Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE
The Orlando Magic received awful news Thursday when they learned Dwight Howard, their franchise cornerstone center, would require season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. The Magic had grown somewhat accustomed to playing without Howard--he'd missed eight of their last 10 games prior to the announcement--but Howard's surgery ensures they'll need other players to pick up the load, on both ends of the floor, for the balance of the season. No player will feel that burden more than Jameer Nelson, the point guard who shares team captain duties with Howard.
As a point guard, Nelson may not be the most obvious candidate to step up in the All-Star center's absence, but the reasons why become fairly clear upon further consideration. Howard shoulders enormous responsibility for Orlando's offense, as he leads the team with 20.6 points per game, but the Magic simply cannot get those 20.6 points the same way they would if he were healthy, namely by posting up. Indeed, Orlando has hardly posted up in his absence, and even went one game running one post-up in 103 overall plays.
Nelson is Orlando's most proven scorer apart from Howard, and though he's improved dramatically after a slow start--since returning from a concussion he suffered in late January, Nelson is averaging 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game, shooting 44.2 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from three-point distance--he'll find his responsibilities increase without Howard. Not only must he run a greater share of pick-and-rolls to find open teammates, but he'll also have to look for his own shot more often than he has. Orlando is Nelson's team, at least until his good buddy Howard returns next season.
Nelson won't have to carry this burden alone--Ryan Anderson will need to step it up as well, as will Glen Davis and Jason Richardson--but as the point guard, it's his task to run Orlando's offense minus its highest-usage player. Striking the balance between facilitating and scoring won't be easy, but Nelson has proven in postseasons past that he can do it. He did that, however, with Howard in the lineup. It's Nelson's challenge to accomplish the same without him.