The Orlando Magic are the first team in the NBA Playoffs to advance to the second round and were the only team to sweep their first round opponents.
However, if Dwight Howard continues to go down the same path he has been, the Magic may be eliminated sooner than the team expected to be.
It isn’t his skills that could let the team down. He recently won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season. He led the league in both blocks and rebounds, the only player in the history of the NBA to lead in both categories in two different years.
His offensive game is also improving as Dwight works on his post moves, footwork, and shooting touch to complement his thunderous dunks.
What needs to change are his fouling problems and his attitude and maturity. The two go hand-in-hand, really.
This season Howard set a career-high in personal fouls, amassing 287 over the 82-game season, as well as a career-high in fouls per game with 3.5. In a much related stat, Howard also registered the lowest minutes per game average, 34.7, since his rookie year.
In the playoff series against Charlotte, Howard was whistled for five fouls the first two games and fouled out of the final two. He failed to play 30 minutes in any of the four games and his scoring average was, for him, an awful 9.8 points per game, well below his season average (18.3).
Orlando is a deep team this year and Howard’s teammates were able to step up and finish off the Bobcats with ease, but this will not and cannot be the case as the playoffs continue. The Magic need Dwight Howard on the floor to win the championship.
The Magic’s backup post players are Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Anderson. All do some nice things: Gortat is a good rebounder, Bass is a physical banger with a good mid-range jumper, and Anderson is a good shooter.
None of them make the same impact Howard does, especially on defense.
Howard has proven to be a master shot-blocker. If he isn’t actually deflecting shots he’s altering them with his long arms and strong presence in the paint. He has the ability to also force players to think twice about even attempting to come down the middle of the lane while he is patrolling it.
He’s also a weapon on offense for the Magic to use.
He’s very difficult to guard for opposing post players. He’s either too big and strong for the smaller guys he gets matched up against or he’s too agile for the big brutes. The alley-oop has become a staple play for him and point guard Jameer Nelson, allowing for quick and easy points. Not to mention his thunderous dunks not only give the Magic points but energize the entire stadium and gets the fans into it.
However, when Howard is not on the floor his replacements do even worse offensively. They do not pose the same matchup problems that Howard does. They aren’t athletic enough to pull off the alley-oop like he does. They also rarely give the crowd that same reason to stand and cheer that Howard is able to.
Also, without Howard the Magic are forced to become more one-dimensional. They rely heavily on the three pointer. If the team has a streaky night they could be in trouble without Howard on the floor. Howard provides another option, a player they can get the ball to in order to get points. Also, without him on the floor, the team doesn’t have the league’s best rebounder to corral loose balls.
Further adding to Howard’s problems are attitude and maturity issues, more specifically his relationship with the game officials.
Howard feels that he isn’t being treated fairly. “There's a lot of things I feel don't go my way or our team's way,” he said after Game Four.
Howard now does a lot of complaining about the calls officials are making, which in turn is getting him into more trouble. He was called for a career-high 17 technical fouls this year.
Howard gets frustrated. Sure, sometimes the calls are bad, but it’s part of the game. Howard cannot let it get to him. He allows the fouls and calls to get in his head, throwing him off his game. The more he gets frustrated, the more prone he is to doing something stupid, like throwing an elbow at Samuel Dalembert in the playoffs last season that got him a one-game suspension.
Howard needs to stop being immature. He needs to keep a level-head rather than letting his emotions get the best of him and losing his cool.
If Orlando were to face Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals you can guarantee Shaquille O’Neal will play physical with him and will do whatever he can to get into Howard’s head and render him ineffective.
If Howard can harness all that energy and put it into blocking more shots and throwing down more tremendous slam dunks, then Orlando will be just fine.
But they need him to be on the floor. Otherwise the magic will run out.