Dwight Howard has grown accustomed to being serenaded with “MVP!” chants in Orlando, but with the Magic sputtering under the constant trade speculation surrounding him, the NBA’s best big man had to hear a different chorus from a small faction — two people, actually — at Amway Center this week.
Unable to ignore the derision from the lower bowl, Howard looked up to the fans, shook his head and flashed and uncomfortable grin.
Howard doesn’t want to be the bad guy. But he doesn’t want to be in Orlando anymore, either — which means he has to be the villain to some fans who don’t understand why their love is unrequited.
Since the Magic has chosen to hold on to Howard and make him play out the contract that will pay him $17.9 million this season, the leading all-star vote-getter and three-time defensive player of the year is in an awkward position. He has to feign being committed to an organization that drafted and developed him into a generational big man while lovingly longing after other seemingly more attractive destinations.
Howard proclaimed his desire to be traded to either the Los Angeles Lakers, New Jersey and Dallas before training camp. And in recent weeks, he mentioned a willingness to play in Boston and Chicago, too.
In the process of vainly boasting his allure around the league, Howard has inadvertently slighted the players he currently has to compete with on a daily basis. The chemistry in Orlando is off, and really cannot be fixed until Howard is traded or he decides to shut down discussing his pending free agency and focuses strictly on the task he’s being paid to do.
For all of the heat he took for “The Decision,” LeBron James actually handled his final season in Cleveland much better. He ended inquiries about his future plans early on, won his second most valuable player award and led the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA. James may have had plans to leave but his commitment to his team, to his city, couldn’t be questioned — until his mysterious disappearance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston.
Howard continues to produce at an elite level, because he is extremely gifted, but the Magic look more discombobulated than the Denver Nuggets were last season when Carmelo Anthony took them through a similar dance.
The Nuggets were splintered and stammered until Anthony was finally dealt to New York. New Orleans avoided going through a similar funk of uncertainty by trading Chris Paul to Los Angeles — the Lakers, then the Clippers after David Stern stepped in — because it realized that when a superstar with an opt-out clause declares that he wants out, moving him is really the only alternative.
Petulant, spoiled stars with a sense of entitlement pouting their way out of town is not fair to their teams or fans, but the results of dragging it out aren’t ideal. The Lakers called Kobe Bryant’s bluff nearly five years ago, because they had more leverage — considering Bryant had three years left on his deal and his trade demand was more a cry for help than a desire to leave the NBA’s glamour organization. Pau Gasol arrived a few months later and Bryant has since added two more championship rings to the collection.
The Magic likely don’t have the assets to get Howard the all-star caliber talent he wants, and as great as he is, Howard alone won’t be able to lift the Magic into a championship contender. So as long as he is stuck in a place he doesn’t want to be, Howard will have to live with the inevitable backlash. The hate-love line is thin, and Howard is straddling it like a tightrope walker.
After Orlando ended a four-game losing streak with a win over the Wizards last Wednesday, Howard said, “We can’t allow anything to separate us.” Either he is being delusional or disingenuous, but the schism has already occurred.