The Magic were amongst the headlines this season, largely because of the confusion surrounding the fate of Dwight Howard, Orlando’s elite center who looked destined to leave before the start of the season, before then being taken off the trading block. While a number of teams, most notably the Nets and Lakers, looked prepared to do anything to secure the star center’s service ahead of his impending free agency in the summer, the Magic seemed inclined to keep him, at least for a little longer.
Their rationale is understandable; like it or not, their team’s on-court fortunes are dependent on Howard. If he plays well, as he has done the past few seasons where he has been amongst the best players in the league, Orlando can at least make some noise results-wise. The burning question this season will be whether or not Howard will be motivated to play his hardest.
While he might play with even greater intensity in an attempt to convince teams to go for him midseason, he may just as likely pout, angered that his desire to move to greener pastures could not be satisfied right away. Although Orlando have some solid talent aside from Howard, the fact is their hopes for this season rest on whether or not their want-away star is motivated enough to play to his full potential.
Best Case: No. 4 Seed
The same position the Magic finished in at the end of last season’s regular season. While Chicago and Miami should be too good again for Orlando, Atlanta has regressed, Boston is aging and the Knicks will have to deal with a lack of depth, especially in the backcourt. In a weakened Eastern Conference, even if Howard is present and playing for only half a season, Orlando have a good chance to finish in the top half of the playoff field.
Worst Case: Miss the Playoffs
On the other hand, if Howard phones it in before leaving sometime in spring, the Magic have precious little to fall back on. Unless they can grab several players in return for their star, just as the Hornets did in the Chris Paul deal, their team will be struggling to get into the postseason, let alone challenge for a Finals berth.
Prediction: No. 5 Seed
Even if Howard leaves before the end of the season, look for him to play to his usual high standards and help the Magic to a strong enough position for a playoff berth. Most crucial for Orlando, however, will be who they can acquire in a trade for their key center, and whether they can establish a strong enough platform from which to launch the impending rebuilding of their team.