By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
ORLANDO -- It's his town, his arena and his breathing space; we're all just borrowing it right now with his permission. And Dwight Howard is OK with that.
But it's also his All-Star weekend, and the very thought of The Man in Orlando being The Man of the moment is absolutely haunting the part of Howard that wants Friday through Sunday to vanish without having to discuss what comes next.
Because, as much as Howard enjoys being the life of the party -- he's child-like, playful at times and laughs almost on cue -- he'd love if the lamp shade pulled over his head could muffle all the fuss surely coming his way.
Dwight, you staying?
Dwight, you going?
Dwight, you there? Hell-looo?
"I'm not talking about it."
That's what he said a month ago, and a week ago, and what he'll rehearse over the next 72 hours when the question of his bailing on the Magic is raised a few hundred times. And that's just from his fellow All-Stars. The media? Well, the less said to those annoying pests, the better. That has been his MO recently, issuing no-comments or just simply not saying anything.
In the meantime, the Magic have been winning, which is what Howard has questioned all along. They're No. 5 in the East even with the constant Dwight Drama beating heavily in the background. A season that could've unraveled when Dwight and his agent, Dan Fegan, tried to strong-arm the Magic into trading him to the Mavericks or Nets or Lakers has turned out better than expected. So far, anyway. And Dwight has had a lot to do with that, dishing a handful of 20-20 (points, rebounds) games and being his usual Superman self on the defensive end.
Oh, and they're winning despite Dwight refusing to back down an inch from his trade demand, which remains alive as we speak.
Unless he has a change of heart, there's nothing for him to say, verbally at least. His body language and his actions speak for him, and it's evident that Howard doesn't want to own Orlando anymore. He feels the team is a dead end from a championship perspective and the front office has no workable plan to prosper.
Otherwise, why stonewall and clam up? Why not speak up and sign up? Why not grab that three-team wish list, ball it up and swat it like so many foolish jump shots that come his way?
This isn't about gaining financial leverage; Orlando will give him the maximum contract this summer when he can become a free agent. This is all about Howard and Fegan believing his time in Orlando has run its course after eight seasons. There are other cities to "own" and better teammates to be surrounded by and mostly, a championship trophy to be secured a whole lot faster somewhere else.
That's what he's saying, without actually moving his lips.
Therefore, in a cruel coincidence, All-Star weekend will be media-dominated, at least initially, by a superstar making demands and using pending free agency as leverage. Isn't this exactly the type of situation that helped fuel the lockout?
Here's what the Magic are saying: We want you. We feel this is the best place for you and we think we can win a championship soon. But you will not pull a Shaquille O'Neal on us. You will not leave us holding onto Hedo Turkoglu, a bag of chips and a can of broken dreams.
Which means, he'll be dealt before the March trading deadline if Orlando feels it can't re-sign him.
And also this: Dwight, you may be a franchise player, but you're not the franchise.
Alex Martins, the Magic CEO, spoke glowingly recently about Howard, but also firmly about where the organization stood.
"Any winning franchise is about a team, not any individual player," he said. "One player does not a team make. I don't think Dwight is bigger than the team.
"You can't win a championship with one player, with two players. I think that's playing out in some of the teaming up situations that's occurring in the league. I think it's great that players want to team up ... but the reality is you need good coaching, role players and complementary players. And you need chemistry. If you don't have all of those pieces, an individual (star) or two is not going to win a championship."
Howard and the Magic are actually on the same page about winning, but Howard, from his actions, believes he's better off with the Nets and Deron Williams and the salary cap space Brooklyn will enjoy this summer. He'd rather have that than Ryan Anderson and Jameer Nelson.
If this is truly the beginning of the end, then the downfall of the Magic can be traced to 2007, when they went overboard trying to get Howard that first championship.
Then, they gave $119 million to Rashard Lewis, a free agent coming off 22.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in Seattle. Well, here's what happened next: Lewis' numbers declined every year in Orlando. The Magic did reach the NBA Finals, unfortunately the same year Kobe Bryant got Pau Gasol.
When the Magic failed to return to the Finals, management tried to rebuild on the fly while hamstrung by Lewis' contract, which approached $20 million a year. They gambled on Vince Carter, who by then could no longer jump over a guy for a dunk, and this is where the "build around Dwight" philosophy took a wicked turn for the worse.
They swapped Lewis for the only player who could be considered more overpaid, Gilbert Arenas, now collecting $60 million for doing nothing. They let Turkoglu go after his terrific 2009 playoff run. After Carter bombed, they sent him to Phoenix ... for Turkoglu, who wasn't the same player anymore, and Jason Richardson, steady but unspectacular.
And the real loss was giving up Marcin Gortat in the deal.
During his time in Orlando, Gortat was Howard's clean-up guy, a lumbering backup center with enviable athletic ability and soft hands but little clue as to how to play the game. Well, guess what? He knows how to play a bit now.
He's leading the Suns in scoring and rebounding. By giving up Gortat, the Magic lost their ace card in the Howard situation. Had they kept Gortat, they could swap Howard for a borderline star or two and it would be a bit easier to swallow than taking a chance on, say, Andrew Bynum's knees. To say it's been a tough run for general manager Otis Smith would be understating it.
But that's history, and the Magic are working on the present and the future, which means they're not going up on convincing Dwight to stay. At least not until next week, when they'll need an answer.
A few weeks ago, owner Rich DeVos chimed in, using his grandfatherly charm (he's 85) to try and connect with a young millionaire with options.
"Dwight is in a good place, and when you're young, sometimes you don't realize that," said DeVos, still with the fresh memory of Shaquille O'Neal trading Orlando for L.A. and winning titles for the Lakers.
With a $500 million arena to fill, the Magic don't want to endure another loss of a franchise big man and take the chance of seeing if another ping-pong ball can fall their way.
"We've rebuilt a couple of times," Martins said. "When you lose a player of Shaq's magnitude and get nothing in return, that period of rebuilding takes longer. We won't go through that again. Our No. 1 priority is to keep Dwight and re-sign him. We'll get to the point before the trading deadline to make our final evaluation. If we're convinced he's not going to re-sign under any circumstances, then we're not going to be left where we were before. We'll find the best deal available.
"The conversations I've had with him personally, there's a piece tugging at him saying he doesn't want to leave Orlando. There's a piece of Dwight that knows this is the best place for him to win. Deep inside he knows we've done everything possible to win, except win it all."
And if they lose Howard? Well, the Magic are putting up a brave face, at least. Martins sees Orlando as a destination city for NBA players who can enjoy the benefits of a tax-free state and year-round sunshine.
"From that perspective, our chances to win has not run out at all," he said. "We may not have a ping pong ball jump to the top again ... if this organization is going to rely on luck to win a championship, we'll never win. But we're going to continue to put the right pieces together and someday we'll get there."
Someday in the near future, Orlando would love to host a different kind of basketball celebration that will top this weekend. But that will largely depend on what happens after this weekend.
It's not the party that worries Orlando, just the after party.
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