It's been an embarrassment from the beginning. Dwight Howard said he wanted to waive his opt-out clause and stay in Orlando through next season. This is kind of like telling your live-in girlfriend that you want to date for another six months and then re-evaluate. Then, he abruptly changed his mind before the Magic's game in San Antonio Wednesday night, saying he would NOT waive the opt-out clause this summer, clearing the way for him to leave in free agency.
Then, he changed his mind AGAIN, telling a RealGM reporter, "Man, listen, you know my heart, my soul and everything I have is in Orlando. I just can't leave it behind." Alright, then!
This is the sort of situation that crabby old sportswriters love, because they can get all snarky and make NBA superstars look like fools and villains. So we'll try to avoid that for now. Instead, here are a few separate thoughts on the situation in Orlando.
1. This Is All Orlando's Fault, Part One: Building a team around Howard is actually harder than it sounds, but the Magic have failed miserably regardless. They've spent big money on bad players and quick fixes -- Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and right on down the line. The best thing to happen to the Magic over the past few years was Stan Van Gundy, but let's not forget, he only ended up in Orlando because Billy Donovan backed out of a $27.5 million deal in 2007. It makes sense for Dwight to leave Orlando for the same reasons it made sense for LeBron to leave Cleveland: the foundation around the superstar is not good enough, too expensive to change and the people in charge aren't the ones you'd want changing it.
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2. This Is All Orlando's Fault, Part Two. Dwight's been flirting with free agency for months now, and if he's been cryptic and conflicted the past few days, he certainly wasn't back in December. The Magic's mistake was to think they could wait to decide on what to do here. Even Wednesday, they were imploring Dwight to "sleep on it" after his initial refusal to waive his opt-out clause. While they wait, free agency gets closer and closer and their leverage disappears. The closer Orlando gets to letting the trade deadline pass without dealing Dwight, the more teams will lowball them, because they know the Magic will lose him for nothing if they don't deal him.
The Magic management's mistake was deluding themselves into think they were on the cusp of winning a title -- the same rationale that justified trades for Arenas and Turkoglu -- and that keeping Dwight around would help convince him that it can work long-term in Orlando. They're still deluding themselves into thinking Dwight may decide to stay forever and ever and ever.
"But he's staying another year!" you say. And if that happens and he commits in writing, all it means is that we're postponing this until next season, when we do this "Is he leaving???" thing all over again. If the Magic are smart, they'll convince Dwight to opt-in on Thursday morning and then trade him as soon as possible.
Either later on Thursday, or as soon as they can deal him this summer. If he's not going to be loyal long-term, the Magic will have to face fact. The nucleus they have will never go over the top, and if they don't go over the top, Dwight will never be happy. No amount of spectacular late-night drunk dials from Orlando executives will fix this in the long run. The written commitment to waive his opt-out clause buys them leverage, because it guarantees he'll play at least one season with whatever team he ends up on. Otherwise, his value drops with every day that passes next season. And what's to stop Dwight from staying forever? Well...
3. Dwight Howard's Agent. Dwight fired his representation (Aaron Goodwin) back in 2010, and eventually ended up with Dan Fegan. If you're wondering who might have been pushing Howard toward free agency, Fegan's probably the best place to start. Since he took over after Dwight signed his earlier max deal with the Magic, Fegan doesn't see a dime from his current contract. If he opts out and signs a max deal elsewhere? Money, money, money (for his agent).
In any case, aside from the obvious conflict of interest, Dwight should probably fire Fegan simply for mismanaging this whole fiasco from the beginning. The only thing worse than screwing an entire fanbase is publicly flip-flopping, turning the entire NBA media against you, and STILL leaving eventually. That's why superstars have agents. To tell them when to speak publicly, what to say and how to manage the PR side of situations like this. It's hard to one-up LeBron James on the scale of cryptic douchebaggery -- "One thing you can't control is you never know" -- but Dwight's really giving him a run for his money. (FWIW, LeBron fired Aaron Goodwin, too, and look how that turned out, PR-wise.)
Even if Howard stays next season and Fegan's payday has to wait another year, there are other reasons he'll want to leave eventually.
4. Adidas. They already struggle enough competing with Nike. Having one of their most famous athletes playing on a good-but-not-great small market team isn't going to help their cause. Dwight Howard's endorsement deal is coming up for renegotiation, and according to Adrian Wojnarowski, "Adidas wants him in a major market – New York or Los Angeles – and this scenario promises him the highest possible value on his upcoming renegotiation on his shoe deal." This is garden variety columnist conspiracy theory, but it also makes sense, and could very well be what pushes Howard out the door for the long-term. If it means sacrificing money in his next NBA contract, that's money that he (and his agent) can recoup with his next deal.
And most importantly...
5. Dwight Will Leave Because He's Not Good Enough To Stay. If that makes sense. He wants fans to like him -- hence the "my heart is in Orlando" quotes -- and may not know exactly what he wants to do right now. He's not lying when he changes his mind every 30 minutes.
The long-term problem is, Howard isn't good enough to make the Magic contenders by himself. In a league with three or four legitimately great teams, maybe no single superstar is good enough. But Dwight definitely isn't, and the Magic don't have the flexibility to find him a credible superstar sidekick. He'll leave because when the Magic are inevitably exposed as second-rate contenders -- this year, next year, whatever -- neither he nor his agents will be comfortable accepting responsibility for the shortcomings. It can't be Dwight Howard's fault, it's gotta be the rest of the roster.
And he's right. This is why the Magic should trade him as soon as they can. Start over, and build something that makes more sense with a superstar who wants to be there, a roster that's flexible and a team that can eventually be a real contender. It's hard giving away a legitimate top-five player, but it's not any better to keep one that's going to be unhappy and blame everyone else after your inevitable second round exit each spring. Just make a deal and move on.
6. Villains And Fools. From RealGM:
"I have gotten some bad advice," Howard said. "I apologize for this circus I have caused to the fans of our city. They didn't deserve none of this. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do."
Think about the impending circus next summer and maybe into next season, when we re-start this process all over again. Think about the Magic's deluded hopes that Dwight will stick with Orlando and where that will leave them if he eventually leaves. Think about the flip-flops that are costing Orlando value and slowing driving the rest of the NBA insane. It's best for both parties to move on now, but Dwight's too polite to force Orlando's hand and be the bad guy. So, in the context of the post-Decision NBA, all this makes one point pretty clear. If LeBron's the ultimate villain for crabby old sportswriters, Dwight might be proof: The only thing worse than a villain is the villain posing as a fool.