Dwight Howard Saga: How T-Mac Affected It and Why Magic Should Let Howard Walk

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJuly 27, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 28: Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic looks on against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Blame it on T-Mac.

Save some reprobation for Grant Hill’s balky body, too.

I promise to explain those statements in a bit.

Dwight Howard will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and in a bit of news that qualifies as enfeebled, even for the person living under a rock, he does not plan to re-sign with the Orlando Magic, the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2004.

The team’s front office is hoping against enormous odds to change the best center in the NBA’s mind. Multiple outlets, including ESPN, reported the Magic might wait until the 2013 trade deadline or might not deal him at all.

Trying to guess the next thought in Howard’s mammoth cranium is like following a politician’s stance on a controversial issue.

He changes direction more than a kite in a windstorm.

D12’s one constant deportment: He would not scowl at the chance to help Deron Williams open the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Yeah, he wants to play for the Nets, a squad with a coach he’ll like even less than the foul-mouthed Stan Van Gundy and a history that, save for a brief window of contention with Jason Kidd, borders on embarrassing.

Thanks, shoe companies, for making that possibility look more attractive than remaining with an organization that at least made the playoffs in 2012.

This exhausting hostage situation involving the Magic and a once-in-a-generation center mirrors an oft-referenced situation in 1996.

Then, in 1996, Shaquille O’Neal scoffed at what he perceived as a cheapskate ploy by Orlando’s management and defected to the L.A. Lakers via free agency. The league’s West Coast glamour franchise had conveniently, and much to the Magic brass’s chagrin, created the necessary cap space to woo the transcendent 7’1” O’Neal to Hollywood.

Hoops aficionados do not call Jerry West one of the greatest sports executives and championship architects for nothing.

His careful plotting and cap management, along with some last minute payroll-slashing maneuvers, put the Lakers in the driver’s seat to land the brutish giant who would anchor a three-peat alongside an adolescent Kobe Bryant.

While the circumstances differ, the theme is the same.

The prevailing opinion is that new Orlando GM Rob Hennigan must secure some assets for Howard in a transaction to avoid losing him for nothing in July 2013.

The Magic, pundits and analysts say, cannot afford a repeat runaway bride. Prevent another O’Neal-esque abandonment at all costs, they say.

My response: Why?

The time has come to rethink the idea that a team letting a star walk without compensation is an inexcusable, lethal proposition.

O’Neal’s Florida departure was instructive, but I have taken a different lesson from that divorce than most.

A few givens need to be re-iterated. They support my position more than you might think.

Losing a franchise superstar sucks. There is no way around that.

No team ever parts with a primo player in his prime because it wants to improve its title odds. These sagas unfold because an All-NBA talent has decided he is unhappy in his current uniform and needs a scenery change or vice versa. The front office, in most cases, has lost its leverage and must surrender its top asset to escape a trip to the bottom—except that there’s a 99-percent chance the GM or his predecessor landed the game-changing athlete by falling to basketball’s abyss via a miserable record.

I did some digging and could not find one instance in recent NBA history in which a squad dealt its foundation piece and won the trade. The team that receives the star triumphs. Always.

This is where I explain how Tracy McGrady contributed to the nauseating Howard soap opera. No, it has nothing to do with how he also whined his way out of Orlando.

Cedric Ceballos was the leading scorer on the 1995-'96 Lakers. The roster also featured Elden Campbell, Nick Van Exel, Vlade Divac, Eddie Jones, Anthony Peeler, George Lynch and the great Frankie King, who scored all of seven points in purple and gold that season.

Suppose John Gabriel, hired as the Magic’s VP of basketball operations in April 1996, knew in advance that O’Neal would bolt that summer. Suppose he had been on the job in February of that campaign, in time to execute a trade before the deadline.

Orlando could have jettisoned O’Neal to L.A. for a package including draft picks and a combination of the Lakers players listed above.

Bleh. The throw-up reached my esophagus after typing that previous sentence faster than I imagined it would.

The Magic still boasted Penny Hardaway and later sported coach and executive of the year award winners in Doc Rivers and Gabriel.

Orlando’s worst finish in the four years after O’Neal left? A 41-41 mark and a lottery berth that earned Rivers, now considered one of the game’s finest tacticians and motivators, his first coaching hardware.

Shaq scramming for California was a bummer. No doubt.

Yet, in the summer of 2000, the franchise scarred by separation recovered by luring two of the league’s top scoring talents. Hill and McGrady almost succeeded in prying Tim Duncan away from San Antonio.

Would you rather have uncertain draft picks, Lynch and Divac or McGrady and Hill? I’ll take the second tandem for $1000, Alex.

The equation/query is not that simple. I realize that letting O’Neal walk had no direct bearing on the Magic’s free agency haul four campaigns later.

