NBA

Magic remain optimistic as post-Howard era begins

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)

In the building Dwight Howard's exploits helped build it's hard to find even the smallest remnant of the former Orlando center these days.

The photographs, murals and other likenesses that once adorned virtually every other crevice inside the Magic's Amway Center have been scraped away, now just painful reminders of championship aspirations never realized.

After taking the Magic through one of the most tumultuous years in their history, the six-time all-star who called himself Superman is now a villain - departed from the city he once pledged to take to its first NBA title.

Change is everywhere for the new-look Magic.

Orlando enters the season with a new general manager, coach and roster full of new faces - and a promise to recover is the rallying cry of those that are left.

The marketing slogan for the first year of the post-Howard era: ''We will.''

''It's a new, exciting beginning, a new era for Magic basketball,'' CEO Alex Martins said. ''It's great to see a bunch of guys in camp that really want to be here and really want to wear that Orlando Magic on front of their uniform.''

Whatever the mood following the divorce from Howard, change is not a new word here. After all, the franchise is helped by similar wholesale upheaval following the departure of Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 to the same Los Angeles Lakers team that Howard now finds himself.

Since taking over for fired coach Stan Van Gundy, first-year coach Jacque Vaughn has not shied away from the new slate he's been handed by first-time general manager Rob Hennigan. He's also selling a fresh start approach to a roster that returns just four players that have been with the organization more than one season.

One of those players, point guard Jameer Nelson, isn't fearing the newness, even though he acknowledges it will be a vastly different team now.

''I think we can be better than people think because they don't know, nobody knows what's gonna happen,'' Nelson said. ''So for people to count us out automatically, that's just people writing things. It's up to us to go out there and work hard, make ourselves better and establish an identity.''

Health will be an extra impediment for the Magic, at least during the early part of the season.

Vaughn was one of the last coaches to begin the cut down process for his regular-season roster because so many members of his projected rotation spent most of the preseason on the mend.

With shooting guard Jason Richardson, forward Ryan Anderson and Howard all gone from last year's starting lineup, Nelson and forward Hedo Turkoglu entered training camp as the only holdovers.

But Vaughn has been curtailed in seeing what will likely be his opening night lineup of Nelson, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, forwards Turkoglu and Glen Davis and center Nik Vucevic, mostly because Afflalo has been restricted by a nagging sore left hamstring.

Other expected rotation contributors also have also spent their preseasons rehabbing injuries, including rookie forward Maurice Harkless (sports hernia surgery), forward Al Harrington (knee surgery), backup point guard Ish Smith (shoulder surgery) and swingman Christian Eyenga (hamstring).

It's all going to demand a coach with a lot of patience to manage a group that likely won't be in the best position to produce the Magic's fifth 50-win season in the last six seasons or seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

The 37-year-old Vaughn fashions himself as a no frills person who has a calm demeanor that he says won't change. Even as he becomes the league's youngest head coach.

''That's the most important thing, for me not to pretend to be anyone else but myself,'' Vaughn said. ''That's how I've been and that' great advice for me going forward...I will be me.''

His mentor as a player and assistant the past two seasons in San Antonio, Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich, said that he doesn't think Vaughn will have trouble finding his coaching legs.

''We're all different,'' Popovich said. ''He'll do it with a lot more class than I do it. If I get angry, it shows up on a sleeve...But he in that sense is a lot classier and lot more mature. And I think over time that will serve him really well.

''I have to be who I am and he has to be who he is. But he's a much more calm individual. Now, he will get miffed from time to time and they will test his patience from time to time, like any time would and he'll be as direct as he needs to be.''

The good news for Vaughn is that he seems to have a group that is primed to embrace the remaking of the Magic.

Vaughn has promised an up-tempo, free-willing approach to his offense and merit-based system for playing time that has piqued everyone's interests.

That is particularly true for an upward trajectory player like Afflalo, who will have a role with the Magic that could allow him to raise his profile like he never really had the opportunity to do in Detroit or Denver.

His outputs, most notably his scoring, have improved each of his five seasons in the league. Though he shuns any talk of being able to be a first-time all-star, he says he's ready to be counted on.

''I want to be a versatile player for this team,'' Afflalo said. ''To be able to score, to defend, to mentor. Whatever the coach needs, if I can enable this team to be successful, I want to be able to do it.''

Davis said no one in the locker room is thinking about who isn't in it anymore.

''The only all-star in here is Jameer. So, for us to be successful we're gonna have to use each other,'' he said. ''We're gonna have to play basketball. And that is making sure we execute whatever coach wants us to do...The mentality that (Vaughn) has us playing, he's telling us to play free, with the right mindset and great spirit...That's what it's about and what we have to do to be successful.''

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

Tagged: Lakers, Magic, Al Harrington, Jacque Vaughn, Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo

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