Magic survive Howard breakup

Dwight Howard and the Lakers fell to 8-9 with Sunday's loss to the Magic. Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- "Bye Baby," by Nas, might be the best post-breakup song ever. A little nostalgic reminiscing of the good days in the relationship, a realistic assessment of what went wrong, no lingering bitterness.

"At least I can say I tried, plus I enjoyed the ride."

That's the Orlando Magic post-Dwight Howard. They kept the house, the opulent Amway Center, in the divorce. Their owner didn't rattle off a whiny letter in comic sans font. They're happy with where they are at right now.

There is life in the NBA without a superstar … and sometimes you even beat a team loaded with them. Even better for the Magic, one of those stars was Howard. The old team beat the new team Sunday night. Magic 113, Los Angeles Lakers 103.

It fit right in with rookie coach Jacque Vaughn's vision for what this starless team can be. Put forth the effort and share the ball.

"We played for each other and we played with each other," said Vaughn, who was quick to note their 34 assists.

The Magic weren't deterred when Howard put up the kind of numbers (21 points and 15 rebounds) that he used to put up for them on a regular basis. They absorbed 34 points from Kobe Bryant. If Mike D'Antoni played Pau Gasol for only 29 minutes, that was fine with them. And the Magic aren't sending sympathy cards if Steve Nash has played only a game and a half, not when Jameer Nelson has missed almost half of their games.

Nelson was out there Sunday night, dropping 19 points and dishing 13 assists and pointing back to the bench after a big 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. J.J. Redick scored 14 points off the bench. After his last basket dropped through the net he clenched his fists in the way that used to agitate so many fans throughout the ACC when he played at Duke.

They were the only two players from the Magic's 2009 NBA Finals team who were in uniform Sunday night, so the game had the most meaning to them. The star of the game was Arron Afflalo, who came to Orlando from Denver as part of the four-team trade that sent Howard to L.A. He had 30 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds.

"It's always fun for me to come home and play," said the former Centennial high school and UCLA player. "But outside of that, I had no attachment."

Nelson insisted it meant more for the fans back in Orlando than the players on the court. There was minimal interaction between Howard and his old mates before the game, during or afterward.

"I don't have any hard feelings about the guy," Nelson said. "Certain guys don't shake hands after the game."

Redick said: "Ultimately each payer has to do what's in their best interests or what they perceive to be in their best interest. We all have to make a decision or choose a path that is best."

Howard chose the path to Hollywood, to the franchise that always gets the star centers (especially Orlando's star centers), the franchise that has hung more banners than any NBA team in the past 40 years. What could go wrong with that move?

Well, too much to recap right now. On this particular night, the Lakers didn't play good defense or take smart shots. Their array of stars has brought them an 8-9 record, only a game and a half better than the Magic in the league-wide standings. There is doubt, and with Gasol riding the bench in the fourth quarter and Bryant getting fed up with all the losing, they're only a step away from dissension.

From the Magic's perspective, their ex is now fat and friendless. Orlando, meanwhile, is hitting the treadmill and reading self-help books. They were criticized for being the only team in the four-way deal that didn't land an All-Star, but now they're looking wise for passing on Andrew Bynum and his bowling-blowout knees.

I'm still not crazy about the caliber of draft picks they landed, but at the moment, the only bad thing about having a first-rounder from the Lakers is that it's for 2017 and not next June; if the season ended right now it would be a lottery pick. Orlando got the assets it wanted (Afflalo sure played like an All-Star Sunday) and has flexibility moving forward. They could have as little as $23 million committed for the 2014-15 season if they don't exercise every team option at their disposal.

Sure, it's tough on the veterans, who don't want to hear about draft picks or future cap space. "It's interesting when you go from talking about a championship to talking about getting better every day," Redick said.

But victories like this one give Vaughn more credibility, make it easier to buy into his system.

Howard and all of his attendant drama would fit in with Vaughn's program like a pepperoni pizza at a vegan restaurant.

"I definitely wanted guys who wanted to be in the locker room," Vaughn said of his plan when he got the job. "That will always be our motive going forward. In order to have a team, for guys to pull for each other and respect each other and compromise for each other, you've got to have people in the locker room who want to be there."

Did that sound like Dwight Howard, circa 2012 to you? Then again, if you gave most coaches the choice between locker-room camaraderie or top-tier talent, they're choosing talent. Chemistry makes coaching more enjoyable, talent makes coaches more successful.

"Sometimes people try to make talent overcome [lack of chemistry]," Vaughn said. "Sometimes that works. But for the longevity and sustainability, sometimes that doesn't work."

With the talent gap, Vaughn went for tactics. He admitted beforehand that he might purposefully send Howard to the line, then he turned to it in the second half.

"I am a gentleman who believes in playing within the confines of the game," he said, saying his words as precisely as Gus Fring on "Breaking Bad." "And I think that falls in line with playing in the confines of the game."

They fouled him seven times as soon as he crossed half court and once after he grabbed an offensive rebound. He made only eight of the 16 attempts. The Lakers lost their rhythm and soon thereafter lost their lead. D'Antoni left Howard in, while keeping Gasol on the bench in the fourth quarter. The Lakers paid for it, and might continue to do so. They've played the most home games in the league, 12, but have only a 7-5 record to show for it. In other words, the hard part is still ahead, including most of their national TV games against the toughest competition.

The Magic? They're patiently moving forward, biding time until they can get another superstar. Perhaps Nas said it best:

Next go round I hope I pick the truest type
And watch me do it all again
It's a beautiful life, aaaight?