I stopped trying to predict Dwight Howard's urges long ago. But I'm still a sucker for trying to understand them. From all that we've been told over the last couple of months -- ever since those stories about Howard thinking that the Orlando Magic blackmailed him into waiving his opt-out clause -- we know that Dwight does not want to be in the Magic City. But as trade after trade goes nowhere, reports suggest Magic GM Rob Hennigan, whose office is apparently actually situated in the boiler room at Amway, will try to convince Howard to play for the Magic for at least a few more months.
That shouldn't be difficult -- almost never will an NBA player under contract refuse to show up, and nothing that has happened in Orlando indicates that Howard would have the so-called political capital to no-show. Hennigan can basically ensure that Howard plays for the Magic this season simply by virtue of dropping all of the trade talks. But the point of doing that, of bringing Dwight to opening night is two-fold: it allows the market to open back up at the deadline and it potentially shows Howard that the Magic can go further under Hennigan and a yet-to-be-hired new head coach than they have in the recent past.
The first part is undeniable, if only because the Brooklyn Nets remain the team most closely tied to Dwight talks, and because they are out of the chase until Brook Lopez can be traded on Jan. 15 due to his recent contract extension. The market for Howard will certainly be deeper by at least one team on Jan. 15 compared to today.
But the second part, that Hennigan can show Dwight that the Magic are more competitive ... that's um ... I don't know how quite to put this ... it's insane.
The Magic were 33-21 (.611) before Howard's back injury last season, which is quite good. From that team, Hennigan has traded the second-best player (Ryan Anderson) for Gustavo Ayon, a decent third big man who doesn't have an apparent three-point stroke. In the draft, the Magic added two more big men (Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn). It'd be a coup if Nicholson some day reached Anderson's level of production. At the very least, expecting anything close to that next season is wishful thinking. The Magic also re-signed Jameer Nelson.
That's Orlando's entire offseason. They lost a very good player, gained a decent roleplayer and two draft picks, neither of which is expected to make an immediate impact. That's not good! For a team trying to improve, the Magic has really just dickered around the edges while figuring out what they'll do with Dwight. The Anderson move came only because the power forward was going to sign an offer sheet with the Hornets. The Nelson deal came only because, I assume, Hennigan freaked out at the prospect of going into the season hanging on to Dwight and running Chris Duhon as the starting point guard. (It's the #summerofwelp in central Florida too, right?)
Needless to say, this edition of the Magic is not an improvement on the edition that went 33-21 before Howard's injury. And this ignores the impact of Stan Van Gundy, one of basketball's best minds. Clearly, the Magic couldn't bring back both SVG and Howard after the way things went late last season. Things got a bit too real in front of the cameras, and I'm sure it embarrassed the executive leadership of the team more than a little.
But the word is that Jacque Vaughn, a current Spurs assistant and former NBA journeyman point guard, is the frontrunner for the job. Vaughn could be excellent. He ran a tight ship on the court. He might currently be as good or better than Duhon, in fact. And he's a Jayhawk, and Jayhawks never go wrong unless they are named Drew Gooden, and Jacque Vaughn is not named Drew Gooden insofar as we know, so we're safe on that count. But first-time head coaches with limited or no sideline experience -- Vaughn's been with the Spurs for two seasons -- have exceptional hardships. Ask Mark Jackson, Vinny Del Negro and Reggie Theus. There have been some success stories (Doc Rivers' first job with the Magic stands out) but it's typically a tough pull.
There can be no reasonable expectation that the Magic will be better than they were last year. As such, why would anyone think playing with Ayon, Jameer, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis for a couple of months would change Howard's mind again? Again: I refuse to predict his urges. The weather in Hawai'i is more stable. But if the game is to show him how green the grass is in Orlando, I'm struggling to see a case that can be made.
More likely is that the Magic float along on the edges of the Eastern playoff race until January when the Dwightmare re-opens like a fantastic abyss in the sky. When the clouds part, good ol' Mikhail Prokhorov is smiling down on Orlando with an offer that, at that point, Hennigan will not be able to refuse.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.