Either sign Howard or trade him

May 9, 2012

If you thought that the Orlando Magic’s 105-87 loss in Indiana Tuesday night meant that the most turbulent era in team history was finally behind them, you couldn’t be more wrong.

This nightmare is just beginning.

And if Magic fans are convinced that a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the resurgent Pacers is a low point in the never-ending saga that has dominated the Orlando news cycle for the last year, just wait until they see what’s ahead.

The next few months will be eventful, to say the least, for the Orlando front office, and at this point, the only thing that can be said with certainty about the Magic going forward is that nothing is certain.


Orlando has a pouty, broken superstar who wants out — except when he doesn’t — a defiant but immensely talented coach who has been all too crass about how little of a damn he gives — and that’s putting it nicely — and a GM who seems to have all the power in the world yet is completely powerless to do anything.

And now they’ve got to figure out what to do with all of them, while knowing that the futures of Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith are all, ultimately, dependent on each other.

Certainly, priority No. 1 this offseason will be re-signing the franchise center Howard — this time to a long-term deal that actually means something.

Howard, who missed 12 of the final 14 games of the regular season and then the entire playoffs with a herniated disk that required surgery to repair, has been something of an enigma this season. He requested, rescinded and re-requested a trade, only to waive his early-termination option just before the Magic shipped him out of town, keeping him in Orlando for at least a few more months.

In a perfect world, the team would meet with Howard after the NBA Finals end in June, patch up his broken relationship with Van Gundy — who made it public that Howard had demanded the overbearing coach’s firing — and convince him that this hodgepodge roster can actually win a championship and hammer out a deal to keep him in Central Florida for the long haul.

But if they can’t — and why, exactly, should the team think it can? — then the focus immediately needs to turn to getting the most you can for the league’s best big man by sending him elsewhere. Because the Magic cannot and will not start another season weighed down by uncertainty over Howard’s future.

There’s no fooling around this summer, and there won’t be an embarrassing press conference gloating about a meaningless decision to stay and celebrating a loyalty that Howard never really showed — unless, this time, he actually shows it.

If Howard is as loyal as his team portrayed him to be in March, he’ll sign long-term, despite his team’s second straight first-round exit (though this one was largely precipitated by Howard’s absence). And if he can’t commit himself to Orlando, then let him be loyal somewhere else.

The Magic could ship him to a Brooklyn team that could potentially offer up a top-three draft pick — should the Nets get one — for Howard in a last-ditch effort to keep free agent point guard Deron Williams. Or, perhaps, Orlando could send him to Dallas, where an aging squad just followed up an NBA championship with a thud, exiting in a first-round sweep. Or maybe the Lakers, trying to cash in on Andrew Bynum’s emergence as an above-average NBA center, could jump back into the mix for one of the top five players in the entire world.

Whatever the case, the Magic don’t need to be dragged through the mud any longer on the off-chance that their star center has another inexplicable change of heart, and Magic management, at least for now, seems set on that being the case.

"If he decides not to sign an extension,” Magic VP Alex Martins told Orlando TV station Bright House Sports Network on Tuesday, “then we're going to make decisions necessary so we don't go through a season like we went through this year.”

Once the Howard situation is settled, the Magic can take aim at the rest of their glaring issues, beginning with the architect of this failing project, Otis Smith.

Smith built a team that reached the NBA Finals in 2009, and then blew it up three times over the next three seasons as the franchise spiraled further and further into irrelevance. Howard has never spoken poorly of Smith to the media — perhaps because some of Smith’s questionable moves have, reportedly, come at Howard’s behest — but Howard’s frustration over the general state of the team’s affairs would suggest that he’s not pleased with how those moves have worked out, either.

Regardless of what happens with Howard, it seems likely that Smith is replaced before the start of next season — perhaps by current director of player development Adonal Foyle, who has reportedly been interviewed for the job — and then the team can move on to figuring out what to do with Van Gundy.

Most can appreciate the yeoman’s work that Van Gundy has done over the last few years, constantly adapting and guiding a perpetually changing Orlando roster to the fourth-most wins in the NBA — trailing only the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs — since taking over the job in 2007.

But despite the franchise’s success during his tenure, the hard-nosed Van Gundy has repeatedly drawn the ire of Howard, who seemingly would rather be coddled than called to task.

Obviously, if Howard says he’ll stay so long as Van Gundy is fired, you have to take your star player over your star coach. But if Howard is set on leaving anyway, then why lose both? Whatever the Magic do, they can’t make a decision on Van Gundy until Howard’s future has been etched in stone.

Then there are personnel decisions outside of Howard to be considered, starting with power forward Ryan Anderson, winner of the league’s Most Improved Player award this season, a restricted free agent who could command upwards of $10 million a season this summer.

There’s also some question regarding the future of Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, the Robin to Howard’s Batman — or the Jimmy Olsen to his Superman? — who has a player option this summer and who has reportedly shown interest in testing the market, rather than sticking around for the final year of his deal.

The Magic would love to keep both Anderson and Nelson, which would likely put them over the luxury tax, then bring in other quality pieces in order to build a championship contender and entice Howard to stay. However, the oppressive weight of some of their other contracts — Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu — will leave them with little flexibility to bring in anyone else of significant value, via free agency or through a trade.

It’s a tough situation for the Magic to be in, that’s for sure. They’ve done, and will continue to do, everything they can to keep Howard in Orlando, but from the very moment they were dealt this unfortunate hand, it has seemed that a future with Howard in it just wasn’t in the cards.

So now you have Howard blaming his team’s empty trophy case on Van Gundy, who probably should — but won’t — blame Smith, who definitely should — but in a million years wouldn’t — blame Howard. And when it’s all said and done and the team reconvenes for training camp next season, they’ll probably all be gone.

Or maybe they won’t. Who knows? Orlando definitely doesn’t. Not yet, anyway.

The Magic have no idea what the future holds — and they won’t until Howard stops holding them hostage with his disingenuous will-I-won’t-I game — and that’s part of the problem.

Orlando is mortgaging its whole future on an insincere and sometimes-deceitful superstar who probably wants out, and the Magic have no reason in the world to think he’ll stay. And maybe the weight of those words and the reality of the situation will finally drop the curtain on the Howard Era in what would be a watershed moment for the franchise.

The Magic may not be better without Dwight — that much was made clear in their first-round beating at the hands of the Pacers — but there’s reason to believe they’d almost certainly be better off in the long run. So it’s time for Orlando to stop delaying the inevitable and trade Dwight Howard.