Magic eliminated, but likely won't disappear from contention in years ahead

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By John Denton | Special to ESPN.com

Dwight HowardAP Photo/Carlos OsorioDwight Howard's season ended in the Game 5 loss to Detroit, short of his goal of playing in June.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Dwight Howard was sitting in the training room all slump-shouldered and sad after the Orlando Magic were eliminated from the playoffs, when a teammate mentioned how it often takes a team getting its heart broken in the postseason before it finally breaks through.

Howard certainly knows a thing or two about playoff pain, having been bounced out of the postseason both this year and last year by the Detroit Pistons. The Magic were embarrassingly swept last spring, so technically this year's 4-1 whipping at the hands of the Pistons reflected a small step of progress. In actuality, the series was much closer, with three down-to-the-wire finishes.

If Howard is looking for a model for the Magic to try to pattern themselves after, all he had to do is look across the hallway of The Palace.

"It's a really big step for us this season, but it just didn't finish the way that we wanted it to," Howard muttered some 90 minutes after Orlando's 91-86 Game 5 loss to the Pistons. "It hurts, but we want to be a great team like the Pistons. We want to be where they are. We want to still be playing in June next season."

By June, of course, Howard means reaching the NBA Finals. The Magic started the season with visions of repeating the run that LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers made last year all the way to the NBA Finals. General manager Otis Smith posted pictures of the Larry O'Brien championship trophy at the entrance of the practice facility and in the lockers of each player so there was no confusion about the ultimate goal.

And according to Detroit coach Flip Saunders, who knows a thing or two about getting a team deep into the playoffs, the Magic are well on their way to becoming the next dominant team in the Eastern Conference.

"They are a team that will be here for a long time for years to come," Saunders predicted. "With Dwight and all the pieces they have, they are definitely a team on the rise."

Whether they ever rise to the level of the Pistons -- Eastern Conference finalists for a sixth consecutive season -- will depend largely on whether the Magic can get past their turnover woes. The gaffes piled up Tuesday like cars in a freeway accident. Eight of them came in the first quarter, when the Magic were playing desperate and pressing. And another six came in the fourth period to undermine a passionate push that cut Detroit's lead to one with 40 seconds left.

To make matters worse, the Pistons set an NBA record for fewest turnovers in a playoff game (three) -- and that was without All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups. By contrast, Orlando had as many turnovers (76) as assists (76) in the five-game series.

Still, Howard and fellow co-captain Jameer Nelson, whose prediction that Orlando would win Game 5 flopped badly, were able to look beyond Tuesday's frustrating finish and reflect on a season that had far more highs than lows.

Orlando won 52 regular-season games and the Southeast Division title, franchise bests over the past 12 years. Also, the Magic vanquished Toronto 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs, the team's first playoff series victory since 1996, when Shaquille O'Neal roamed the lane in Magic pinstripes.

Howard took a major step in his evolution as the NBA's best big man by becoming a first team All-NBA player, just the third in franchise history. Hedo Turkoglu made the biggest leap of anyone on the roster, winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award. And Lewis and Nelson played their best basketball in the playoffs after signing controversial contracts that raised more than a few eyebrows.

"We're going to be here for a long time, there's no doubt in my mind," said Nelson, who averaged 15.2 points against the Pistons. "We're not going anywhere. We definitely made progress this season and we're only going to get better."

Smith, who was mostly panned nationally for committing $118 million over six seasons to Rashard Lewis last summer, said his relatively inexperienced Magic team more than held its own against the playoff-hardened Pistons. But Smith is far from being satisfied, since he is of the school of thought that there is one winner and 29 losers each season in the NBA.

By locking up the Magic's core players -- Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu and Nelson -- to long-term contracts, Smith has seemingly put the Magic in position to make a sustained, legitimate run at a championship. Extra size at power forward is an issue, but Smith feels Tony Battie's return following a season missed because of shoulder surgery will help. Also, Smith knows he must upgrade at shooting guard since Maurice Evans, Keyon Dooling and possibly Keith Bogans (option year) will become free agents.

And Smith is supremely confident that he has the right man to get the most out of Howard & Co. in Stan Van Gundy, the coach who almost never got a shot to lead this team -- remember, Billy Donovan was the first choice as coach last spring. As it turned out, Van Gundy was just the pusher and prodder the Magic needed after years of underachieving.

"I think Stan has done a good job of bringing consistency to this team and these guys," Smith said. "Like me, he's never going to be OK with being OK. That's kind of the mantra for both of us. I think it's made us a tougher group. We know that we're better than OK, and we're not ever going to settle for that."

Van Gundy, who lives and dies with results of even the most random regular-season games, took Tuesday's Game 5 defeat especially hard. Able to think only of turnovers and missed free throws, Van Gundy said it was hard for him to see the bright future that is unquestionably ahead for the Magic.

"I have a hard time distancing myself from this game," Van Gundy said. "As I said to our players, it's the toughest time of the year because normally you are talking about things you didn't do well. It's a really tough feeling for a coach when a season ends. It's over. There's nothing to improve, nothing to go to work on tomorrow, and watching the film does you no good.

"There's nothing but pain, to be honest."

John Denton is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.