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Dwight Howard's Strong Play Starts His MVP Campaign in Earnest

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Of his superstar center Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said, "If you stopped it right now and he isn’t the MVP right now, something is seriously wrong," following Orlando's victory over the Washington Wizards last night. And Van Gundy may have a point. Howard has torn up the league to a remarkable degree so far this season and has put himself in the discussion for league MVP honors.

To be clear, Howard has ranked in the top five in league MVP voting in each of the last three seasons, but never really came close to winning. But this year, his stats are simply too eye-popping to ignore, and his impact has never been more positive.

Per-game numbers? 22.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.4 blocked shots. Bear in mind that this line constitutes an average game for this man, in less than 35 minutes per night. Further, he's shooting 59.8 percent, showing he hasn't lost much in terms of efficiency despite carrying a greater offensive load. Not that voters pay attention to advanced metrics, or anything, but Howard has a usage rate of 29.2 this year, meaning he's ending almost 30 percent of the Magic's possessions. That figure shatters his previous career high of 26.1 percent, set two seasons ago, and he's scoring a full two points per game more this season.

And that's really the key point here. Howard's still playing the same brand of dominant defense that's made him the runaway winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award in each of the last two seasons, but he's stepped up his offensive involvement. No matter how you look at it, and regardless of whether or not it's fair, the media would never go for Howard, or any other player, as an MVP winner without averaging at least 20 points. That number holds special sway, I believe. And barring a remarkable regression, Howard will exceed that mark this season.

I'm not sure what more the MVP voters can ask of Howard. Yes, his free-throw shooting needs to climb north of 53.8 percent, closer to his typical showing in the high fifties range. But he's made all the requisite improvements in other areas. Maybe some idiot will say he lacks leadership skills, or a killer instinct, I guess. He faces an uphill battle to become the league's first back-to-the-basket MVP since Tim Duncan in 2003. That year, Duncan averaged 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.9 blocks while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. His San Antonio Spurs finished with a 60-22 record. Those are some benchmarks to bear in mind as we monitor Howard's progress throughout the year.

To be clear, I'm not saying Howard is a no-brainer choice for the award, and he may finish fourth or fifth once more. He faces pretty stiff competition from the New Orleans Hornets' Chris Paul and the L.A. Lakers' Pau Gasol. But from here, it looks like Howard's play should give voters no other choice but to seriously consider him for the league's top honor.