- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - The season the Orlando Magic have long waited for has arrived.

Their sparkling new arena is open. The scar left by Shaq’s departure has healed. A new Superman has taken over.

The plan is in place.

“We have the talent, the culture, the attitude, the facilities. Everything we’ve worked to have we have,” Magic president of basketball operations Otis Smith said. “Now we need the title.”

So the chase begins.

The new Amway Center aside, Orlando starts this season much the same way it did the last two: with a deep and talented roster around All-Star center Dwight Howard and expectations of a championship and nothing else.

The Magic, winners of the last three Southeast Division titles under coach Stan Van Gundy, were well into the luxury tax and had little wiggle room in free agency this summer. They return an almost identical roster to the one that had the NBA’s second-best record last season and are counting on continuity to improve.

“I like our team the way it is and I’ve liked it for some time,” Smith said. “We went into the offseason saying we were only going to make tweaks to the team and that’s what we did. We’re just trying to go that extra eighth of an inch.”

So close.

Yet so far away.

Even with the talent and the expectations that come it, the road to Orlando’s elusive first championship has more obstacles than ever. LeBron James has partnered with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Boston has gotten bigger. The Lakers are still the two-time defending champions.

The only difference in Orlando’s lineup this year is that starting small forward Matt Barnes and reserve point guard Anthony Johnson are gone, replaced by Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon. Howard, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson are still the anchors with a bench that can go 14 players deep.

The Magic are only two seasons removed from an NBA finals appearance and out to redeem their poor showing in the Eastern Conference finals. They were bounced by Boston in six games despite having home-court advantage and sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs, a humbling exit that still stings.

“Sometimes losing is the best thing to happen to you,” Howard said. “It wasn’t good for us to get put out of the playoffs the way that we did, but we learned a lot. We’re going to use that to make us a better team.”

The Magic are relying heavily on Howard _ the NBA’s twice reigning defensive player of the year _ to improve his offensive skills. He worked with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon this summer to develop a mid-range game, has limited his playful antics and come with a more serious approach.

But even Superman needs sidekicks.

In the decisive playoff round last season, Carter struggled mightily against the Celtics, Lewis was shut down and Orlando’s deep bench all but disappeared. Add the attention the Heat’s All-Star trio has received and the Magic have all the motivation they need.

“The attitudes are different. There isn’t as much joking around,” Nelson said. “I think we kind of matured over the summer.”

The chance at a championship might not be there forever, either.

The Magic bordered on irrelevance for so many years after Shaquille O’Neal bolted for the Lakers in the summer of 1996, and it wasn’t until another No. 1 overall pick came their way with Howard in 2004 that the franchise started to be rebuilt from ruins.

The monument to Orlando’s steady rise back to prominence is its new downtown arena, a decade of politicking and on-the-court struggles coming to fruition. Everything has been constructed for this season.

All that’s missing from a complete coronation is that first championship.

“Every year in this league that you have to be with an outstanding team is an opportunity that you have to make the most of,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “A lot of our guys have gone through it the other way where you are with teams that aren’t that good and don’t have a chance.

“So when you get a chance to play on an outstanding team that has a chance to accomplish big things, you have to do everything you can as a player and coach to make the most of it.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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