All things considered, the one-game suspension handed down to Dwight Howard could not have come at a better time. If only something new was learned about this Orlando Magic team while playing without him.
Howard was forced to sit out of Monday’s 89-85 loss at home to the Portland Trail Blazers after being called for his 16th technical foul a few days earlier against the Chicago Bulls. While a starting lineup in Orlando without the all-star center only amplifies his overall worth, the day off for Howard afforded him a little extra rest before diving into the final 18 games of the regular season.
What the suspension actually did, though, was neglect basketball fans the chance to see a showdown between Howard and Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the NBA’s conference players of the month for February.
Howard was recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for the sixth time in his career and second time this season. He earned it by leading the East in rebounds (14.8 per game) and field goal percentage (.667), and coming in second in points at 26.6 per game. Howard also went for 2 blocks, 1.36 steals and 1.2 assists per game while leading the Magic in scoring and rebounding in 10 of 11 games, in which Orlando went 7-4.
But on Monday the Magic looked more like the Cleveland Cavaliers than they did conference contenders. Just another NBA team trailing for most of the way, then running out of breath down the stretch without an elite player to step up and put fear into the opponent.
“It was a little different,” Brandon Bass said at halftime as Orlando trailed 47-43. “It feels a lot better, and is a lot easier, playing with the Big Fella.”
Against a Trail Blazers’ team that entered the game No. 7 in the Western Conference with a 35-27 record, the Magic did plenty to come away with the win but could not find a way to pull it out in the end.
The most telling numbers are hardly a surprise. Well, aside from the five blocked shots racked up between Earl Clark and Ryan Anderson. The Magic turned the ball over 19 times compared to nine times by Portland, with Jameer Nelson and Gilbert Arenas accounting for a combined 11 turnovers for Orlando. And although the Magic finished with a 39-36 advantage in rebounds, the Trail Blazers outscored them 36-22 in the paint.
It’s the kind of game that’ll make basketball fans, writers and voters around the league make alterations to MVP ballots.
Howard’s MVP credentials is quite a topic in Orlando, in between complaints about the treatment he receives from refs or worrying about whether he’ll skip town or stay put once his contract expires. Getting Howard some extra attention in the MVP race is of great debate, as it should be. It’s likely to heat up even more, now that the team is reunited once again for its upcoming road swing out west, which starts in Sacramento on Wednesday.
But why all the fuss about the most valuable player award, anyway? When’s the last time the league MVP won a title in the same season? (If you guessed Tim Duncan in 2002-03, you guessed right.) Over the past 20 years, only one player has been named MVP from a team that finished outside the top three spots in the league standings, which was the case with Steve Nash in 2005-06.
So at this point, it’s probably best that the focus remains on the goals of the team moving forward.
For a team that entered the season with high expectations and has since had to weather the chaos of disgruntled players and trades, sitting at No. 4 in the East and eighth overall at 40-24 doesn’t look all that bad on the surface.
Yet come playoff time it’ll be more about what’s remaining underneath all that potential that will help shape how we remember this current version of Magic basketball for years to come.
Without a player such as Howard, those memories would be about as forgettable as Monday night was. Kind of like what’s been taking place up in Cleveland.