5. As the league's dominant center. Howard is averaging a career-best 21.5 points while leading the league with 14.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. He turns 23 Monday, and this is his fifth season with Orlando since he turned pro as the No. 1 pick from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. In previous eras, Howard would be beginning his second NBA month after four years in college. As it stands now, he has already amassed close to 6,000 points and more than 4,000 rebounds.
"It's amazing at his age to think that he's got another 12-13-14 years,'' Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "And he's just going to get better and better and smarter and smarter.''
As Howard matures, he may find fewer and fewer rivals at his position.
"It seems to me that in our league they've continued to change the rules and they've really tried as much as they could to legislate against post play,'' Van Gundy said. "They've tried to make it more of a perimeter game. I also think it's hard work down there, so a lot of young kids growing up -- even at the size of 6-11 or 7 feet -- want to be perimeter players. So we're just not getting as many true low-post guys.
"I think there's going to be fewer and fewer centers, and if you look at the league now among centers that teams really try to go to on the offensive end -- because I think there are some very good defensive centers -- we're going to Dwight, [the Rockets] go to Yao [Ming] obviously, Tim Duncan's essentially a center, and Milwaukee's going to [Andrew] Bogut. I'm probably missing a few, but it's few and far between on the number of true offensive centers, and I don't think that number's going to get a lot bigger.''
Howard isn't interested in becoming the dominant center in the NBA eventually.
"Not in a year or two,'' he said. "I'm trying to be there right now, I'm trying to be there forever. I want to be one of the most dominant players -- not just [among] centers, but one of the most dominant players.''
4. As a defender. The Magic were inspired to see Howard play a crucial but limited role while averaging 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds for the gold-medal-winning Olympic team last summer.
"For me, it was about him getting to understand the roles of other guys,'' Orlando general manager Otis Smith said. "He had to understand what the 12th man is going through, what the guy who doesn't have the starting role goes through. For the Olympics, he had to rebound and control the lane and block shots, and you know, you don't always like your role. He wasn't fond of it early; I think he got accustomed to it late. But I just want him to have a better appreciation for a guy like [Magic veteran backup] Tony Battie. If you can have an appreciation for him, then you can understand where everybody's coming from.''
Said Van Gundy: "It very well may be part of it from the Olympic experience, but he has had a better defensive mentality -- particularly as a help defender in terms of blocking shots. In the Olympics, they didn't throw him the ball as much and his main role was to block shots and to defend, so I think he got into that mentality.''
One of Howard's ultimate goals is to overtake Kevin Garnett as Defensive Player of the Year. While he may put up superior numbers, Howard must still develop as a leader who demands and inspires teammates to defend alongside him. But it's asking too much for those skills to mature as he turns 23.
"I'm the youngest guy on the team,'' Howard said. "I may have been here the longest, but I'm the youngest. Which is weird. Even though I am the youngest, I've got a lot of responsibilities. My teammates look to me to be serious on the court or when we need a job to get done.''
3. As a scorer. "When I first got here, he just wanted to dunk everything,'' said forward Rashard Lewis, in his second year with the Magic. "He tried to dunk the ball every time he got it. But he's really worked on his touch, his jump hook, and he's shooting a little jumper off the glass and in the post. You can tell in practice he's not trying to dunk the ball every time he makes a move.''
Because of Howard's presence in the low post, Smith is taking an old-school approach to building the team around him, as if constructing a roster in the center-dominated 1970s.
"The key for us is to make sure you always have shooters,'' the GM said. "You've got to keep shooters around him to make his life a lot easier. It's difficult when you're not making shots, but if you're making shots, then the team has to pick their poison.''
Assistant coach Patrick Ewing must continue helping Howard develop his moves down low, as well as the turnaround jumper that will multiply his options from the block.
"He's playing with more patience and poise in the low post when people are coming at him,'' Van Gundy said. "That's still a process, and there are times when he may still go too quick, make mistakes and force issues, but for the most part he's gotten a lot better.
