Dwight Howard’s numbers this season have been very good. He’s averaged 20.6 points per game, 14.5 rebounds per game (a career high) and 2.1 blocks per game.
The drama he has brought to the organization however has been a huge distraction and looks like it is crippling the team and the franchise.
Will he stay in Orlando when his contract expires? Who can the team trade him to in order to avoid losing him for nothing? Does he want his coach fired?
His reputation and legacy look tarnished right now, the fans are starting to murmur that he may not be worth the drama and the Magic have slid from third in the Eastern Conference to sixth.
The situation is eerily similar to the one that happened in Orlando with Shaquille O’Neal. Both were No. 1 draft picks, both go by the “Superman” moniker and both were the best center in the league. Both struggle with free throws, both feuded with their coach and both are upset with the media in Orlando.
O’Neal bolted to Los Angeles. Many believe Howard will also move on to greener pastures.
While Howard causes a raucous in Orlando, it’s hard not to imagine what might have been if the Magic were successful in signing another previous No. 1 draft pick: Tim Duncan.
Prior to the 2000-01 season, Orlando saved up a lot of cap space and went after Tim Duncan (who had just won the NBA championship), Grant Hill (at the time a player many considered to be the next Michael Jordan, however lofty those expectations were) and Tracy McGrady (who was just coming into his own as an elite talent).
Duncan was close to signing with the Magic. The team offered him a six-year $67.5 million deal.
“It was probably a lot closer decision than people even think or even know,” Duncan told reporters during the 2007 NBA season.
Close, but Duncan wound up returning to the San Antonio where he has since won three more NBA Championships and has a realistic chance for another this season.
So what would the Magic Kingdom look like now if the NBA’s most fundamentally sound player and nicest superstar changed addresses that summer?
First thing is the Magic never would’ve bottomed out in the 2003-04 season, won only 21 games and landed the No. 1 pick that the team used on Dwight Howard.
But with McGrady, Hill and Duncan, Howard wouldn’t have been needed. Much like what the great threesomes the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have secured the past few years, championships would’ve been expected.
“It would have been a great combination,” McGrady said in an interview with the New York Daily News in 2010. When asked how many championships the team could have won his response was, “Enough to where I would have been satisfied with my career.”
Things would have been especially different in the 2004-2005 season. For one, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs winning that year without Duncan. It was the year Hill finally came back from injury and contributed to Orlando, and McGrady would’ve been happy with the Magic and not been traded to Houston.
With those three on the roster and with complimentary pieces like Jameer Nelson and Pat Garrity surely they would have been a top-tier team. They most likely would have made the playoffs and would’ve been a strong contender against the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons.
Even had the team been unable to afford Duncan, Hill and McGrady, what kind of damage could a team with Duncan—and without McGrady-- have done?
The Eastern Conference, especially early in the new millennium, was not full of big-time centers. The majority of the great big men played in the West; Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Chris Webber and Yao Ming all played in the West.
The All-Stars in the East? Dikembe Mutombo, Jermaine O’Neal and a mostly-injured Alonzo Mourning. Surely a team with such a dominant big man as Duncan could’ve done some damage in the Eastern Conference.
Think of some of the personnel moves the team could’ve made as well. Andrew DeClercq, Michael Doleac or John Amaechi could’ve been flipped for a more competent scoring forward to play alongside Mike Miller, or instead of drafting Steven Hunter in 2001 (because they needed a center) the team could’ve grabbed Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace or Tony Parker—and we’ve seen what Parker has done with Duncan.
And while the knock on McGrady’s career was the he couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs, Duncan, on the contrary, is known as one of the best winners in NBA history. A team led by Duncan and his personality very well could’ve gone deeper into the playoffs than one led by McGrady, despite a cast not as good as the one in San Antonio.
What Duncan would not have brought, for sure, was the drama that McGrady and now Howard brought. Duncan—like Nash in Phoenix currently—would not have asked to be traded. He would’ve fought with whoever was by his side. He also wouldn’t have been a coach killer.
In fact, if Duncan had gone to Orlando he might’ve been able to save Doc Rivers’s job, and instead of winning a title with a veteran Celtics team, Rivers could’ve done it with an Orlando team built around Duncan.
McGrady and Howard created some unforgettable memories for the Magic in their times. And it’s still possible Howard, signed through next season, could sort things out and get this team back on track. But most assuredly with Duncan, the consummate professional, things in Orlando would have been drastically different over the past 12 years.
In the end, it worked out extremely well for Duncan and there is no regretting his decision.
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