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Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard reacts as the Magic defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-114 in overtime during Game 4. (Phelan Ebenhack)
Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard reacts as the Magic defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-114 in overtime during Game 4. (Phelan Ebenhack)

Howard ready to battle improving East rivals Add to ...

To hear Dwight Howard tell it, the Orlando Magic are set to win a championship with Vince Carter in the fold, and the Toronto Raptors will be a contender in the NBA's Eastern Conference with the addition of ex-teammate Hedo Turkoglu.

Howard, the Magic's franchise player, was in suburban Vancouver yesterday, using his million-dollar smile and giant personality to promote several new products from sports video-game developer Electronic Arts. Matched against tennis star Venus Williams, Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic, and Major League Soccer's Sacha Kljestan in a four-sport showdown, one of the NBA's giant entertainers stole the show, especially after his goal celebrations in hockey and soccer.

But Howard and his Magic have also been front-and-centre through the first two weeks of NBA free agency, as conference rivals have positioned themselves to compete against the new beasts from the east.

That includes the Raptors, who signed Turkoglu to a five-year, $53-million (all currency U.S.) contract this month, robbing Howard of an important supporting cast member. Orlando responded by trading for Carter, the former Toronto superstar, who will be charged with avenging the team's five-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA final last month.

"I think he's going to do a lot better than he has in the past couple of years," Howard said of Carter, a 32-year-old Florida native whose scoring average has slipped the past two seasons. "He's happy to be home. He's been talking about playing with us for three or four years now, and I'm looking forward to it. I know he's excited, and we have a revitalized, rejuvenated Vince Carter."

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the East, it was a case of the rich getting richer by adding big bodies, players who can defend Howard, the 6-foot-11, 265-pound centre who has emerged as one of the NBA's premier players.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, upset by the Magic in the conference final this past season, traded for Phoenix Suns centre Shaquille O'Neal to team with league most valuable player LeBron James. The Boston Celtics, just one season removed from an NBA title, added free-agent forward Rasheed Wallace, who won a championship with the Detroit Pistons.

"I think the power is shifting to the East," said Howard, who averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds a game in the 2009 playoffs.

But Howard, who was the league's top defensive player last season after winning an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. men's team, also saved praise for the Raptors and Turkoglu. He admitted that losing the 30-year-old Turk would hurt his team, and said the versatile 6-foot-10 forward would help his close friend Chris Bosh, Toronto's franchise player.

"I think they're going to be a contender this year," the 23-year-old said of the Raptors, who missed the playoffs last season. "[Turkoglu]has helped my game in the past couple of years to get where it is today. … Hedo is a great piece to fit in their team, with his style and his ability to get to the basket and create for others."

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