Posted Mar 2 2012 10:40AM
Before D-Day comes D-Weekend, which is finally here for the Magic and the perplexing situation involving their franchise center.
Dwight Weekend means Dwight Howard will be pressed by the organization for a final answer: Does he want stay and sign an extension, or leave?
Unless their knees have weakened suddenly, the Magic have long insisted that Howard will not walk without the franchise getting reasonable compensation for him. Which means, without a signed contract or a promise of a signature from Howard, the Magic will ship him by the March 15 trade deadline.
Here's what the Magic want to hear by Monday from Dwight: "I'm staying." The Magic have spent all season trying to convince him that Orlando is his best option, from a winning standpoint, organizational standpoint and city-to-own standpoint. Even at this late hour, team executives say keeping Howard remains their top priority. They've pulled out all the stops, from getting owner Rich DeVos involved, to allowing Howard to have a heavy voice on trade matters, to making him the showpiece and the face of All-Star weekend. With the possible exception of Kobe Bryant, no star pushes more weight within his organization.
But, as team CEO Alex Martins said, Dwight "is not bigger than the organization." There's a difference. Meaning, the show must go on, either with (preferably) or without Howard. And it will go on, because Orlando is a proven destination for free agents, with a new arena and year-round sunshine and favorable state tax.
Trading Howard could give the Magic the chance to start over, especially if they can package Hedu Turkoglu's contract and acquire a young player or high draft pick in return, or clear cap space.
Any thought of the Magic making last-minute trades to surround Howard with better help, on the other hand, must take a very important issue under consideration: Orlando has little to trade. The roster is lacking in young players with upside, or impact veterans, or even lottery picks. Ryan Anderson is having a breakout season but some NBA scouts believe that's due to the open looks he gets as a result of playing with a dominant big man. Even if the Magic could strip themselves of all useful parts to get a decent player -- say Monta Ellis, who has been mentioned -- would they be better than fifth in the conference, where they are now?
Further complicating matters is Dwight's previously stated desire to sign with only three teams: Mavericks, Nets or Lakers. That limits the Magic's options. The Mavericks can only offer players past their prime, the Lakers could swing an injury-prone Andrew Bynum or contract-heavy Pau Gasol, and the Nets couldn't send a superstar in return.
All along, the Magic had no intention of shipping Howard to the Nets right away. There are two reasons for that. One, Brook Lopez, who would come to the Magic in any deal, was hurt. Two, the Magic didn't want to send Howard to the Nets for (among other things) a No. 1 pick, watch the Nets reach the playoffs, and ruin the value of the pick. By waiting, the Magic would get a healthy Lopez and a likely lottery pick, since it's probably too late in the season for Howard to rally the Nets.
Bynum might be an injury risk, but at least his contract runs out after next season, so there would be no repeat of a Gilbert Arenas situation. As for Gasol, he's a win-now player; whether the Magic would be in position to win before he breaks down is questionable.
One way or another, the franchise wants an answer. It's been a long several months, made complicated by the lockout last summer, when Orlando couldn't have contact with Howard or his people. And when the gag order was lifted, Dan Fegan, Howard's agent, delivered a three-team wish list and issued an ultimatum.
During All-Star weekend, Howard was quiet on the issue, as the franchise and the league requested, so he wouldn't overwhelm the weekend and shift attention away from his fellow All-Stars. However, his self-imposed silence continued even after the All-Star Game; when told his mother wanted him to stay in Orlando, Howard replied, "That's her opinion."
He didn't bother to give his.
But he will now. In a sense, he owes it to an organization that has stuck by him, met his demands and covered from him the last few months. He owes it to DeVos, who has treated Howard with respect and given him as much time and space as possible. He owes it to his teammates, who essentially are being told they're not good enough for Howard; why else would he want to leave?
And he owes it to himself, to bring closure so he can move on.
"We want him to stay," Martins said recently, "and we're doing everything we can to keep him here."
And if that doesn't work, then you know what court the Magic and Howard are headed to, and it's not the basketball court.
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