HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — So this is what “hardball” looks like?
For months — before he changed course at the March trade deadline when he signed away his leverage — Dwight Howard was holding the ultimate card in his game of free-agent chicken with the Orlando Magic.
Now, with his latest trade request to the Brooklyn Nets ignored yet again, Howard’s 4th of July will include few fireworks outside of the ones he lights off in his backyard tonight.
The Magic don’t appear to be in any great rush to acquiesce and provide an escape route for their disgruntled superstar center. In fact, the Magic are reportedly exhausting every possible option to do anything but send him to the Nets, where he can join Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in the Brooklyn Big 3.
If starting a bidding war for Howard is what Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is trying to do, we’ll know by the weekend if he’s been successful. The guess here is that there will be no shortage of fantasy packages cooked up by teams hoping to land Howard. (After all the drama he’s put the Magic through since December, he remains the most dominant low-post force in basketball and no one vying for his services has forgotten that.)
His “Nets-or-nothing” stance, however, has forced the Magic into a very deliberate place in this standoff. As Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel points out, both sides crossed the point of no return a while ago, now it’s time to sort through the debris and figure out an ending to this sordid tale that allows both sides to claim victory:
The Magic are faced with making the biggest trade in their history. They have to get this right — or as right as you can under the most unfair of circumstances.
Let’s make this clear: The Magic have lost.
The divorce is all but finalized now. The sorrowful, angry reality just hasn’t fully hit the franchise and their fans. It won’t until the trade comes down, until Dwight no longer can flip or flop.
Even when they get what they believe is their best deal for Howard — even if it’s the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum — the Magic and their fans have lost the league’s best center — again.
Worse, while Shaq slipped away in the middle of the night, Dwight’s exit has been publicly agonizing and ugly.
The Magic vow not to repeat last season’s dramatics, removing any chance of Howard playing out the final year here. It’s a long way until the start of training camp in October, though, and they have time to roust other deals.
GM Rob Hennigan tried enhancing the Howard auction. Without prompting, he confirmed to the media — and all other teams — that Howard’s surgically repaired back is fine.
This aside carried a larger message. It had nothing to do with pumping up Howard’s trade value; come on, he’s Dwight Howard, future Hall of Famer. No, what Hennigan did was cleverly launch a pre-emptive strike in case Howard’s camp informs a possible rental team that Dwight’s sacroiliac is acting up.
The Magic really don’t want to trade Dwight to the Nets, turning them into a super power. Orlando knows it wouldn’t contend in the East until 2020, about the time Justin Beiber starts shaving.
If the Nets want Howard, they must up the ante, bringing in another team or two. The Magic need to rid themselves of bad contracts and so-so players, not take them back, especially when they are rebuilding.
That ugly “r’ word needs to be treated with the proper respect by the Magic. The organization knows how hard it is and how many millions can be wasted trying to chase respectability the wrong way.
The importance of this moment, this decision on what to do with Howard, will affect the franchise for years to come. So they should take their sweet time in weighing all of their options, vetting every offer (no matter how far-fetched) to find the right fit for a franchise still carrying the scars of their break up with Shaq.
That’s what hardball looks like from the other side.