Howard far from a Man of Steel

Not wanting to be another LeBron James, Dwight Howard suddenly waived his early-exit clause with the Orlando Magic.

The move basically ensures that his contractual status will remain news for at least another year. In other words, The Dwight Howard Story — a dreary exercise made worse by ownership’s unseemly groveling — will last as long as a congressional term.

Like LeBron, in Cleveland.

“I’m too loyal,” Howard all but whined during his Thursday news conference.

Too immature is more like it.

There’s never been any debate about his talent. He is the most gifted big man since Shaquille O’Neal. But Dwight Howard’s been that for a while now. He was the first pick in the 2004 NBA draft. He’s played eight pro seasons. He’s led the league in rebounding (three times), blocked shots (twice), double-doubles (twice) and field-goal percentage. He’s played in the NBA Finals, and three times been voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. With that kind of experience, being 26 no longer constitutes an excuse.

You want to be a franchise player? Great. Act like one.

The NBA is plagued with guys who want to be everything but accountable. At this level of the pro game, responsibility is supposed to be commensurate with talent. LeBron James can decry the haters all he wants. He asked for this special status. Same for Carmelo Anthony.

Howard should’ve learned something from those guys. I think he thinks he has, too.

But he hasn’t. A clip from Thursday’s presser is enough to tell you that. Playing dress-up and putting on a cape is easy. Being Superman — or even trying to — is tough.

“I’m glad this is finally over,” Howard said. “ . . . It’s not as easy as some people think. It’s been very hard. We’re talking a career-changing event. Most people don’t see that.

“I’m very loyal and I’ve always put loyalty above anything.”

Let me take that in order. First of all, it’s not over; there’s still another year to go. Next, life is hard? Career-changing? OK, so?

Finally, this was about loyalty? Nah.

Howard asked to be traded before the season. He was, for a time, enamored with the idea of playing with Deron Williams for the Nets’ inaugural season in Brooklyn. Then he entertained the idea of playing for Los Angeles, as playing center for the Lakers is both mythical and market savvy, the basketball equivalent of playing center field for the Yankees. It’s just that Howard wasn’t crazy about ceding the spotlight to Kobe Bryant — a guy who, if nothing else, embraces the Superman ideal.

Again, it’s the Superman bit that exposes Howard. Four years have passed since he removed his jersey to reveal a superhero costume during the dunk contest. The overwhelming reaction seemed to endorse his hunch. From an aspiring superstar perspective, it was an endorsement of celebrity over substance.

Little surprise, then, that the routine offended Shaquille O’Neal. Already a champion of the NBA aesthetic, O’Neal fancied himself — or should I say, branded himself? — the league’s original fake Superman.

Why would Howard imitate someone else’s imitation? Why not get his own schtick?

It was a legit question then, when Howard was still a kid. It’s a better one now.

The issue remains one of identity. Who is Dwight Howard?

I don’t need to know. But at this point, the player himself should have some idea. For a guy who doesn’t want to come off like LeBron James, he’s sure made a LeBron-like mess of things. He wants to be seen as a stand-up guy. But by opting in with the Magic, he’s succeeded in costing himself credibility, respect and millions of dollars.

Howard would’ve been well within his rights seeking bigger opportunities in a bigger market. That’s not to say he has any cause to complain. The Magic are 12 games over .500. They have won 59 or 52 games in each of the past four seasons. He has a very good point guard in Jameer Nelson and an excellent coach in Stan Van Gundy. Six players have double-figure scoring averages. Doesn’t suck.

Now he says he believes first in loyalty. This was the guy who asked for a trade, right? He didn’t want like to be like LeBron, but now, of course, he kind of is. He wants to be a franchise player, but he wants to be surrounded with All-Stars. He wants to be the big man in a big market, but he opted to stay in Orlando. He wants to be respected. But he also wants to be loved.

Yeah, life is tough.

Still, as it regards his long-term fate, Dwight Howard is no closer to making his decision than he was a year ago.

He’s no closer to answering the question, either. Does he really want to be Superman?

Or does he just like the look?