There is, however, no guarantee that happens if Gabriel orchestrates a blockbuster deal.

Why blame McGrady? Where the hell am I going with this?

The consequences of O’Neal’s Orlando disownment seem dire and the need to flip Howard to prevent part II seems greater because the Magic failed to advance in the postseason when it employed McGrady and Hill.

The four regular season records with those two perennial All-Stars on board: 43-39, 44-38, 42-40 and 21-61. In their first campaign together, Hill suited up four times. He spent much of his prime, including those years in Florida, plagued by injury. That final 21-victory death march yielded the lottery jackpot and Howard.

No wonder it feels like an eternity elapsed between the Shaq and Dwight Finals appearances in Magic jerseys.

Perhaps fans and pundits would embrace my opinion more if the Magic had won something with T-Mac.

Consider these statistical refreshers before closing your browser window in disbelief and anger.

In Hill’s last year with the Detroit Pistons, he averaged 25.8 points per game.

While in Orlando, McGrady established himself as an electrifying, unstoppable scoring dynamo.

His scoring averages through four seasons with the Magic: 26.8, 25.6, 32.1 and 28.0. He amassed two scoring titles in that span.

Raise your hand if you can think of two better, realistic eventual replacements for O’Neal and Hardaway than that duo.

The Rockets appear that much more desperate now because McGrady similarly failed to produce postseason series victories while paired with Yao Ming in Houston. One playoff-round triumph in 17 years is disgraceful for an organization that touts its championship tradition.

My point after this many lines of eye-popping statements: The Magic did as well as anyone could have expected after the 1996 debacle.

The word “guarantee” does not belong in the sports lexicon.

Just as an assiduous defense’s job is to force the opponent to attempt the lowest-percentage shot possible on each possession, a front office is tasked with affording its roster the opportunity, on paper, to compete for a Larry O’Brien trophy.

Players on Kevin Durant or LeBron James’ level can still nail those low-percentage looks with frequency. A seemingly fail-safe summer haul can fail.

A squad with McGrady and Hill in their primes had a chance, on paper, to survive until June. Misfortune and T-Mac’s legendary cowardice and shrinkage in the postseason spotlight derailed that dream. It was still a plausible one.

What more do you want?

A speedy, certain route to a title does not exist. Never has. Never will.

Pat Riley’s path to the biggest free agent coup in NBA history included a 15-win season that left the Hall of Fame coach disillusioned and Dwyane Wade fuming.

San Antonio Spurs supporters suffered through early playoff exits and conference finals heartbreak with David Robinson as the anchor before Tim Duncan arrived and altered the perception of a Central Texas mainstay.

The Magic is doomed to regress when Howard exits stage left. Brook Lopez and his albatross contract would assist Orlando in stinking less, but good luck ever transforming him into a competent two-way performer.

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak can offer Hennigan the second best center in the league. The Rockets can deliver relief from several exorbitant contracts in the form of cap space and a plethora of draft picks.

If the Magic let Howard walk for “nothing,” the team will occupy the seat the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Bobcats have kept warm for most of their existences. Orlando might languish in the lottery for several seasons and endure two to three campaigns worth of bottom-five attendance finishes.

How is that different from what will happen if Hennigan trades Howard?

No GM has ever secured equal value for a star because front offices never swap players on congruent footing.

A brain trust parts with its marketing machine and All-NBA talent because it is screwed.

Why not keep a disgruntled Howard through next summer? That would force him to potentially leave $30 million on the table in an offseason where the Nets and Lakers, the teams most often linked to him, will not boast any cap space or the ability to execute a sign-and-trade.

If he still leaves, so be it.

Suck for a while. Suck big.

Why are so many basketball minds aghast at the prospect of being LeBron’d? Or, in Orlando’s case, Shaq’d a second time?

Dan Gilbert stained his already shady repute with a petulant, Comic Sans screed on Cavs.com an hour after James announced on ESPN he would take his talents to South Beach.

Forget about the privileged, self-centered Gilbert for a moment.

Yes, Cleveland was deplorable in the first year of James’ absence, but the following draft yielded Kyrie Irving.

While he is not Chris Paul and nowhere close to James yet on either end of the court, Irving represents the start a plausible path back to contention.

I commended Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri for sending Carmelo Anthony to the impetuous Knicks in exchange for picks and four intriguing players.

Flipping a one-dimensional ‘Melo for Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler rendered Ujiri an instant winner.

Two questions that should temper the praise, though: Is Anthony a superstar? Can anyone declare the trade’s victor yet?

Denver secured a playoff spot sans Anthony and developed an impressive chemistry and scoring balance.

The Nuggets led the league in points per game and pushed the taller, top-heavy Lakers to seven games earlier this spring.

