The Dwight Howard saga is done for the remainder of the season. Correction: Dwight Howard is done for the remainder of the season. Thanks to machinations both externally and of his own creation, the star center- one of the few true centers with anything resembling a well-rounded game- the headlines aren’t set to quiet down very soon. While he will be sitting on the sidelines in a suit with his herniated disk, I am sure Coach Stan Van Gundy would much rather he stay home altogether. It’s a sad end for a year that started with anticipation and ends with just discomfort- and I am not talking about Howard’s back.
If the LeBron James Cleveland experience has taught us anything, it should be that teams are incapable of keeping a star player by prostrating themselves at his feet and trying to build a team to win a championship right now. All that has created is a scenario where the Magic are on the hook for Gilbert Arenas’ albatross of a contract and have compounded a long-term salary disaster over the past several years.
This is a team that still has Hedo Turkoglu until at least 2013 for $53 million and the enigmatic Jameer Nelson for $35 million. This team has two pending free agents this coming offseason and less than a million coming off the books with them. The Magic were not going to compete this season, and it looks like in retrospect the worst thing they could do was have Howard come back for just one year.
Yet on the day of the trade deadline that’s exactly what Howard agreed to do. One more year with Orlando, opting not to exercise free agency as soon as possible. What exactly does he expect to change? Despite his alleged demands to replace Stan Van Gundy, there are few coaches who can do more with less than Van Gundy, a coach who has never won fewer than 52 games with the Orland Magic and never finished a season with a losing record in his head coaching career. In short, despite his bombastic and sometimes controversial nature Orlando will not find a better basketball mind to take over. Van Gundy is incapable of packing it in however, and has shown surprising thoughtfulness and effort in the eight games since Howard went down.
And let’s say that Howard successfully gets Van Gundy replaced and a more pliable coach comes in. That coach is stuck with the same team and a player who has learned that if he pouts this team will give him anything he wants. But this team, as it is currently constructed, cannot give him a ring. Somehow this team willed its way to the 2009 NBA Finals but was exposed by the veteran Lakers. So projecting out to the end of 2013, it would look like another ignominious first or second round exit for the Magic with a new and less talented head coach and a star player who has the option to bolt for another team that is more prepared to win now.
It isn’t hard to see how that ends. If the Magic stick with Van Gundy and let Howard walk after 2013 or trade him along the way they can use those assets to rebuild. No team wants to let go of one of the top five players in the NBA (top three when Howard is giving his best effort), but if you aren’t going really compete at the upper echelon in the East, what’s the incentive for Howard to stick around past 2013? If they continue the Dan Gilbert plan of appeasement they wind up at the end of 2013 with a worse coach, without their superstar player and a roster still loaded with bad contracts. A team in a small market like Orlando cannot afford to be riding against the salary cap, especially in the more punitive new CBA.
I don’t fault Howard for wanting to join another team, but I do fault him for not sending a consistent message to management that they could reliably act on. No matter what Orlando’s management does they are going to be harassed for it. Either they are lambasted for letting go of a top player for less than his value (inevitable since no team can put together a package that rivals Howard’s value and remain a contender) or they are lambasted for holding onto Howard and being worse in the end for it. I hope Orlando will do the smart thing for their future. For Howard’s sake I hope he really does have a herniated disk, or he is even less mature than he seems.