ORLANDO — Dwight Howard is as strong as deodorant. He covers up a lot, makes his team smell much prettier, and the Magic definitely don’t sweat as much when he’s around.
And when he isn’t on the floor … well, we present the first-round series with the Pacers, which suffers from bad aroma from the Magic’s perspective. It’s not as if the basketball world needed hard evidence of Howard’s importance to the Magic and the way they orbit around him, but here it is. The obvious. You take a franchise player off any team, and this is what you get. In a nutshell, Howard’s teammates shoot a lot better, dribble a lot better and look a lot better when he’s commanding the other team’s attention and covering for their mistakes.
Take Ryan Anderson, for example.
Anderson is a strong contender for the Kia NBA Most Improved Player Award because of the hard work he put in last summer, the hours dedicated to improving his 3-point jumper and the knowledge that 2011-12 would a money year for him as a pending free agent. Oh, and he also improved partly because Howard drew lots of double-teams, leaving Anderson wide open for jumpers.
But against the Pacers, Anderson seems at a loss. He’s missing something, and can you take a guess what or who it might be? The NBA leader in 3-pointers made and attempted is shooting 5-for-15 beyond the stripe in three games. That’s astonishing for a player who was often good for five 3-pointers in a game. Anderson shot 11-for-20 on 3s against the Pacers during the regular season but of course, Howard was around for those games. To say the Pacers’ defensive strategy on Anderson has suddenly changed would be understating it.
“They stay home on him,” said coach Stan Van Gundy.
David West: “We know he’s a dangerous shooter from distance, so we play him tight, which we’re able to do because of the circumstances.”
In his first season as a starter, Anderson was a revelation for the Magic, averaging 16 points a game and making teams pay for collapsing on Howard. But there’s the possibility he might come off the bench in Game 4 on Saturday with Van Gundy examining ways to jump-start his team. In addition to shooting well below his pace, Anderson isn’t rebounding or defending particularly well, either.
Orlando’s system depends heavily on Howard, who allows his teammates to spread the floor and shoot threes. Anderson is the major beneficiary of that, but also Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Jason Richardson. Only Redick is matching his regular-season production, and most of the Magic offensive is being generated by Glen Davis.
“It’s frustrating,” said Anderson, “both for me and us as a team. All I can do is be as aggressive as I can. I need to come off screens and if I get the ball, be aggressive with it.”
That’s a lot easier to do with Dwight around.
This is all coming at a bad time for Anderson. He’ll get a major pay raise this summer, but a lot of general managers around the league are updating their notes on him. Do they risk big money on a player who seems to thrive best when left open, and doesn’t demonstrate an ability to reach the rim off the dribble? Anderson might be the league’s smoothest 6-foot-10 shooter after Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. For someone who isn’t thickly built, he is also an underrated rebounder in traffic. Yet, as we see, he has limitations as well.
Anderson isn’t the only reason Orlando is teetering in a series nobody expected them to win, but he’s the poster boy. Orlando is at a talent disadvantage against Indiana, all because of one player. Dwight Howard has made his teammates lots of money, raised their profile and helped them win games. Without him, the Magic are sweating and in serious need of deodorant.