Howard’s homecoming spoiled by Hawks

When Dwight Howard gave Orlando management his list of preferred destinations, he curiously left off his hometown Atlanta. Dallas was on the list, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, too — but no Atlanta. You can only infer what that means, but it seems like a rather damning omission.

Howard and the Magic were in Atlanta Thursday to play the Hawks. When asked if there is anything special or unique about coming home to play where he grew up, Howard just smiled and offered an evasive answer.

“It just felt like any other game,” he said.

The result probably felt familiar. Atlanta’s 83-78 win sent the Magic home with its sixth straight loss in Philips Arena. Howard in particular was shut down, shooting only seven times and scoring just 12 points, lacking the force and energy he usually employs to dominate games.

Most games, Howard attracts two or three defenders on offense, gets the opposing big men in foul trouble and then goes on the other end and makes the paint a “no drive zone.” Thursday, Howard seemingly sleepwalked his way to 12 rebounds and five blocks, if that’s possible.

“We had no energy,” said coach Stan Van Gundy, including Howard in that group. “And it’s not physical, it’s mental.”

It was a lackluster homecoming all the way around. The arena was only half full; Howard’s pregame introduction received only moderate applause. Everything was blah and maybe that’s why Howard has never really considered suiting up for his hometown.

When his fellow 2012 super free agent Deron Williams hits the market, tops on his list are his hometown Dallas Mavericks. In the summer of 2010 — although LeBron James fled his native Ohio with a heavy heart — Dwyane Wade gave Chicago a hard look and Chris Bosh made sure he mulled over returning to his hometown Houston.

You have to wonder, though, if Atlanta would even bother giving Howard the kind of hometown hero worship reserved for favored sons. Josh Smith, Howard’s AAU running buddy, has spent the past eight seasons weathering Hawk fan fickleness. They groan when he shoots jumpers, haven’t been above booing him and sometimes just generally give the All-Star-caliber forward a hard time. Smith says he ignores the negative vibes and, to his credit, he does a good job going about his business.

He was the most impactful player on the court Thursday, his 22 points and 12 rebounds putting him in the temporary good graces of the Philips crowd. But it’s not lost on folks that offseason rumors had him reportedly asking for an exit out of his hometown.

The thing is, Atlanta isn’t the worst trade partner for Orlando and this was definitely the case before Al Horford went down with his shoulder injury. With three All-Star-caliber players for trade bait and Jeff Teague playing better point guard than anyone on Orlando’s roster, Howard would automatically make the Hawks a contender, even if it had to send two of its three best players to Orlando.

Were Howard ever to land in Atlanta with Joe Johnson, Smith or Horford still in a Hawks uniform, either of those three would be the most talented teammate Howard ever played with. Howard would automatically become the biggest sports star in Atlanta by miles, its first personality-driven sports superstar since Deion Sanders. He’d even have the option of working out his acting chops by becoming one of those “Tyler Perry regulars.” That sounds like some pretty substantial pros. As we’ve seen most recently with Carmelo Anthony, if superstars want to go to a specific team, they let their squad know and simply say “work it out.”

Talks between Orlando and Atlanta, however, never got off the ground because Dwight’s destination list wouldn’t let them.

None of that seems to matter, right now, though. One of this season’s more remarkable feats has been Orlando sitting near the top of the East with the third-best record in the conference, despite the constant speculation about Howard’s tenure.

“We can’t allow that scrutiny to break us as a team,” said Howard, always cognizant in interviews to refer to him and his Magic teammates as “we.” “At the end of the day none of those people are putting on uniforms in this locker room.”

These days, some of Howard’s optimism seems forced. Van Gundy said, “We’re not going to be anywhere near contenders in the East unless we play hard all the time.” And Howard, for one, looked intermittently disinterested, at worst frustrated, at best — those huge shoulders tired of carrying a franchise, which is what he’d no doubt be expected to do if he returned home to Atlanta. He probably knows that, which is why there won’t be any Atlanta homecoming for the league’s most coveted soon-to-be free agent.