2012 Orlando Magic Season Preview: The Post-Dwight Howard Era
For the first time in eight years, Dwight Howard will not be introduced over the loud arena speakers and no bubbly, energetic seven-foot center wearing the No. 12 jersey will be emerging from the Amway Center locker room onto the court in front of 20,000 screaming black and blue faithful.
The Dwight Howard era is over in Orlando.
Howard was sent to the LA Lakers as part of a four-team deal that saw the Magic land Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington from the Nuggets, as well as Nikola Vucevic, rookie swingman Moe Harkless, forward Josh McRoberts, forward Christian Eyenga and a slew of draft picks in the blockbuster trade.
While it comes to no surprise that Howard no longer dons a Magic uniform— after two extremely rocky seasons in which he toyed with the Orlando fan base and left his future with the franchise unclear—it still seems odd.
Despite the loss of the six-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, the Magic front office insists they are excited for the transition, the current crop of players and, most importantly, the future.
"We will not disappoint," Magic GM Rob Hennigan said at the annual team media day last week.
For a team that has made the playoffs the last six seasons, including one trip to the NBA Finals and three Southeast Division titles, it's going to be tough not to disappoint if they're hoping to repeat that type of success.
Without a dominant superstar like Howard on the roster and with many Eastern Conference teams improving in the offseason, the Magic will be fighting for a playoff spot at best.
However, they remain confident about the upcoming season.
Clean Slate and New Mentality
While Howard got all the attention, the Magic didn't just say goodbye to Howard, also parting ways with long-time head coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith as part of the fresh slate in Orlando. Replacing them comes the aforementioned Hennigan, as well as new head coach Jacque Vaughn, who look to begin the next era of Magic basketball.
The team can take solace in the "Dwightmare" finally being over, and they can move on as a franchise and a city. Despite the common sentiment that Orlando is in rebuild mode, the team is taking the approach that they possess a good mix of hungry players who can compete right now.
"We like the roster. We have the chance for our players to come in and earn minutes and create minutes for themselves," Hennigan said. "We're excited about where we're at, and we're excited about where we're going," he added.
"We're just gonna try to get better every day."
While that may sound a little cliche, the Magic organization, from the front office down to the coaches and players, believe that this is a roster that can make some unexpected noise this season.
"We're gonna be a team that's gonna play hard every night despite what's going on. We will compete every day, not only in games, but in practice," Magic forward/center Glen "Big Baby" Davis said at media day.
Plenty of players on the team agree with Davis and feel that this is a great opportunity to prove themselves and make an impact on a starless roster. The Magic have a combination of veterans and rookies that will all be looking to contribute and make a difference, while not having to live with an elephant in the locker room anymore.
The majority of the roster is treating the post-Dwight era as a blessing, where they have a completely clean slate to help create a new culture for the franchise. It's no longer about Howard being the go-to-guy.
It is a team mentality now.
"It's a team mentality. It's gonna take every man on the roster to contribute—that's the environment we want to create here is every guy playing for each other, with each other," Hennigan said. "It's gonna be a situation where not one player is gonna define who we are; it's a team effort all the way around."
Returning Veterans and Exciting Prospects
Despite losing their best player in Howard and the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year in Ryan Anderson, the Magic are enthusiastic about their returning veterans and arriving rookies.
Orlando retains five players from last year's squad, with point guard Jameer Nelson highlighting that list.
The Magic resigned Nelson, who has spent his entire eight-year career with the team, to a three-year deal, giving the Magic a reliable floor leader. In addition, the Magic brought back long-time forward Hedo Turkoglu, fan-favorite J.J. Redick and sharpshooter Quentin Richardson, who will be looked to as leaders this season.
Glen Davis has also come back for his second year with the team.
Davis finished the season strong when Howard went down with a back injury, leading the Magic throughout April and the playoffs. Davis posted career numbers in April, averaging 16.4 points on 50 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds per game, while notching nine double-doubles in that span (including the playoffs).
He was also the team's go-to-guy in its first round series loss against the Pacers, leading the Magic with 19 points and 9.2 boards per contest.
With Davis the main guy in the middle this season, the team, and Big Baby himself, expect him to no longer be just a role player anymore and bring his game to a new level.
"Yep, I'm ready. I feel great. My career had an awesome blueprint with guys like KG and Paul Pierce. Now, it's all about me going out there and doing it every day," Davis said.
As far as the young players go, the Magic have a plethora of baby faces that are vying for a spot on the roster. As of now, Orlando has five rookies and four sophomores on the team.
The group is headlined by Andrew Nicholson, who was the Magic's first round (19th overall) draft pick this year. The St. Bonaventure product is a strong, sizeable forward who has a chance to make an immediate impact in the frontcourt.
The team is also talking a lot about Nikola Vucevic, who arrived to Orlando from the 76ers as part of the Howard trade. The 6'10" second-year player had a solid rookie season in Philadelphia, averaging 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in nearly 16 minutes of playing time.
The Magic feel their young guys have great upside and will be provided ample opportunities to mature and showcase what they can bring to the team.
"I see a lot of upside with the young guys coming in. They're not the average rookies. These guys respect the game, and they want to learn," Davis said.
With the Magic essentially cleaning house in the offseason, a lot of new faces are around, headlined by five-year shooting guard Arron Afflalo.
Afflalo arrives as the Magic's primary acquisition from the Howard deal, which nearly everyone and their mom agrees that Orlando was ripped off in. Still, Afflalo has increased his scoring average every year he has been in the league and was the second-leading scorer on a very good Nuggets team last year. He is an above-average shooter, a solid wing defender and a pretty good scorer.
Afflalo will likely shoulder most of the offensive load this season.
The other new face is Al Harrington, who will bring scoring and rebounding off the bench. He is a dependable veteran, who averaged 14 points and six rebounds per game last season.
Then, there is the variety of the previously mentioned young guys, who currently are wild cards, but will look to contribute off the bench and gel on a team with a new coach and new system.
"The plan is to create something that is sustainable. We have a lot of new faces. I think Jacque (Vaughn) is gonna do a great job gelling these guys," Hennigan said.
Even with all the criticism the Magic received from the Dwight deal, they might not be as bad as everyone is anticipating.
They return four of their top seven scorers from last season, added two talented veterans in Afflalo and Harrington, while boasting a package of promising rookies. In addition, the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is still pretty weak, giving the Magic a chance to sneak into one of the bottom two spots if they find chemistry and play as hard as they all have been preaching.
There is no doubt that Orlando will struggle with a dominant game-changer no longer on the team and the growing pains that come with a new coach and lots of young players, but the Magic could surprise some people by the end of the season.
Orlando benefits from remaining one of the better perimeter shooting teams in the league, as well as containing a solid frontcourt with great size and rebounding ability, and having an assortment of players with breakout potential.
At the end of the day, this team wants to prove that it isn't just about one person or one player, and there is more to them than just that charismatic giant that owned the spotlight in Orlando for so many years.
The Magic now have guys that want to be in Orlando and are hungry to prove something. With a budding star like Afflalo, reliable and talented veterans like Nelson, Harrington and Redick and rookies with great potential, Orlando may just turn some heads this season.
Only time will tell how long it will take them to recover from the whole Dwight Howard mess.
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