(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
On Memorial Day, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard made clear his intentions to stay with the only club for which he's played in his seven NBA seasons, telling Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, "I'm not trying to run behind nobody like Shaq or be behind somebody else [...] I want to start my own path and I want people to follow my path and not just follow somebody else's path. I want to have my own path, and I want to start that here in Orlando." The four-time All-Star, who can become a free agent next summer, battled speculation about his future throughout last season, which ended in a disappointing first-round playoff loss, and has continued to do so throughout this summer.
Howard's comments don't change the fundamentals of his situation, which are these:
By exercising the Early Termination Option in his contract, Howard can forego the 2012/12 season, at $19.5 million, and become an unrestricted free agent.
The best way to end the speculation about his free-agent future is to sign a two-year extension with Orlando--which he can do up until the July 1st expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Such an extension would tack two years onto his deal and nullify his current Early Termination Option, keeping him in Orlando through at least 2013/14; he'd presumably want another Early Termination Option for the 2014/15 season.
No, Howard's remarks instead alter the context in which we'll view whatever decision he makes next summer. By invoking Shaquille O'Neal's departure in 1996, which left the Magic in a lurch until Howard's arrival in 2004, Howard has clearly acknowledged the impact a similar choice on his part would have on the fans, this city, and the Magic organization, to say nothing of his legacy.
And while Howard will surely join the Hall of Fame one day, and will enjoy near-universal acclaim for his greatness as a player regardless of how many teams employ him during his career, it's true that we'll regard him differently if he bounces around the league. Fairly or not, we regard superstars more highly if they spend their entire career with one organization: think Dirk Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks, Paul Pierce with the Boston Celtics, and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers, to name but a few more obvious examples.
"As of right now, I'm a part of the Orlando Magic and I plan to be here," is the most pertinent remark Howard made to Robbins Monday afternoon. In those 17 words, there's plenty to parse.
First, I don't doubt Howard's sincerity. Throughout his seven-year career, he's treated Orlando and its fans with the utmost respect; that he made these comments at a community barbecue he hosted at Turkey Lake only drives that point home. He's among the most caring, sensitive, community-conscious athletes in pro sports. Players of his caliber aren't typically this accessible and candid.
The most important words he uttered, though are these: "as of right now" and "plan." They carry as much weight here as his actions throughout this process do. Just as I don't doubt his sincerity when he professes his love for the city, I don't doubt that he could change his plans. For all his NBA experience and wealth, the man is just 25 years old, and will be a few months past 26 when he finally must make up his mind about his future.
At 26, did you follow through on things you said you'd do at 25? Consider your answer to that question before tackling this one: Would you think any less of Howard if he left Orlando, especially in light of these remarks?
His comments don't change Orlando's reality, either. It'd be easy to say they put even more pressure on the Magic front office, led by President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith, to surround Howard with more talent. However, I tend to agree with Smith when he says he's been preparing for Howard's potential departure since the day Orlando drafted the youngster first overall in the 2004 NBA Draft. The comments simply can't apply more pressure to Smith, or the DeVos family which owns the team, because they're already at critical mass.
Indeed, to ensure Howard stays, Smith must make some savvy moves to upgrade his roster. Thus, it'd be foolhardy to regard any deal he makes between now and next summer--or any deal he's made in the last several years--as something expressly designed to curry favor with Howard. The way to win Howard over, I believe, is to win games. As goals go, improving the team and keeping Howard are one and the same.
At The Point Forward, Zach Lowe keenly points out that some of Howard's comments simply don't make sense, particularly when he says, "we can change this small city that we have – this small market that we have – and we can make it a big market."
No man--not Howard, not Smith, not David Stern--can change the size, character, or baseline characteristics of a city. That's beyond their capability. Lowe, fairly reasonably, guesses Howard instead means he'd like to see Orlando become a version of Miami, whose Heat landed the biggest free-agent coup in history last summer by signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Not coincidentally, Orlando's rivals to the south now hold a 1-0 edge in the NBA Finals over the Dallas Mavericks, having played together for just one season.
And this is where the news gets grim for the Magic. Even with Howard affirming his love for the city and expressing his desire--"for now"--to remain here, the Magic simply cannot hope to create a free-agent environment similar to Miami's. Heat president Pat Riley engineered his team over the last several seasons with the summer of 2010 in mind by freeing cap space however he could, even if it meant parting with legitimate talent for pennies on the dollar, as he did when he sent no. 2 overall draft pick Michael Beasley to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a future draft pick.
In contrast, the Magic have several lucrative, long-term commitments to players currently on their roster, most notably Gilbert Arenas ($62 million over three years) and Hedo Turkoglu (34 million over three years). Without salary-cap space, the Magic can't sign top free agents outright. Without many viable trade assets, they can't make a sexy deal for another star. And without a better roster in place by next summer, convincing Howard to spending another few seasons of his prime with Orlando may be too difficult a proposition.
There are no easy solutions to a problem like this one; there rarely are in this league. The best news is--if you take Howard at his word, which I'm inclined to do--he genuinely wants to remain here. That's the biggest takeaway. But all the pleasant words in the world won't change the Magic's expensive, flawed club.
If Howard leaves, I won't blame him for doing so, even in light of these comments.
My belief is that free-agent athletes have the right to play for whichever team they choose and the responsibility to give their current club their best effort game-in and game-out. Howard has the latter point covered, and in a little over a year, he can check the first one off as well. I refuse to hold him to a higher standard than I'd hold myself.
I understand the idea that a man is only as good as his word, but the thing is, Howard never outright promised he'd stay. He said it is his "plan" to. If he leaves, he'll merely have changed plans. No matter our line of work, we all change plans. For instance, I sat down at the computer tonight not to write an essay about Howard, but rather to evaluate Turkoglu's 2010/11 season.
I am sympathetic, to a degree, to the idea that Howard choosing to leave after making these comments constitutes a betrayal of sorts. Magic fans will hate him for a long time, probably more than they hate Shaq. But I reject the idea that pro athletes owe us anything but their best effort on the court, field, ice, track, what-have-you and their best attitude off it. By next summer, Howard will have given the Magic eight tremendous years and further solidified his standing as the best player in franchise history. That's good enough for me, though it may not be for you.
Thus, I do not dread the fact that the forthcoming season may be Howard's last with Orlando, nor will I resent him if he leaves.
Barring any newsy developments in the story, this post will probably be the last I write about Howard's pending free agency. For now, I have said all I believe I need to say.
But my plans may change. Forgive me if they do.