Posted Mar 15 2012 7:08PM
ORLANDO -- This is not the end. This is a continuation. Because Dwight Howard, for at least another year, must still do a delicate balancing act between those twin forces -- loyalty and doubt -- sitting on each of his massive shoulders, pecking at his ears.
Loyalty told him to exercise his $19.5 million option for next season, which then convinced the Magic to refuse all trade offers for him.
But doubt evidently warned Howard that signing long-term with the Magic isn't in his best interests right now.
And so the Magic didn't win Thursday, nor did they lose. Let's just call it a draw for now, or even better, a compromise between a confused and conflicted superstar center and desperate but determined franchise.
"There's a reason for everything," said Howard, in an attempt to explain what this means.
Howard turned down the chance to become a free agent and possibly join Deron Williams with the Nets this summer, or Williams and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. Being in Brooklyn would've given Howard a higher profile, though not necessarily inched him any closer to a championship. He would've been part of a Big Three in Dallas, although the Mavericks just last summer chopped down a Big Three from Miami in the Finals. So there was no slam-dunk destination, only a different one.
"It's very hard, and tough, a career-changing event," said Howard. "But I guess I'm too loyal."
That prompted Dwyane Wade to tweet: "Loyalty? Hahahaha."
We'll see how "loyal" Howard is this summer, and before next season, and whether his agent is faxing any wish-lists to Magic CEO Alex Martins, as Dan Fegan did last December. Loyalty is not tied to money; Orlando has long indicated it will pay the max to keep Howard. It's all about team performance and other factors.
This much is for sure: Howard is in Orlando the rest of this season, which was his preference all along, to help prove that the team holding the third-best record in the East is a legit title contender. All bets are off after that.
Starting this summer, the Magic must continue to do a sparkling sell job on Howard, either by upgrading the team through trades and signings, or by changing the philosophy of how the team is coached or run, or all of the above.
Anything less will encourage the doubts inside Howard's head to yell louder and lead him to asking to be traded again, once and for all.
Howard was evasive when asked about signing an extension. And it's clearly a sensitive subject, because he was also very curt and even slightly annoyed.
"When that time comes," he said, "we'll deal with it."
This puts pressure on two obvious people in the organization, head coach Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith, the general manager. What they do, or don't do, in the near future could dictate whether Howard stays or goes. In the past, Howard has had issues with both. He was annoyed by Van Gundy's system, which Howard felt favored outside shooters over his low-post game. It was a similar complaint made by Shaquille O'Neal when Van Gundy coached in Miami.
And Howard hasn't always agreed on personnel decisions made by Smith. The Magic arguably have few assets beyond Howard, and certainly no player near his equal on the roster. By requesting a trade, as his agent did in December, Howard was essentially taking a swipe at the direction the Magic were headed, and by extension, at Smith.
"I understand that," said Smith. "It's a tough job to be in. I don't take anything personally."
Orlando is virtually stuck with the same roster next season, barring a minor move, because nobody's salary is coming off the cap. Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick are done in the summer of 2013. The ball-and-chain, though, belongs to Hedu Turkoglu, whose deal has two more years to run at $11 million per. That's what's keeping the Magic from absorbing a free agent in the near future, and could handcuff the Magic if they seek a deal for him.
And yet, only the Bulls and Heat own a better record in the East right now, so something must be going right.
"We're right there," Howard said. "We've shown we can compete against the best."
Howard said he didn't officially make up his mind until the flight home from San Antonio, where the Magic played Wednesday. He defended his flip-flops, even asking a reporter at one point, "have you ever made a tough decision in your life? It takes more than a day."
In one of his waffling moments, he asked the Magic to keep him until the end of the season and "roll the dice" in free agency this summer, but Smith confessed yesterday: "We weren't rolling the dice."
Smith said "a number" of potential deals were interesting and even good enough to make had Howard not committed at least another year. He might want to keep them on file, though.
Because, although Howard declared, "I'm all in," the Magic know he can still count himself out at any time.
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