Howard must realize New Jersey isn’t for him

NEWARK, N.J. — Remind me again why Dwight Howard wants to come here.

No, really. After watching his Orlando Magic team dismantle the hapless New Jersey Nets in a 108-91 rout Wednesday night at the Prudential Center, why in the name of Jay-Z would Howard want to come back and be part of this mess?

Sure, the Nets are moving to a shiny new facility in Brooklyn next year, there are beaucoup bucks to be made in the biggest market in the country, and the cries for Howard to be the Nets’ savior were all over the Prudential Center on Wednesday night.

There was the sign behind the Nets bench that read, “C’mon Dwight, we need you in Brooklyn!” There was the group in the first couple rows of Section 22 with Howard heads on sticks chanting “We want Dwight” throughout the course of the game. There were giant cutouts of Howard’s head sprinkled throughout the crowd.

Heck, even the Nets themselves got in on the action, placing a row of five easels precariously close to the Magic locker room displaying Barclays Center images selling Brooklyn as the “stylish” place to be.

“I just have fun with it,” Howard said. “It’s a humbling experience. I wish more people could see how I feel and go to another arena and have big faces and posters. … It’s a blessing. I’ve been to every arena and it feels good to have a good reception, not only here, but everywhere I go.”

But Howard has long maintained that his focus is his on-court legacy, not his popularity. And the Nets aren’t hoisting a title anytime soon — with or without him. So why come?

You could make the argument that the Nets’ future, if Howard is part of it, is brighter than some expect, especially if the team can get Howard on board in free agency rather than through a trade. After all, Howard, the league’s best center, and Deron Williams, one of the league’s top point guards, would be a pick-and-roll nightmare and a formidable 1-2 punch.

But as the Magic pummeled the 10-25 Nets on nearly every trip down the floor Wednesday night, you had to wonder whether Howard — despite all his dominance as the game’s preeminent center — could really help Williams transform this otherwise disappointing cast of characters into the best team in basketball.

Dwight, for all his strengths, is not the type of player who can single-handedly put a team on his back, especially on offense. Some players have that inherent ability to take over a game regardless of who’s playing with him — players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant come to mind — but Howard is hardly one of them.

Howard is only as dominant as the players around him allow him to be, and even with Williams in tow, he’s still going to have to carry a supporting cast that leaves plenty to be desired in Brooklyn.

No one is saying Orlando is a lock for a title — in fact, they’re far from it — but when push comes to shove, the Magic clearly have a more favorable roster from top to bottom for Howard, who finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in the win. The All-Star center was one of seven Magic players in double figures, and Orlando had 32 assists on 45 baskets, as opposed to 16 on 38 for the Nets.

Aside from Williams, who scored 23 points on 8 of 18 shooting (including a ridiculous stretch midway through the third quarter when he scored 12 points in just two minutes), the Nets had just two players — MarShon Brooks and Brook Lopez — who were even marginally productive, and both of those players would likely be headed to Orlando in any deal that brings Howard north.

Frankly, Howard is probably on a 50-win team that likely gets bounced in the first two rounds of the playoffs regardless of whether he stays or goes, but the smart money — to the tune of an extra $30 million or so — would scream “stay.” For right now, though, Howard still seems set on moving on, something Magic GM Otis Smith reiterated in a 1-on-1 interview with FOX Sports before the game.

“I don’t think anything has changed,” Smith said. “Nothing has changed on his end, nothing has changed on my end at this point.”

But Smith, who normally plays his cards pretty close to the vest, was predictably coy when asked whether the Nets had the pieces to get a deal done, should it come to that. And who could blame him? He’s seen the Nets’ roster, too.

“There are things on every roster that you like, and there’s a lot that you don’t like,” Smith said. “You just have to do the best you can to get a deal if that’s your choice. We haven’t gotten to the point to where we’re dealing, so I guess at this point I’m up against the (March) 15 deadline to figure out if we’re going to hold on to him or move him.”

To make matters more complicated for Smith, the Magic have played too well for their own good this season, and with each win a potential Howard trade looks like a gutsier and gutsier move for him to make, especially given the uninspiring return he’d get from a team like New Jersey.

Orlando has won six of its last seven games, and at 22-12, the Magic are currently holding the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the reeling Philadelphia 76ers and just 4 1/2 games behind Miami and Chicago for the conference lead.

And right now, it’s looking more and more like Smith and Co. might be wise to hold onto their star, just on the off chance this team — a team that Howard said is “no doubt” a title contender — turns into something special.

“I’m happy that our team has been able to play through a lot of adversity, and we’ve got a chance even though there is that adversity,” Smith said. “I’m proud of our guys for being able to do what they’ve been doing under the circumstances.”

Despite their recent success, however, the Magic are still the darkest of darkhorse contenders, and they know it. They’ve struggled mightily at times this season, and it’s tough to tell whether it’s a result of the simple ups and downs of a grueling NBA season or it’s Howard’s future looming over the locker room.

“I think it’s both,” Smith said. “Some of it is just because and some of it isn’t. It’s a weight in the locker room, and it’s hard for it not to be. I always tell people that we like to think professional athletes are not human, but they’re humans first and athletes second. So, it’s not uncommon for things to bother them. But you know what? This year, we’ve persevered through everything we’ve had to, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Howard, for his part, has seemingly come to that realization, and he went out of his way Wednesday to show that his focus is on his current team, not his next one.

“We’ve just got to keep the momentum going into the All-Star break … come back in the second half and have a better second half than we had in the first half,” Howard said with a tone that didn’t exactly imply he had one foot out the door. “We’re looking forward to it, and that’s the talk in the locker room — having a great second half of the season and making a push toward a championship.”

Still, sooner than later, Howard is going to have to make a decision about whether Brooklyn is where he wants his next chapter to start. The trade deadline is fast approaching, and there’s no guarantee Smith won’t pull the trigger in order to get something in return for his best player.

But there’s still plenty of time for Howard to put an end to all of this by committing to the Magic — or at least commit to not committing to the Nets.

Wednesday night may have been the last game Howard ever plays in New Jersey, and if he knows what he’s doing with his future — if his primary goal truly is to win a championship — it will be.