"His footwork is very, very good. I think it is a matter of getting more deception, more shot fakes, not doing everything in the same rhythm and not trying to just go over the top of everybody, which he can do most of the time. But against the better centers, [he needs] the shot fake, the step-through to reverse -- and he's got the footwork to do it.''
But Howard remains only a 57.5 percent free throw shooter. His own assessment is blunt: "I think I'm 25 percent of where I can be,'' he said of his offensive game.
He does, however, rank 12th in scoring and second in shooting (59.3 percent).
"But I can be a lot better. I've got a long way to go,'' he said, and he breaks into a smile. "You know what I'm saying? Get better every day, baby.''
2. As a showman. If LeBron James' goal is to take over for Michael Jordan as America's No. 1 star who leads the world in sports marketing, then Howard intends to replace Shaquille O'Neal as the dominant big man as well as the league's leading prankster. He made his intentions plain last February when he pulled on a red cape to score like Superman during the slam dunk contest at All-Star weekend.
Howard routinely tries to crack jokes with reporters during interviews.
"I'm getting old man, look at me,'' he said during a recent pregame interview. "I've got a moustache now, facial hair.''
What about your teeth, someone wanted to know.
"When you get old, you might see that your teeth will fall out,'' Howard told a reporter who happens to be twice his age. "Unfortunately, my teeth fell out a year ago.''
Of course this is not true.
"It's hard when you're playing at 57 and trying to play with these young cats,'' Howard went on, affecting tears in his eyes. "I remember seeing Kevin Garnett grow up. I watched him as a little boy.''
1. As a serious guy. Howard could never have improved so quickly if he weren't so serious about his job. "The other night [against Indiana] I had 32 and 21, and I still felt I didn't play as good as I could because I missed some free throws,'' he said. "I had four blocks, but there were a lot of shots I didn't even try to block. And a couple times in the post I let my man get some easy buckets, and I was upset about that.''
He complained about his performance among friends later that night.
"They understand,'' he said. "I've told them all the time, I don't want to see no newspapers and no magazines with me in it unless it's off the court. But if it's basketball-wise, I don't want to see it. I just want to keep myself level-headed.
"I'm very serious about what I want to accomplish in my life. I've talked to a couple of the great players -- Hakeem [Olajuwon], Dikembe [Mutombo], Patrick, even Tony Battie -- that while I'm young, while I've got all my talent and my legs, my body, I've got to try to get as much done as I can now instead of trying to wait until I get older. Start building now while I've got a lot to learn. I'm still kind of raw, so try to do as much as I can now to put myself at a level where I'll be remembered for something. Not just for a dunk contest as Superman, but for other things -- blocking shots, rebounding, stuff like that.''
If Howard is playing at 25 percent of his potential, the rest of the league isn't looking forward to the day he crosses the 50 percent threshold.
"Once he gets that 5-to-10-foot range taken care of, it's over,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Howard's mid-range jump shot. "I mean, it's over. And it's going to happen, because he works on it. He's one young player who works diligently on his game. I hear about him all summer, I know where he's at, my son works out with him. So you just know it's coming.
"I say the same thing about him that I say about LeBron. As good as LeBron is now, in five years it's going to be a joke.''
And when that day comes, Rivers said he'll be looking for another job: "I'm doing TV.''
4. I've been following Brandon Roy since high school when I lived in Seattle and went to UW. You've got it wrong about his athleticism. This kid could jump out of the gym in high school and at UW. I think the knee injury may have taken a bit of that athleticism but more so I think he just chooses not to, maybe not to take the risk or he's just so smart at the game that he doesn't need to call on it to beat his defender. Now that I live in Portland, I continue to follow his career. He still has great hops; he just doesn't put them on display that often. It's just not his style, but I'd guess if you asked his teammates about the best athletes on the team, they'd say Travis Outlaw and Brandon Roy.-- Jim, Portland
I received quite a few letters from Oregonians who were offended by my praise of Roy. The point I was trying to make is that Roy is so much more than just another athlete.
Could Roy break down the defense time after time after time if he chose to? I'm sure he could. But here's the key question: Would he survive the pounding that Kobe Bryant and other high fliers have absorbed over the years? Some people in the league think he would not. I remember that Roy posted a high vertical leap in the predraft testing, and I've seen him routinely beat defenders to get to the basket. But the key to athleticism in the NBA isn't just beating your man into the paint; it's also absorbing the punishment that goes with it. In practical terms, over 82 games year after year, Roy's body wouldn't hold up if he were trying to play above the rim like so many of his peers. In that sense, he isn't the same kind of athlete as we're used to seeing among the young players in the NBA.
We can argue back and forth about this and miss the larger point I was trying to make: There are a lot of athletes in the NBA, but there are very few players who know how to control the game as Roy does so well.
Was I criticizing Roy in this column? I didn't think so, but I'm sure I could've phrased things better. While writing this column, I was actually concerned that I was gushing too much over him. I love that he doesn't have to play above the rim, and I view it not as a weakness but as a strength that he applies his explosiveness in short, intelligent bursts. I want to see him extend his career because there are too few players as it is with his feel for the game.
3. What if the Cavaliers win it all over the next two years? Does all the talk about LeBron's free agency then become a moot point? As one of the top three teams in the league, it's not a too-far-off possibility.-- Nathan, Portland
The talk won't end until LeBron signs his next contract. The innuendo will continue whether or not he answers questions about it. It would be hard for him to leave Cleveland after leading the Cavs to a championship, but who knows for sure? Let's say he does re-sign with the Cavs: Even then he might very well negotiate another short-term deal that will enable him to opt out again, in 2013, when he'll be 28. It's a good bet the team that signs LeBron in 2010 is going to be under recurrent pressure to win a championship with him, or risk losing him again three years later.
2. Given the way Devin Harris is playing for New Jersey, how should we view the Mavericks' trade for Jason Kidd? Is it fair to conclude already that the trade was a total bust for Dallas?-- Sam V., Oklahoma
Had he remained in Dallas, would Harris be playing to his current style as a slashing scorer worth his current scoring average of 24.8 points with the Nets? Probably not. In Dallas, he would be sharing the ball with Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Jason Terry and others. But the Nets need his scoring desperately, and to his credit he is delivering. The Mavs felt they needed leadership at point guard, and were they going to get that from Harris? The years ahead will provide evidence of whether Harris might have turned into a winning postseason quarterback for Dallas.
The bottom line is that Harris is a terrific scorer for the Nets, while the Mavs are asking Kidd to be a playmaker. Those are two entirely different roles. It's too early to call it a total bust while the Mavs are still adapting to new coach Rick Carlisle.
1. I'm curious what, if any, impact the experience of playing on the U.S. Olympic team will have on the players involved, many of whom are 2010 free agents. On a practical level, I've always thought that if players were really committed to winning a championship, they would take a less-than-max deal, club together, experience the joy of playing with each other and win a few titles. Of course, it's probably tough to leave a few million (or tens of millions) on the negotiating table. However, having had a firsthand experience of what it would be like training and playing as a team with each other (as opposed to just in All-Star Games), would there be any traction for the idea of some of these premier free agents to forego some riches and actually get together for a run of titles?-- Tze Haung, Singapore
The short answer is no, unfortunately. Players compete among each other for money just as they struggle for baskets, regular-season victories and championship rings. If one star agreed to take less money, then he may feel like a fool after seeing his GM award the extra cash to a less talented player who demands every last dollar he can get. You'll often see players near the end of their careers take a small contract in order to play for a contender, as Karl Malone did to play with the Lakers a few years ago. Gilbert Arenas and Tim Duncan each agreed to take less money than he could have demanded in order to help the team recruit better talent around him. But the idealistic scenario of several top players' agreeing to reduced salaries in order to play together is unlikely to happen in the NBA.
All three play for the Warriors. If young forwards Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph realize their potential, they could join 22-year-old center and co-captain Andris Biedrins as the first all-lefty frontcourt in modern memory.
