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In Orlando, a Magic rebound

Can center Dwight Howard lead his team to the top of the NBA? A handful of analysts – and a few fans – say yes.

By ERIK SPANBERGCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2008

It's a slam dunk: Dwight Howard, a 22-year-old center, is leading the charge for the resurgent Orlando Magic.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

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Charlotte, N.C.

Dwight Howard likes high-percentage shots. As in slam dunks.

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On a recent visit to North Carolina to take on the Charlotte Bobcats, Howard, a 22-year-old center for the Orlando Magic, took advantage of his superb size and skills while leading his surprising young team to a 16-point victory. Howard created constant mismatches close to the basket for the outmanned Bobcats as he scored a team-high 33 points, while collecting 18 rebounds.

Nights like these have become more and more common for Howard and Orlando, a franchise on the rise in the Eastern Conference. To date, the Magic has compiled one of the conference's best records (27-17 through Jan. 24) while raising eyebrows across the NBA.

"They did a tremendous job building their team," says Jalen Rose, a retired NBA veteran and current ESPN analyst. "The core of their team was built through the draft with Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Then you go out and get what you need."

Indeed, the Magic began building a new kingdom in the 2004 draft in the wake of a dreadful 21-61 season.

Orlando made Atlanta prep sensation Howard the No. 1 overall pick in that draft and then grabbed Nelson, a standout guard, in a draft-day trade.

Those moves led to a 15-game improvement in wins during 2004-05. Last season, the Magic reached the playoffs for the first time in four years, losing to Detroit in the opening round. This season, Orlando is causing a stir with its latest leap up the NBA ladder, one that could put the team in the upper tier for years to come.

Such bold strides give Magic fans hope of a renaissance echoing the franchise's mid-1990s glory days. Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway made Orlando a giddy young powerhouse, with enough star power to fuel pop-culture cachet and power a run to the NBA Finals. Soon enough, O'Neal left to become a Los Angeles Laker and Hardaway became injury-prone. Subsequent Orlando runs – led by Grant Hill and, later, Tracy McGrady – came unraveled.

A slow but steady rebound began in 2004, capped by several prominent moves in recent months.

During the off-season, Orlando added a key player to its lineup by trading for Seattle scorer Rashard Lewis. A veteran forward with a nifty range for his position, Lewis has helped the Magic force teams to focus on more than Howard, the anchor in the middle.

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