Dwight Howard told Magic officials that he wants to finish the season with the team. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI)
At least the trade deadline reached its nadir early, with 36 hours to go, because it won’t get much more ridiculous than this: Dwight Howard told reporters after Orlando’s stirring overtime win against Miami on Tuesday that he has informed Magic brass he’d prefer the team kindly keep him through this season and “roll the dice” on his own free agency. This is like playing Russian Roulette with a friend, only the friend loads the chamber, hands you the gun and ask you to play for his own entertainment. Click the trigger a few times, and maybe he’ll hang out with you again sometime.
“I told them I want to finish this season out and give our team, give our fans some hope for the future. But I feel they have to roll the dice. It might be tough, but I feel we’ve got a great opportunity. But they’ve got to roll it.”
Howard has asked the Magic to take on all the risk without promising any reward, and in doing so, he has opened himself to accusations that his real goal here is for New Jersey to sign him in free agency, without sacrificing assets (Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, first-round picks galore–including this year’s lottery pick) via a deadline deal or taking on Hedo Turkoglu’s contract.
Perhaps Howard’s motives aren’t so sinister. He spoke Tuesday about the possibility of winning a title this season, an outcome that would make it very difficult for him to leave as a free agent. As good as the Magic are, a strong third-place in the East and fresh off wins over the two teams above them, all the metrics we have suggest a championship is a very unlikely outcome. Head-to-head matchups in the playoffs introduce a bit of a wild card that doesn’t exist in the macro picture, something the Grizzlies and Hawks reminded us last season, the latter in defeating a Magic team that was probably superior. But it’s hard to imagine this Magic team beating Chicago and Miami four times in seven games, and then doing the same against the Western Conference champion.
The Magic cannot pin their hopes as a franchise on such a low probability outcome, and Howard should know better than to ask at this stage.
Earlier Tuesday, both Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports and Ken Berger of CBSSports.co reported that Howard wants to end up with New Jersey, and that the Nets’ dream scenario starts with signing Howard as a free agent. That dreamscape includes bringing back Deron Williams, re-signing Lopez, set to be a restricted free agent, and generally avoiding any deal with Orlando that might cost New Jersey any assets at all — or involve taking back Turkoglu’s poison pill contract. As I outlined earlier, it would be impossible for New Jersey to sign Howard to a max-level contract, bring back Williams and retain matching rights on Lopez in restricted free agency. The Nets need to cut about $7 million from their 2012-13 salary bill to pull it off, and thus are engaging Charlotte in talks about swapping players with future guaranteed money (Jordan Farmar and others), along with a draft pick, for Boris Diaw’s expiring $9 million deal.
And even if New Jersey gets only part of the way to that $7 million goal, Howard could also sign for less than the maximum for which he’s eligible. Both he and Williams would have to do exactly that in order to sign together in Dallas as free agents.
Regardless, Howard’s comments Tuesday, at the very least, show a lack of empathy for his team. They will stain his legacy as one of the league’s greatest two-way stars and the centerpiece of a team that reached championship-level ability at its peak in 2008-09 and 2009-10. There is nothing wrong with Howard wanting to leave, as I have written many, many times. A team that drafts a star-level player essentially controls that player for at least a half-dozen seasons, often more; after putting in so much time, Howard and anyone else–LeBron James, Chris Bosh, whomever–is absolutely within his rights to chase money, titles, market exposure, or whatever else he might want. He’s within his rights to believe this Magic roster, situated in this Eastern Conference, is not good enough to win a title, though his affection for Glen Davis–and the long-term deal to which the Magic signed Davis–didn’t help in that regard.
But to let a franchise twist like this for nearly a year is another thing. Howard, if you’ll recall, was either dishonest or wrong just 10 months ago when he incorrectly claimed the collective bargaining agreement did not allow him to sign an extension at that time with the Magic. He has since demanded a trade, convinced the Magic to grant him permission to talk with three teams–the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers–and now rescinded that trade demand as the trade deadline bears down upon a team on the verge of long-term irrelevancy. Enough is enough.