Howard’s decision hardly one of loyalty

There was a lot of talk of loyalty at the Orlando Magic’s press conference Thursday announcing that All-Star center Dwight Howard had waived his early termination option, forgoing his right to become a free agent this summer just two hours before the trade deadline.

Howard, Magic CEO Alex Martins and general manager Otis Smith were all in attendance to break the news that the franchise player was staying in town — at least for the time being — and they all went to great lengths to pat each other on the back, repeatedly commending one other for a job well done.

But for all of the fanfare and the congratulations directed at Howard for his allegiance to team owner Rich DeVos and the franchise that drafted him, there really wasn’t a whole lot shown — especially not by the man of the hour.

“I’m glad that this is finally over with,” said Howard, who, laughably, went as far as to call himself “too loyal” during an awkward 35 minutes spent seated between Martins and Smith at the Amway Center.

“I’ve always believed that loyalty is before anything, and Alex knows this, Otis knows this and the whole DeVos family (knows this).”

They also know that Howard’s reluctant decision to opt in for 2012-13 is hardly a sign that his future with the franchise is etched in stone.

They know that, by coaxing Howard into agreeing to waive his ETO, they’ve only moved his future to the backburner for the next few months, and then the waffling 26-year-old and his indecisive nature will be put back in the spotlight once again.

They know that if Howard truly wanted to show the loyalty he and others credited him with during Thursday’s lovefest, he’d have signed a long-term extension to stay in Orlando, not just next year, but for the foreseeable future.

And it was clear Thursday that no one in the Magic organization wanted to look that reality in the eye. No one wanted to shake the Magic 8-ball, for fear that they might not like what it tells them.

“I can tell you what our plan is for the immediate future, and that’s to win a championship,” Martins said, sidestepping a question about Howard’s long-term plans. “We believe we’ve got the team to win a championship this year, and that’s what we’ll be focused about in the short term. And as we always do, we will be prepared when the big decisions come.”

In other words, Orlando understands that everything is riding on this year. It’s title or bust. Fail to show true championship potential — the kind the Magic showed in 2009 when they reached the NBA Finals — and Howard is as good as gone, with Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy likely right behind him.

“This has been an eight-year process, not a one-year process, and he will go through free agency again,” Smith said. “Our objective is to win an NBA title, period. We would like Dwight Howard on our team, period. What happens from there, those decisions are going to be made behind closed doors.”

In the meantime, there are certain small things to be gained for the Magic in keeping Howard around for another season, even if he leaves them hanging in the end.

It means another year of sold-out games at the Amway Center. It means the trade offers for Howard, which will inevitably pop back up, will only get sweeter this summer. It means Orlando will have a little more space to use in a loaded 2013 free agency class, regardless of whether Howard chooses to lure another star to Orlando or seek the brighter lights of a more appealing city.

But still, the No. 1 priority is to ensure Howard’s future with the Magic, and Howard’s decision Thursday to stay in Orlando — or rather, his choice not to leave just yet — is hardly a vote of confidence in his franchise, no matter how he and the team choose to paint it.

“I have to do what is going to make Dwight happy, and in the long run all of those business (opportunities) or whatever, they know where I’m going to be,” Howard said. “I want to be here. It’s not going to be that hard to find me. I’ll be in Orlando.”

And he will be — until he’s not, which may just be a matter of months.

Until then, Orlando will continue to do what they have to do and pat their star player on the back, hopefully massaging his ego to the point where he decides, against all odds, to stay in Central Florida for the long haul.

Unlike Howard, the Magic have been loyal to a fault. They’ve stood by their man through thick and thin, and Martins — who has always given the impression that keeping Howard was the first and only option for his team — seemed relieved just to have at least won round one of the battle.

“I’ve said to you for months now, I knew Dwight Howard wanted to stay in Orlando,” Martins said. “Many people have said to me that I was the only person in the country that thought that.

“But I know Dwight Howard, we know Dwight Howard, and I knew that in the end he was going to make this decision, and I’m proud of him for making it. Loyalty is hard to find, and he’s got to be commended for the loyalty that he’s showing today.”

If Howard was truly loyal to Orlando, though — if he was truly dedicated to Martins, Smith and DeVos, the teammates who have been dragged through the mud and the fans who have stuck by his side regardless of his indiscretions — he would have put a stop to this madness, not just pressed pause.

“In my heart I just felt loyalty is better than anything else,” Howard said. “I’ve gotten everything I wanted right here in Orlando and all that other stuff will come. It’ll come, but the first thing we have to do is win a championship, and I believe right now we have a great opportunity to do that.”

And if it comes to be that they don’t, well, there are 29 other teams in this league who would love to have him.

At the end of the day Thursday, Howard did nothing more than agree to play out the contract that he was already under, and there’s only so much loyalty in doing what you’ve already said you’d do.

Howard offered no promise that he was any more committed to Orlando today than he was yesterday, and in waiving his player option, he essentially only delayed the inevitable for the Magic.

And when the time comes for Howard to make a more permanent decision about his future once again — be it in July or October or December or March — there’s not much reason to think that his best option isn’t still to get out of town and find a new team to be loyal to.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner