ORLANDO, Fla. -- To understand how hard it is to win a championship, consider the burdens of the Magic. They have one of the three most valuable players in the league (alongside Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) to go with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. And yet they don't look close to contending for the title over the next three months.
Ninety minutes before the visiting Bulls held his team to a Chicago-record 59 points in a dreadful loss Monday while injured MVP Derrick Rose watched from the bench, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy brought up the need for the Magic to improve defensively and take better care of the ball.
"We're the No. 11 defensive team in the league -- that says 'mediocre,' " Van Gundy said. "And then when you're going to be in the bottom quarter of the league in turnovers [the Magic rank 25th by committing 15.5 per game], you're in a lot of trouble. I would like a sense of urgency in getting those two areas corrected."
To his team and other contenders that hope to suddenly fix their problems in the playoffs, Van Gundy dealt a harsh truth.
"This is not just us, this is every team in the league -- we don't get a lot of practice time this year," he said. "So habits have got to be developed during the game.
"We're just not building good-enough habits and making solid-enough decisions," he went on. "At the end of the day, you're going to hit the playoffs and you're going to be left with your habits. It's always been true to me, in watching not only my teams but other teams, that what you're left with are your habits. You're not going to transform. Teams that turn the ball over a lot all year long aren't going to hit the playoffs and turn it over eight times because you're going to concentrate. You're going to play to your habits. If you didn't guard all year, you're not going to guard in the playoffs. You're going to try to play harder, but so is everybody else. So you're going to be left with what you do, and you have to build those habits.
"You're running out of time -- you've got five and a half weeks. It's time, and you've got to start getting better on a nightly basis."
What should be the Magic's overriding goal? Should it be to play to their potential this season, or should it be to improve the roster in order to persuade Howard to sign on for the long term beyond next season? In theory, the Magic ought to be pursuing both goals simultaneously, as the best teams do. In reality, the latter appears to be ruining attempts at the former.
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The differences between Chicago and Orlando revealed the issues that trouble the Magic. The Bulls' top three perimeter players -- Rose, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton -- have been injured for much of the season, and yet Chicago continues to stubbornly pursue the larger goals of team defense and ball movement regardless of who is or isn't wearing its uniform.
Howard has wanted to see the Magic improve the talent around him, which can be a constructive argument on behalf of his franchise and its fans. In the meantime, however, is he making the most of his talent and the talents of his teammates? The Magic were at full strength Monday and easily the more talented team individually, given the absences of Rose and Hamilton and the painful wrist injury that has limited Deng.
There is so much more that can be accomplished while the Magic wait for a star to be imported alongside Howard. Instead, they look and play as if they're thinking about their future. The Bulls look as if they're fully invested in the present while investing their energies and ambitions to the benefit of one another.
The Magic were performing with that kind of efficiency as recently as 2009, when they reached the NBA Finals while playing to the same style as they're trying (and failing) to achieve today.
"It's just factual stuff, looking at the numbers -- that team was a much better defensive team," said Van Gundy, comparing then to now. "And actually a much better offensive team, too. I thought our ball movement at that time, unselfishness and everything, was better than it is now. There's no reason we can't play at that level.''
Four contributors remain from the '09 finalists -- Howard, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick. "Obviously, everybody else is changed," Van Gundy said. "And look, even the same people on teams change from year to year, because at times their capabilities change. Sometimes their goals and aspirations change, and where they're at mentally and everything else. Every year is a new year."
In some ways, Howard has improved as a player, especially in terms of his footwork around the basket. But in other ways, he has regressed. His free-throw shooting (48.3 percent) is worse than ever, and his leadership of this team has clearly suffered. Maybe he believes he doesn't have enough talent around him, but on Monday he was confronted by a contender that was doing more with less.
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Maybe this is a one-year setback for him, as he has waffled back and forth between wanting to be like other stars who have moved, and then wanting to separate himself from their trend and establish his own roots. The larger point is that there isn't likely to be a blockbuster trade anytime soon that can provide him with the superstar teammates he desires. The Magic will have the expiring contracts of Nelson and Redick that could be dangled this summer or next season. But trading them could do more harm than good because Nelson would need to be replaced by a high-level point guard and Redick is fully integrated into the Magic style.
"I don't look at it as a one-year plan to convince anyone to do anything," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "We continue to move our organization forward. Our objective is to win an NBA title, with or without Dwight. We would like to have Dwight on our team, but that can't be our sole focus in terms of how we move forward as an organization.
"You can't operate a team under the premise that you have to make one person happy, because it's destined to fail. It's destined to fail."
Of course, Howard would not argue with his GM's comments. In his own statements, Howard has made it clear that he wants his interests and the interests of his team to be one and the same. The Magic's failure to fulfill themselves isn't entirely Howard's fault, because how good, after all, would they be without him? They would be starting over from the bottom if he were gone.
But the relationship between star and team runs both ways. Shouldn't this team be performing better while he is here?
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Look at it this way: Does Orlando have the talent to win a championship? Howard has straddled both sides of this issue. Earlier this year, he was saying repeatedly that he wanted to play for a team that could win, while requesting a trade to the Nets, Mavericks or Lakers. Then last week, he said he and his teammates can win this year.
I would have said no, the Magic aren't talented enough to win in June. But now I've seen what Chicago has been able to do around Rose's single-minded leadership. The Bulls may not be talented enough to prevail, but at least they're giving themselves the chance.
It was three years ago that Howard and his teammates were giving themselves the same kind of fighter's chance by reaching the Finals, which remains the greatest achievement of Howard's career. All I know for sure is this: It was not Howard's intention as a potential free agent to sell himself short.