Orlando Magic begin regular season under cloud of uncertainty

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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Orlando Magic have played 22 seasons.

Christmas night, their 23rd will begin with unprecedented uncertainty.

Dwight Howard, their cornerstone, wants to be traded, and traded soon, creating a cloud that hangs over the franchise.

A supporting cast that disappointed in last spring's playoffs has remained mostly the same, while conference rivals in Miami, Chicago and New York seem much better on paper. And, finally, the potential for injuries and ragged play is a concern across the entire league because of the long lockout layoff, an abbreviated preseason and the compressed 66-game schedule.

"It's going to be new for all of us," Howard said. "It's going to be different, I'll say that."

The roller-coaster ride will start at 8 p.m. Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, perhaps the top team in the Western Conference.

Whatever happens — on Christmas night and during the next few months — will not be boring.

Magic officials say they hope Howard will have a dramatic change of heart and choose to remain with the franchise long-term. A strong start to the season could help.

But at some point, the front office likely will have to confront the issue head-on.

The March 15 trade deadline is the final day the Magic could trade Howard and receive players in return. It is also the last day that another team could inherit Howard's "Bird rights," allowing that to give Howard a new five-year contract with 7.5 percent annual raises if he hits free agency in July.

The Magic have a momentous decision to make, and whatever occurs will shape the franchise on and off the court for years to come.

The immediate impact also could be significant.

Howard's future is one of the most-discussed story lines in the NBA. Other players, including starting small forward Hedo Turkoglu and backup point guard Chris Duhon, could be swept into a potential trade.

The Denver Nuggets endured similar scrutiny last season over Carmelo Anthony's future. But though there are other scorers on Anthony's level, no other center in the league today can compare with Howard.

"I think we just have to accept the fact that it is essentially a distraction, and when we're on the floor, we just have to buy in to what we're doing," Orlando guard J.J. Redick said.

Howard's stay-or-go saga would be difficult enough under any circumstances, but the team and its coaching staff face additional hurdles. The long NBA lockout will force them to play 19 pairs of back-to-back games and also one set of games on three consecutive days.

If that is not enough of a challenge, coach Stan Van Gundy eventually might have to adjust to the loss of his most indispensable player and the arrival of new players during a compressed season.

What Van Gundy said at the outset of training camp still applies.

"You have a sense of this isn't permanent: the group we have now," he said.

"So you don't know if this is the group you're going to have going forward or not. I think the players feel it a little bit, wondering what's going to happen and when. That's not going to change until the situation resolves itself one way or another."

The countdown begins Sunday in this small-market city against one of the league's toughest opponents.

"I think our chemistry's getting better," Howard said.

"It's going to take a while because of the short season, the short turnaround with the lockout being over. It's going to take a couple of games. It might take a while, but we will get it. We've just got to stay together, stay focused on what our goal is."

But how much longer will this current group of players stay together? Can the team develop and maintain cohesion with the possibility of a trade looming? And even if the team remains intact, is the roster good enough to contend for a title?

Critical questions.

No answers.

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