Yet, the Cavaliers, the squad that allowed its cornerstone to walk, boast better flexibility and as many or more assets than the Nuggets: more cap space, a No. 1 selection in Irving with considerable upside and better draft picks.

Even after Denver’s $44 million extension for Javale McGee, Ujiri can still coordinate summer and in-season improvements.

The Cavs, though, have at least an equal ceiling and as many ways to get there. And they did the very thing most believe Hennigan cannot. They let kept James until his contract expired then watched him leave.

Gilbert was foolish to even suggest Cleveland would hoist a trophy before Miami, let alone guarantee it. It is not cockamamie, however, to predict the Cavs might contend before the Nuggets, even if the former team has yet to qualify for the postseason with its upstart nucleus.

A roll call that features Ty Lawson, Gallinari and other athletes can run up the court the way a NASCAR driver traverses a track.

Beyond the players’ collective ability to put the ball in the hole, Denver projects as an annual flawed sixth-to-eighth seed that gets bounced in the first round. Even when they try hard on defense, the Nuggets still are not close to the supposed middle-of-the-pack Spurs on that end.

I like the Nuggets future. I love what the Cavs might construct in the next three years with so many chips and resources to use to rebuild a former contender.

Pundits opine that Hennigan must deal Howard, as if that manner of losing him will make the aftermath tingle instead of sting.

A series of tweets from Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski caught my attention this week.

He wrote, “Magic GM Rob Hennigan told Howard he’s trying to trade him” but has not found an “acceptable deal.”

News flash for everyone following this story: No executive on any planet will ever procure a suitable return for a center as rare and dominant as Howard.

Deals that fetched LeBron James or Kevin Durant would qualify as “acceptable.”

Will Orlando’s decision makers revisit a Nets trade with Lopez as the linchpin in January?

Lopez, who inked a four-year, $61 million contract with Brooklyn, was the centerpiece of a 12-win team that flirted with historical futility.

Why should Hennigan pony up to be godawful when he can let Howard walk and suck for free?

The current Nets forward-center gives the Magic a young building block to accelerate the rebuilding process? Please.

Call me crazy, but I would rather endure another 82 games worth of Superdiva’s diatribes and temper tantrums than add Lopez to a lengthy list of mistake moves.

Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and the rest of Howard’s teammates are handsomely paid professionals. They can handle one more year of cantankerous behavior.

Losing at the clip the Magic will once D12 jumps ship will be just as toxic as any stunt he could pull or rant he could deliver in the locker room.

If Jacque Vaughn, a front-runner to replace Stan Van Gundy, isn’t willing to put up with an extension of this glacial impasse, he should pursue another coaching opening.

If the Cavs front office survived James splitting town, with several regrettable contracts still on the books that offseason (Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams to name a few), the Magic can withstand still owing blasphemous chunks of dough to Turkoglu and others.

There is no guarantee Cleveland will ever make the playoffs with Irving or that he will stay beyond his rookie deal. True.

You want a certain road map back to relevancy, Magic fans? Ask Tinkerbell, or better yet, David Blaine.

The only guarantee here is that Orlando will dwell in the basement when Howard throws up the peace sign and ditches the Land of the Mouse for different digs.

One 1996 trade merits mention as a conclusion to this discussion.

The Rockets, the same organization now falling over itself for the chance to rent Howard, parted with Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Mark Bryant, Chucky Brown and a conditional second-round pick to fetch Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley.

Houston won the transaction because it secured the best player in the exchange. While the Rockets did not win another title with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Barkley helped them reach an additional Western Conference Finals.

While the Phoenix asking price was steep, none of the four players Houston relinquished became stars. Horry’s tenuous stay with the Suns is regarded as a low point in his otherwise decorated career. None of those prized acquisitions ever became consistent featured performers, and Cassell played just 22 times in a Phoenix jersey. He made one All-Star team, on 2003-2004, as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Barkley’s fractured relationship with Jerry Colangelo and a sudden downward spiral from possible champion to a .500 club forced the Suns into the sort of dilemma Hennigan faces with Howard.

Phoenix did not become a better-than-average team again until 2004 when it signed Steve Nash as a free agent and put him alongside Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire in Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense.

I will ask again: Why must Hennigan trade Howard? Says who?

The results may vary, but the evidence suggests letting a star walk does as much for rebuilding or more than a lopsided trade.

Any prospective deal involving Howard will tilt in favor of his new team the way a seesaw would with a sumo wrestler on one end and a lizard on the other. He’s just that good.

The Magic should allow the NBA’s premier center to pick his own destination next summer, thus ending the lie that there is any acceptable way out of this sordid mess.

What if Hennigan remains on the job in three or four years, and he lures a pair of ballers to Orlando as prodigious as Hill and McGrady were in 2000?

With better luck, an eternity will not elapse between June 2009 and the next time the Magic reaches the championship round.


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