Cohen: Magic Better Off Without Dwight & Drama; All-Star Weekend Proves It

By Josh Cohen
February 15, 2013

HOUSTON -- As several dozen reporters stood around Dwight Howard – once distinguished at All-Star Weekend for his humor and youthful demeanor during his jolly days with the Magic – on Friday in Houston at All-Star Weekend and posed relentless questions about his ambiguous future and wobbly relationship with Kobe Bryant, one thing was unmistakably clear.

It’s a blessing Howard is no longer in Orlando.

As much as we all adored the days when his thunderous slam dunks and vicious blocks consumed our attention for eight seasons, all the commotion and distraction from last season when he requested a trade and virtually disappeared from sight after injuring his back was no longer worth all the trouble.

From Howard’s puzzling downfall on the court in L.A. – in which his stats have plummeted and his team has vastly underachieved – to his refusal to commit to the Lakers for the long haul to the lingering tension that surrounds him and his teammates, the ominous and dense cloud that hangs over his “next” decision has transferred to Hollywood.

And like he persistently did during his final weeks in Orlando, Howard swatted away any question that was remotely close to being “controversial” or “revealing.”

Howard offered Magic fans many unforgettable memories after he was drafted first overall in 2004. He led Orlando to the NBA Finals in 2009 and delivered a performance for the ages in Game 6 of the conference finals against Cleveland. He was the runner-up for the league’s MVP award in 2011. He earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in three consecutive seasons. He was the most dominant, menacing force in the NBA. He was “Superman.”

Despite the past and the endless accolades accumulated in Orlando and while it would seem unfathomable after its efforts to land Howard in the four-team blockbuster trade in August, the Lakers must think long and hard before the deadline in less than a week if dealing him away is a reasonable option.

While Los Angeles can offer him a maximum contract of five years and $118 million, many have to wonder if Howard and his suddenly unstable back and shoulder are worth such a financial commitment.

One rival Western Conference executive said at All-Star Weekend: “The Lakers need to weigh performance and marketing. Howard is a star by name. If marketing power is the focus, you have to do whatever it takes to keep him. If performance is the focus, it may not be the best spending.”

Even after he was dealt to the Lakers, there were some who still believed the Nets – the team Howard so desperately wanted to play for after his original trade request in December of 2011 – remained his No. 1 choice for a final destination.

While Brooklyn has way exceeded the salary cap and is already in punitive luxury tax territory, there continues to be discussion around the league if it will make every last attempt to still find a path to land Howard.

Dallas, which was also on the three-team preferred list in Dwight’s initial demand, Houston and Atlanta will all have cap space this summer to make a pitch in free agency for the All-Star center.

Regardless of Howard’s future and what city he calls home for the next four or five years, Orlando has in many ways recovered from last season’s storm – from a cultural and ambiance standpoint anyway.

If there was any doubt about that, all you had to do was compare the media attack on Howard to the trouble-free, tranquil and amiable presser with Orlando’s young blossoming talent present at All-Star Weekend, Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson.

Sure, Orlando is not likely to make the playoffs this year and no, the Magic do not presently have a player that we can categorize as a “superstar,” but there is a ton of optimism encircling the franchise.

Vucevic, who was involved in the Howard trade, has enjoyed a sensational first season with the Magic. He is among the leaders in rebounding and already set the franchise record earlier this season with 29 boards in a game against the Heat. He was a member of TEAM CHUCK in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge.

Nicholson, meanwhile, who was named a replacement for TEAM SHAQ for the rookie-sophomore game as a result of a back injury to Pistons center Andre Drummond, has proven he has a special set of skills that could transform into a valuable player for many years.

In addition to all the potential from both Nik and Drew on the court, they both are humble and are more concentrated on the team as a whole rather than individual status. Those are qualities emphasized by Magic general manager Rob Hennigan as extremely important during this renovation.

Since Howard’s departure, there is more laughter and less discomfort in the Magic locker room. Player relationships appear jovial. Communication between coaches and players is constructive. Everyone is buying into the vision.

And if you ask people around the league, that isn’t as common as one would think.

The Lakers are a great example. As one source close to the team put it: “There is definitely tension around there.”

Others close to the situation in L.A. have painted a similar picture. In fact, there have been reports that neither Bryant or Steve Nash, the Lakers’ other major acquisition this past summer, are fond of Dwight and his overall approach.

With Howard at a distance – confirmed for sure during this All-Star Weekend – now it’s all a matter of patience for the Magic.

With a high draft pick this year and potentially next, a plethora of financial flexibility on the horizon and young emerging players currently developing, it’s evident that the present situation is far better than the dramatic, circus-like one the Magic dealt with last year.

Let the Lakers deal with that for the rest of this season and potentially beyond. All-Star Weekend helped verify it’s their problem now. Whew!

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