ORLANDO — It was a schedule-maker’s cruel idea, putting the Nets in Orlando the day after Dwight Howard officially broke their hearts. But there they were, unloading themselves from the team bus for the morning practice, stepping inside Amway Center feeling a bit emptier, and certainly in no hurry to see Howard on the home bench later in the evening.
“We’ll survive,” said Nets coach Avery Johnson.
Had Dwight had a change of heart for the 4,576th time Thursday and refused to return to Orlando for at least one more year, the scene at the Amway Center would be totally different. The building, not even two years old yet, would resemble … well, Prudential Center in Newark, the soon-to-be vacated home of the Nets. Without Dwight, the energy surely would’ve been sucked from a team that’s sitting in third place in the East, and a franchise that’s one of the best-run in the NBA.
Basically, the Magic would’ve turned into the Nets.
One player made all the difference.
That’s what makes the NBA unique. Stars can make or break a team. You don’t see stars carrying as much clout in the NFL, or major league baseball, where the team aspect is greater. In the NBA, you rarely see a team win a championship without a franchise player. Mostly, a team needs two to even entertain the thought of grabbing a trophy in June. And that’s why Howard flip-flopped the last few months, wondering if he needed to follow the AAU-ization of the NBA, where players team up for the sake of sipping champagne.
The indecision of Howard not only weighed on the Magic, but the Nets, who had good reason to believe they were in the ballgame. Deron Williams was on board for the trip to Brooklyn, and the Nets had cap room and a solid rookie in MarShon Brooks and also Brook Lopez, who can score a lot better than he can rebound. Finally, they had Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire owner who’s even wealthier than Orlando’s Rich DeVos and eager to make a splash next season.
But Howard is staying and now the next decision is up to Williams, who insisted he does not “flip-flop” and will not exercise his option for next season, at least not just yet.
While Williams was disappointed to see Howard stay loyal to Orlando — the two have had many heart-to-heart talks the last few months — it doesn’t necessarily mean Williams is gone next summer. An intriguing offer will await from his hometown Dallas Mavericks, who can offer Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban‘s millions. But Williams enjoys living in Manhattan and has the keys to the Nets franchise. He can dominate all the promotional buzz during the transition from New Jersey to New York without dealing with the same kind of fallout that Carmelo Anthony is getting with the Knicks. Because, although the Nets will be considered a New York team, they will not be the New York team, at least for a while.
Williams can sign a maximum deal with the Nets and demand an early escape clause of his own, perhaps after two seasons. And then if he’s not feeling “loyal” to the Nets by then, he can make demands and plot his own escape if he so chooses. That depends on the Nets and if they can surround Williams with enough quality teammates to keep him happy, or to use a trendy buzzword these days, keep his “loyalty.”