Magic have high hopes

Published: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Many of Orlando's high expectations for the upcoming season are tied to developing big man Dwight Howard.

The Associated Press


Magic at a glance

  • Division: Southeast
  • Record in 2005-06: 36-46, third in division
  • First game: Tonight vs. Chicago, 7 p.m.

  • ORLANDO - Dwight Howard swatted away the notion the same way he might an opposing center's shot.
    "Last year was last year and nothing we did then is going to help us now," said Howard, discounting the notion that the Orlando Magic's feel-good 16-4 closing kick from last season could somehow carry over to this season. "But what we will take from last season is knowing that as long as we play as a team and not get selfish, we have a chance to win a lot of games."
    Howard's Magic finished last season as one of the hottest in the NBA, sparking hopes that Orlando is on the verge of something special this season. Whether or not the Magic get a noticeable bump from the positive vibes from last season should be evident in Wednesday night's season opener when Orlando hosts the re-energized Chicago Bulls.
    Expectations haven't been this high here since 2000, when the Magic signed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill to matching $92.88 million free-agent contracts. With Howard entrenched in the middle as a rising star, standouts Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo running the point and Hill (finally) healthy on the wing, the Magic are one of the chic picks nationally to emerge as a playoff power in the Eastern Conference. Heady stuff, indeed, for a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2003.
    And Central Florida seems to have once again bought into the Magic. Season-ticket sales are up 3,800 and the team's renewal rate on season tickets is the highest it has been in 10 years, according to Magic COO Alex Martins. Tonight's game and Friday's home game against Philadelphia are already sellouts.
    "What we accomplished last year has helped this team realize what is expected of them and what is possible," general manager Otis Smith said. "We have a team that believes they can compete and beat anybody, and I'm right there with them. We're just as talented as any team out there. We're still a young team and we have lots of moving parts, but if we learn to play together, we can have a special team."
    The Magic were one of the quietest teams in the NBA over the summer, and that was largely by design. Orlando wanted to keep the team that defeated Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit down the stretch last season intact. The active roster features 11 players that were on last year's team. Keith Bogans, who replaced the departed DeShawn Stevenson, is the only newcomer.
    That familiarity and togetherness has led to a chemistry rarely found in NBA locker rooms, especially this early in the season. The Magic are hoping the group that ended so strongly last season can jump out to a fast start. Four of the first five games are at home and the fifth is against the lowly Hawks in Atlanta.
    "Our focus should be on getting this team to the playoffs," said Arroyo, who quickly became a fan favorite last season after the February trade with Detroit. "We need to make sure we don't get ourselves distracted from the goal. We have to make sure guys play their roles and don't worry about who is getting the credit when we win."
    Unlike most teams expected to make playoff runs, the Magic will rely heavily on their youthful core of Howard, Nelson and Darko Milicic. All three had impressive offseasons and reported to training camp eager to prove that last year's late-season success was no fluke.
    Howard, 20, just missed becoming the youngest rebounding champion in NBA history last season, and this year he's back with even more skill to his game. He was, without question, the Magic's best player in the preseason, attacking foes as he never has in his first two NBA seasons.
    His first test comes against new Bulls center Ben Wallace, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA. Chicago gave Wallace $65 million to stop players like the 6-foot-11, 268-pound Howard on the low block.
    "I'm not worried about Dwight at all," Nelson said, "because he always plays well against the superstars. Dwight's a superstar himself already. Twenty (points) and 15 (rebounds), that's what I'm expecting from him every night."
    Hill and Howard might be the stars of the Magic, but Nelson is the unquestioned leader. He blossomed on the court and in the locker room last fall when the Magic traded enigmatic point guard Steve Francis to New York. Nelson enters the season as a starter for the first time in three NBA seasons.
    "We've put a lot of weight on guys' shoulders and there is a lot expected of us," said Nelson, who averaged a career-best 14.6 points a game last season. "But I'm up for any and every challenge."
    Milicic could be the wildcard that separates the Magic from pretender to contender. The former draft bust bulked up from 255 pounds to 278 and was in line to be the starter at power forward until he bruised his lower back. He will start the season as the Magic's sixth man, but he's ultimately expected to unseat veteran Tony Battie at power forward.
    The Magic's ability to make the leap from feel-good finishers last season to legitimate contenders this season will likely coincide with their three youngsters expanding their games, Smith said.
    "I tell people we'll be as good as those two 20-something-year-old kids take us," Smith said, referring to Howard and Milicic. "And we need Jameer to continue to grow as a leader for us. We'll be as good as those guys are this season."

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