Howard has out-LeBroned LeBron

Two years ago, I’d have never thought it possible for a basketball player to emerge from a free-agency blunder looking worse than LeBron James did. This is when he went with his gut during an embarrassing national TV special and took advantage of his God-given right to do whatever he wanted to do.

But in bungling nearly every aspect of his inevitable divorce from the Orlando Magic — one that could have been relatively painless had he just been honest from the start — Dwight Howard has made LeBron’s jilting of Cleveland in favor of Miami look civil and sophisticated by comparison.

Howard’s relationship with the team that drafted him first overall in 2004 has been broken for quite some time. But after six months marred by constant bickering and ham-handed efforts at reconciliation, their covenant has reached the point where it is wrecked beyond repair.

So the Magic are moving forward, more out of necessity than an independent desire to do so. As new general manager Rob Hennigan decides how to best mend the wounds ripped open by his franchise player, it’s looking less and less likely that Howard will be seen as “one of the good guys” again.

The sad part — or maybe the appropriate part, depending on your sense of Schadenfreude with regard to Howard — is that Howard has morphed from one of the NBA’s most likeable characters into the league’s biggest villain. It’s a result of an ill-conceived and poorly-executed plan to not be hated as he parted ways with a city and a team that loved him as much as they needed him.

He started out on the right track, admitting in December that he had requested a trade and didn’t plan on coming back to Orlando after he would become a free agent this summer. Howard provided a list of preferred destinations, and played as hard as ever while giving the Magic plenty of time to find the best deal in exchange for his services.

It was the most one could possibly ask of a guy who was looking for a new start.

But then Howard started to waver, and as the reality of his request began to sink in, he became less and less sure about wanting out. Then, finally, after being tortured for three months — by saddened fans, by distracted and disgruntled teammates, by his own sense of guilt and by who knows what else — Howard came full circle and made the baffling last-minute decision to give up his right to be a free agent this summer.

“They didn’t deserve none of this,” Howard told RealGM at the time, in what amounted to a colossal mea culpa to his adoring fans all across Central Florida, not to mention his team. “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.”

That was March 15, and in the days following the announcement, Howard was praised for his loyalty and put on a pedestal by the city, the fans and the team for being so devoted to his team — though not everyone was so convinced.

However, the freshly mended relationship went sour in a hurry — surprise! By April 5, the day then-coach Stan Van Gundy told the media Howard had asked to have him fired, the differences between Howard and the Magic had become more irreconcilable than ever.

All Howard has done since is completely betray the city and the very fans who drank the loyalty Kool-Aid in March. Howard went out to Los Angeles for back surgery in April — the one slip-up over the last few months that wasn’t in any way his fault — and he’s been totally off the grid since.

His summer camp for kids in Orlando? Canceled. His Twitter account? Dormant. His credibility? Down the toilet.

But even as he drowns in a sea of his own bad decisions, Howard can’t help but flail and try to stay afloat from behind the scenes, and, intentionally or not, he has done everything he can to upset everyone he can over the last three months. So it’s no surprise that since the NBA’s free-agency period opened on Sunday, his name has been in the news as much as ever.

According to ESPN, Howard accused the Magic of “blackmailing” him when they convinced him to opt into the final year of his contract — though he later denied that in an interview with Yahoo! Sports. Howard also reportedly approached the players union to see if he had any grounds on which he could have his early-termination option lifted so he could become a free agent.

In that same Yahoo! interview, Howard also re-stated his desire to be traded, but this time limited his list of preferred destination to one team, saying he wouldn’t sign a long-term deal with anybody but the Brooklyn Nets. What Howard doesn’t seem to realize is that he lost the right to make that dream a reality the second he signed away his freedom to choose in a thin-skinned effort to keep everyone happy.

In addition to taking an indisputable, and perhaps irreversible, hit to his ego and his reputation, Howard is finding that the window of opportunity to join his team of choice has closed. On Monday, the Nets agreed to a trade that will bring Atlanta Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson to (hopefully) play alongside Deron Williams as the team makes the transition to a new era in Brooklyn.

The move, along with the decision to re-sign Gerald Wallace to a four-year, $40 million deal, leaves Brooklyn with absolutely no flexibility to trade for Howard now or sign him later, putting an end to any realistic chance that league’s best center joins the Nets.

With the Nets out of the picture, Howard’s future is now in shambles, but it’s all his own doing. He tried to be a baby and a bully at the same time, and it backfired, but it could have all been avoided had he operated with a little more tact and a little less ineptitude while plotting his exit strategy from the Magic.

With his moody, petulant behavior, Howard essentially resigned himself to a future with a team he doesn’t want to play for. At this point, even a monumental do-over in the form of one final 180-degree turn and a return to Orlando seems out of the question.

“We want guys who want to be here,” Hennigan said on Monday. “We want guys who are about the team. We want guys who are committed to something that’s bigger than themselves, and we want guys who love the game, and who are hungry for the game, and who are hungry to represent this organization in a unified fashion. We want guys who are about the right things.”

The ever-ignominious Howard, however, does not seem to be “about the right things,” anymore, and he’s become everything he never wanted to be: a browbeater, a brat and a bad guy.

Even if Howard gets his wish and somehow defies the odds and ends up in Brooklyn, there’s a very real sense that he’s done permanent, LeBron-like damage to his reputation to get there. For a guy whose only goal from the start was to not be hated, that might the worst news yet.

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