- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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Sensing the end could be near, Magic fans already have begun aggressively campaigning to keep Dwight Howard, who won't become a free agent until the summer of 2012, in Orlando.
Not wanting to be the latest small market to lose its superstar, fans have created a "Keep Dwight in Blue and White" Facebook page, along with StayDwight.com. They've printed T-shirts, erected billboards and engineered radio campaigns, all with the hope of creating a wave of support that persuades Howard to stay.
That's the voice of the fans. But if the team wants to keep him, clever billboards and creative marketing campaigns won't be enough. With Orlando on the verge of being eliminated by Atlanta in the first round -- the Hawks lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 on Tuesday night -- the Magic have to do something to prove to their star that they are serious about winning an NBA championship.
So here's the obvious solution: Go get Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
It won't be easy. Rivers has been coy about his future, and an NBA lockout might make things tricky.
To get it done, Orlando will have to resort to some paycheck persuasion.
As soon as they can, the Magic need to go to Rivers and offer to make him the highest-paid coach in the NBA.
Yes, they should offer Rivers more money than the Lakers are paying Phil Jackson, who is at the end of a two-year, $24 million deal.
It doesn't matter that Jackson has 10 more championships than Rivers, who has won one ring but is seeking a third trip to the NBA Finals with the Celtics in the last four years. Paying Rivers in excess of $24 million is nothing when you consider the ripple effect of losing Howard on Orlando's downtown economy, which is now anchored by the Magic's brand new, luxurious arena.
Besides, Rivers is worth it. He's a masterful motivator, an underrated X's and O's coach and among a handful of NBA coaches who command respect from both veterans and younger players.
Rivers' contract with the Celtics is finished at the end of this season, and while he says won't make a decision about his future until he consults with his family in the summer, the Magic should do whatever it takes to lure him back to Orlando. He coached the Magic for five years (1999-2003) and never won more than 44 regular-season games, but he's still beloved in Orlando.
If Rivers returns, it would be a much different situation than before. Because of Grant Hill's bum ankle, the Magic were never able to blossom into an elite team.
There are rumors that the Knicks and perhaps the Heat might make strong plays for Rivers, but Orlando is the best fit for him, both personally and professionally.
It would not only give him the chance to do what he couldn't do during his previous stint with Orlando, but he'd have the opportunity to mold a premier, MVP-caliber big man. As much as I respect Stan Van Gundy as a coach, I quibble with the way Van Gundy seems to enable Howard's immature attitude toward the officials, and that's one of the reasons Howard hasn't yet been the leader Orlando truly needs.
Maybe Rivers can change that.
Also, the Magic can offer some compelling personal reasons to persuade Rivers to return. His offseason home is in Orlando. His youngest son, Spencer, is a high school sophomore there; his daughter, Callie, plays volleyball at Florida, which is a two-hour drive from Orlando. The NBA schedule is rigorous, but it would be easier for Rivers to manage in a city where he has roots.
With the Magic one game away from playoff elimination, they have to be seriously contemplating their next move. If the fans are already mobilizing their efforts to keep Howard, then management has to, too.
As good a tactician as Van Gundy is, the Magic play like a team that can't go any further under his direction.
When Orlando traded for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas this season, the hope was that the new faces would spark a return run to the NBA Finals, where Orlando lost in five games to the Lakers two years ago.
Instead, the Magic have flat-lined. Orlando's flashes of brilliance have been undermined by even larger stretches of underachievement.
To put things in perspective, realize that Howard is averaging 32.3 points and 17.5 rebounds against the Hawks ahead of Game 5, but his phenomenal postseason is being lost in the Magic's uneven play.
Is this all Van Gundy's fault? No. General manager Otis Smith was too hasty in breaking up that 2009 Magic team that went to the Finals, and he's been fumbling ever since.
The big December trade hasn't panned out. Arenas, who is still owed about $60 million, has yet to consistently deliver the potent offense he was known for.
Turkoglu isn't the same player he was two years ago when the Magic lost him in free agency. Richardson has struggled to recreate the successful role he had in Phoenix; on most nights, no one knows what to expect from him.
It will take some imagination to reconstruct the Magic's roster; maybe it can't be done. But replacing the coach is always easier than replacing players in the NBA; and in this case, it might make all the difference.
The Magic need a coach who can energize their roster. They also need someone who can finally help their best player become an MVP.
A lot of people in Orlando still believe the Magic lost Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers 15 years ago because they weren't aggressive enough.
Ironically, the most prevalent rumor around town now is that Howard will follow Shaq's lead and join the Lakers for the 2012-13 season, the thinking being that playing in a big market like Los Angeles can turn him into the multi-dimensional star he's wanted to be.
Maybe Rivers is the one countermove that ensures history doesn't repeat itself.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.