The day before the 2012 NBA Trade Deadline, Dwight Howard gave the Orlando Magic an amazing and important gift: control. In the post-Decision NBA, superstars more openly wield their implicit power like a cudgel, using the specter of free agency -- the specter of leaving their incumbent team like LeBron left Cleveland: barren -- to pick trade destinations. This is how Carmelo Anthony ended up in New York and Chris Paul ended up in L.A.: Their teams were afraid to lose them for nothing. (Both situations were more complex than this illustration suggests, of course.)
After months and months of uncertainty, Howard ceded that control to the Magic by waiving his early termination option for the 2012-13. That meant that he couldn't become a free agent until July 2013, giving Orlando plenty of time to retool and keep him long-term. At least that's the theory, that now, in his eighth and ninth years in Central Florida, Howard will finally see what makes Orlando so magical. The first seven couldn't convince him to sign another long-term deal, but these ones -- with Jason Richardson, Glen Davis, Chris Duhon and Hedo Turkoglu soaking up nearly half of the team's cap figure -- will change it all. Right.
That's why I argued that the Magic should have traded Dwight the second he signed that ETO waiver. No one expected Howard to change, or for the drama to disappear. Even at the press conference celebrating Howard's decision he awkwardly held tight to his refusal to commit beyond the 2012-13 season. For the Magic, this was the smallest commitment that the center could actually make. Given the poles of Howard's emotions during deadline week and the fact that he may have called for Stan Van Gundy's head before the decision to stay was made, there was ample evidence that despite being one of the league's most impactful players, he would still be a whole lot of trouble.
The likelihood of the Magic trading Howard after making such an effort to keep him was infinitely small. It would have been a purely cynical business move, it would have alienated a good set of fans and probably the other Magic players. Chances are that Otis Smith nor Van Gundy would have survived the public backlash. But chances are that, with a full season and a half of Howard to offer, the Magic could have made huge progress on a rebuild. Rumors suggested that before he was taken off the market, teams were offering top young prospects for a six-week Dwight rental. Trading Deron Williams for a similar amount of time got the Jazz Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and a lottery pick. Trading Chris Paul for a half-season longer got the Hornets Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and a lottery pick. A lottery pick and a top prospect would have been an easy pull for Orlando on March 14, after Dwight committed.
Instead, the Magic have to deal with this nightmare at least until the end of this season, and probably all of next year, too. When the Notorious S.V.G. lit the fuse on Thursday, we all laughed in amazed incredulity. In the executive offices in Orlando, I bet their response was a whole lot less bemused. The Magic earned a huge victory in convincing Howard to cede his power. The afterglow lasted all of three weeks. Now, it's back to reality. Something tells me that it wasn't worth it.
Van Gundy looked at the conditions, the consequences and his future with a good amount of sobriety when he made a decision to light the fuse. If only his bosses could have seen it the same way.
The Hook is a twice-weekly NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.