3. Why it's important. "Because you guard righties your whole life,'' Doc Rivers explained. "It should be easy -- you should just put your hand up [defensively], and your hand should mirror his hand. But if you watch when lefties shoot, the righty is always reaching across his body because that's what you do every day. You're taught to force everyone left defensively; now all of a sudden you're supposed to force him right. It's easier said than done. That's why you see all the left-handed/right-handed players -- like Kevin Johnson: He was right-handed, but he only went left [on his drives].''
What would happen if the Warriors started three natural left-handers across their front line? Especially with Don Nelson devising schemes for them?
"It would be a nightmare, really,'' Rivers said. "Plus, they're all pretty skilled. That will be funny if it happens.''
2. How Biedrins became one of the NBA's more productive centers. The 6-11 Latvian is averaging an impressive 15.7 points and 12.4 rebounds despite his unusual style. "He's not such a traditional center,'' Nelson said. "It's hard to throw him the ball and create the low post and a dominance down there.
"But if you put him in screen-and-rolls and get him the ball on the move, he's pretty good. He catches everything, he has great hands and an ability to go after every rebound and play hard and do all of those kinds of things. We are going to him more, but he just doesn't get you what other really great centers get you down there. It's different.''
A typical southpaw, in other words.
1. What's the difference between Wright and Randolph? Each is 6-10 and a skinny 210 pounds. The rookie Randolph is two years younger than the 21-year-old Wright, who is in his second NBA season.
"Their games are completely different,'' Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart said. "Randolph has more perimeter skills. He doesn't have the shot yet, but he can put the ball on the floor. One [Wright] will play more around the basket and in the paint; the other one will develop a shot at some point and play more out on the perimeter.''
Said Nelson: "I have a hard time predicting exactly. But it's exciting because they're long and they have different personalities. They both have quick jumps and the ability to block shots.''
How will left-handedness affect their development?
"Well, their brains are backward, so that ought to tell you something,'' Nelson said. "I guess they're all going to go left, huh?''
An NBA scout assesses two rising talents:
2. 76ers second-year small forward Thaddeus Young. "He needs to improve his jump shot," the scout said, "because he does not have consistent range with it.
"But the big thing is his effort. His first effort, second effort, running the floor and defensively -- he gets all of those things. He's outworking everybody when he's out there. He's going to be a really good player. I bet he will get better on the jump shot, like Trevor Ariza has done. They have similar qualities -- the quickness, the length, but Thaddeus Young has a little bit more substance to him upper-body-wise. He can get to the rim anytime. He's athletic, he has size, he can handle the ball, quick feet and he doesn't back down.''
1. Bulls rookie point guard Derrick Rose. "He's got to mature and concentrate on delivering the ball to shooters in a way where they're not catching it down around their ankles. Sometimes the one-handed push pass doesn't get right to the shooters where they catch it in stride. But it's something he'll get around to, because everybody tells me the kid's a worker and one of the most humble kids they've come across. He is so quick in getting to the rim and just buckling people over, and not even with a crossover -- he'll use an inside-out dribble with one hand and just keep it in the same hand to leave them on the floor. Andre Miller might not recover for a week and a half because he had back-to-back games trying to stay in front of Rose.
"The guy has a beautiful jump shot off the dribble. It looks textbook -- the rotation on the ball, everything. He just needs to concentrate on finishing the play with the right pass at the right time. But he's the kind of player that you rebuild your team around. He's that good.''
1. The champion Celtics surprisingly lead the league with 39 technicals, 11 more than the No. 2 team (Phoenix). "Our guys are getting chirped at a lot,'' Rivers said of the trash talking the Celtics hear from opponents this season. "And we're responding, so we have to do a better job there. But it's like I said to one of the officials, 'Don't give a guy a tech for being emotional as long as he's not embarrassing you. He's frustrated with himself.' ''
A big preseason question was whether the Celtics would have the hunger to fight for another title. Their technical fouls are in fact a positive sign of their fire.
"The only rule I have -- and we broke it a couple of times -- is no fourth-quarter techs,'' Rivers said. "Because those are killers. I don't want any techs. But I also don't want to ever [suppress] any of our emotion as a team. It's part of our personality.''