Inside help came relatively cheap, but it could be worth a lot
By L. Jon Wertheim
Team Page | Conference ranking: 5 | Overall ranking: 14
Juwan Howard may have pulled off the most impressive feat of his career last season. In the final year of a seven-year, $105 million contract, he had -- rightly or wrongly -- become Exhibit A when fans talked about hypercompensated pro athletes. He turned 30, the age at which many NBA players' skills begin to desert them. He was in the hoops necropolis of Denver, playing for a team that won only 17 games. And in spite of all that, Howard's spirits remained buoyant and he didn't dog it on the court. "It's all part of the business," says the 6'9" Howard, who averaged 18.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. "You get paid to do a job, you do it."
Perhaps as a karmic reward for being a good soldier, Howard gets to do his job under more agreeable circumstances this season. Over the summer he signed a free-agent deal with playoff-bound Orlando. If Howard's new salary -- $28 million over five years -- is relatively modest, so too are the accompanying expectations. His job description: Alleviate the pressure on Tracy McGrady, who accounted for nearly one third of the Magic's scoring last season while also leading the team in total rebounds, assists and blocks. "If I can come in and give us 18 [points] and eight [rebounds] every night," Howard says, "it's clear that's going to be a big help."
Less clear is how he will play alongside emerging forward Drew Gooden, a smooth-shooting, inside-outside threat whose play (and even physical appearance) is reminiscent of Howard's. Magic coach Doc Rivers is optimistic the two can coexist, though that will likely mean alternating the 250-pound Howard among the frontcourt positions. "I'll play wherever Doc wants me to," he says. Give him credit: While Howard may no longer be the Man, he has decidedly been a man about his basketball fortunes.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Magic
"Their big weakness has been interior defense, and it might get worse because they no longer have Darrell Armstrong and Jacque Vaughn pressuring the ball for 48 minutes. They need that pressure to create easy baskets in transition and to scramble the game. When you're able to execute your set plays against the Magic and work the ball inside, you know you'll either get a layup or go to the line, because they have nobody to defend the goal.... Tyronn Lue might be able to apply full-court pressure, but I don't see them getting it from first-round pick Reece Gaines, a 6'6" guard from Louisville who will have a hard enough time proving that he can handle the point in the NBA.... Juwan Howard and Drew Gooden are two of their best players and they're both power forwards, which means if they're going to have a hard time playing together. Howard is skilled enough that you can throw the ball into him in the low post, but at 6'9" he'll be overmatched defensively against the bigger post-up centers.... Everybody talks about how Tracy McGrady needs to get his team out of the first round, but the guy who should be feeling the heat is coach Doc Rivers. A lot of people in the league criticize Doc for running plays that have no secondary option built in; if the defense shuts them down he just stops using them. So they wind up going to a lot of pick-and-rolls and post ups for McGrady, which makes them very easy to figure out.... The one advantage is that McGrady is handling the ball and he can create his own stuff. I go back and forth between him and Kobe on who's the best in the league.... They'll make the playoffs, but then they'll face a good, structured team that will know how to work the ball inside. I don't see how they get out of the first round."
Issue date: October 27, 2003