East.
Hennigan and rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn figure to have their work cut out for them if they want to improve both of those figures.
"We lost some scoring, but I think we added some guys who play a lot harder," said point guard Jameer Nelson.
Hennigan has been down this road, spending the last four years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, including the last two seasons as the assistant general manager. The stocked Thunder are coming off an NBA Finals appearance of their own and have been rebuilt into one of the top teams in the league.
Orlando can only dream of similar results.
2011-12 Results: 37-29, third in Southeast; Lost in first round to Indiana.
ADDITIONS: F Andrew Nicholson, C/F Gustavo Ayon, F Kyle O'Quinn, G Arron Afflalo, F Al Harrington, C/F Nikola Vucevic, F Josh McRoberts, C Kyle O'Quinn, F Moe Harkless, G E'Twaun Moore
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Jameer Nelson SG- Arron Afflalo SF- Hedo Turkoglu PF- Glen Davis C- Nikola Vucevic
KEY RESERVES: C/F Gustavo Ayon, F Quentin Richardson, F Al Harrington, G J.J. Redick, G E'Twaun Moore, F Andrew Nicholson
FRONTCOURT: The Magic will have a very different look inside this season, so it comes as no surprise that Vaughn will increase the club's tempo to compensate for the loss of the 6-foot-11 Howard as well as the sharp-shooting Anderson, who led the NBA last season in 3-pointers made and rebounded very well in the offensive zone.
"We have a luxury of having an array of (big players) who can run the floor and pass as well, so we'll take advantage of that," said Vaughn, whose new starting lineup will include Vucevic at center and Glen Davis at the power forward spot.
Davis certainly offers more grit at the position than Anderson and is a big body at 289 pounds.
The five-year pro is a bit undersized at only 6-foot-9 and just 44 of his 338 games have seen him start, including 13 last year, but he has won a championship before with the Boston Celtics and is ready to fill in for Howard as more of a leader.
"It's a challenge for me. I've been playing the game in my head to make sure I'm accountable by setting the tone and walking the way, walking the walk also. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations. I've been waiting for this moment," said Davis.
Davis will start his role as leader by passing words of wisdom onto Vucevic, who averaged 5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 15.9 minutes per game in 51 contests with the 76ers last season, making 15 starts. While he'll help fill the rebounding void left by Howard, Orlando will see less shots blocked with the Montenegro-born youngster in the middle.
Hedo Turkoglu will give Vaughn a veteran presence on the floor as the 33- year-old heads into his 13th season. Turkoglu missed 12 games due to injury last year and could get dealt to a contender this season if the Magic fall back in the standings.
BACKCOURT: It will be a bit of a fresh start for Nelson this season even though he opted to stay with the Magic, the only NBA team he has known after entering the league by way of the 2004 draft. Nelson did opt out of his contract this summer before re-signing and has been a steady guard during his career.
Count the point guard as another player who may need to take it up a level due to the loss of Howard, but Nelson noted that the departure of his former teammate should benefit his game.
"I feel more of a sense of relief now for whatever reason," he said. "I guess it feels like I finally have more freedom."
Nelson admitted during training camp that the circus involving Howard last season impacted him, especially after the center hinted that Orlando should look to add a talented point guard to the roster.
"It was just one of those things from (Howard) that I never did understand and I guess some things just aren't meant for you to understand," Nelson said. "I just took the approach to play basketball wherever I was. I knew that I was still in Orlando last year for a reason. That reason was that the organization still wanted me here. Really, that helped me kind of get over all of the nonsense that was going around."
Nelson will have a new sidekick in Afflalo, who continues to improve as an NBA player.
The UCLA product has made 206 starts over the previous three seasons with the Denver Nuggets and has upped his scoring average each campaign since his rookie effort in 2007-08. In 62 games last season, Afflalo netted 15.2 points per game while shooting 47.1 percent.
"I see him (doing this year) like he's done every year, getting better," Vaughn said of Afflalo. "He's done an unbelievable job of making himself a player. He believes in his abilities and the great thing is I do too. He'll be a leader on this team and we'll lean on him, for sure."
BENCH: While Orlando is shuffling some new, younger players into its starting lineup, the bench will feature some veterans and another sniper who has been around the Magic for his entire career.
Vaughn will have the option of giving minutes to both 12-year veteran forward Quentin Richardson as well as 32-year-old forward Al Harrington once he recovers from a staph infection stemming from left knee surgery that could hold him out until mid-December.
J.J. Redick, meanwhile, enters his seventh NBA season and made a career-high 22 starts a season ago. That translated into a personal-best 11.6 points and 2.5 assists per contest. Even when he doesn't start, Redick can still eat up 20-plus minutes per night.
The 6-foot-10 Ayon will battle Vucevic for minutes at center, while young guard E'Twaun Moore and rookie forward Andrew Nicholson also figure to be in the mix.
COACHING: Vaughn is a solid choice to usher in a new era in Magic basketball as he begins his first head coaching gig after serving as an assistant for the past two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
Like with Hennigan, the Magic made a point to bring in new staff with a winning experience and Vaughn isn't worried about getting in over his head this season.
"I think, being a leader of a staff is the approach I've taken. That's the consistent part," he said during camp. "If I try to get out of that realm, maybe it becomes overwhelming, but I stay right in that consistent lane and I'm fine with that."
Vaughn is also in a good position to shift Orlando's in-game philosophy due to the roster turnover, but still has some vets to lean on.
"I think all the guys have been very open to the way we are going to play. It's a process where I'm going to listen to them and I want them to listen to me and so that goes hand in hand," Vaughn said.
OUTLOOK: The next few seasons in Orlando figure to be tough pills for the local fans to swallow. Replacing a franchise player is never easy, let alone one of the top centers in the game.
While the Magic won't have to face Howard too often given his residence in the Western Conference, there stands a good chance they'll have to watch their former star cradle an NBA championship by season's end.
For Orlando, it is all about rebuilding a core with an eye towards free agency a few seasons from now.
"We have to be very well at communicating because we're all learning new stuff, new terms. So communication is going to be big," said Redick.
What will also be big for the Magic going forward is the probable high lottery draft pick they'll have at season's end.