After a year of vague, hieroglyphic warnings, drunken late night phone calls from the General Manager and top of the hour news updates in panicked font regarding what was then and is now, a non-story, Dwight Howard signed a waiver to remain with the Orlando Magic another year.
Despite his talent for cleaning the boards and inciting apprehension in driving guards, speculation on Howard’s employment seemed drummed up, a sort of mini-Decision, just without the interest, intrigue and villainous blood coursing through the blue veins of its thin narrative. Why the media seemed so desperate for another variety hour where a grandiose millionaire selected his place of employment on live TV, I’ll never know.
It also doesn’t help that Dwight’s desire to leave his team was fundamentally different than LeBron’s Cleveland gut kick over a year ago.
We cared where LeBron went because he embodied the new generation of NBA player – more interested in how the media and public perceived them and their “brand” than with actually winning games. James wanted to be a global icon who played basketball instead of the global icon of basketball. We never really trusted him, could never get inside him. His protection could equally be attributed to the team who manages his career as it could ESPN and other media outlets (many of which are so kind as to splice the game winner he hit against the Washington Wizards a few years back so the viewer can’t see he took five steps to score).
Despite his talent as a gifted ball player, there was an overarching argument perched above The Decision that made us confront the way we perceive sports. Does a superstar need to sacrifice himself for the game, to put aside all personal goals and motivations to sublimate himself into our perception of what a heroic sports narrative should entail or are athletes simply hyper-reflexive freaks who are paid vast sums of money to play a semi-complicated game 82 days a year?
There was nothing of the sort surrounding Howard’s contract player option.
He is simply a frighteningly athletic, affable basketball player, the best player at a very weak position, who wishes to work in a different organization than he does currently. That’s it. There’s no scandal. There’s no intrigue. His way of advertising his unhappiness was unnecessarily public but if there is one thing we know about Howard, it’s that he thrives on public attention. He wants to fill the spot of Wacky Big Dude that Shaq vacated after he became petulant and vengeful.
But as much as Howard craves the spotlight, he’s never looked entirely comfortable beneath its heat. He tries hard, don’t get me wrong, but most of his attempts at humor, to me, have fallen flat (I’m thinking especially of the Clark Kent/Superman interview segment from the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals). So it comes as no surprise that his latest attempt at taking center stage was so ill-fated and confusing.
Howard should have known better. LeBron’s one-hour abomination last year was a conclusive lesson to athletes that public fuck yous to your team don’t go over well with the general population. For better or worse, sports fans care way too much about where athletes work. Sure, it’s understandable for Orlando residents to not want to see yet another center leave for greener pastures instead of building a winning team on the Magic Ironically, the most Dwight-flavored vitriol comes from people who aren’t even Magic fans.
And aside from going public with his desire to seek alternate employment, and the boneheadedly crypto-threat that Orlando should “roll the dice”, Howard went about this pretty ok as far as public spats go. He gave Orlando more than a year’s notice that he wanted to win a championship and if management would not build a winning team around him, he’d go somewhere else to find it. When you see that Otis Smith’s idea of building a championship squad was trading for a pregnant Gilbert Arenas, a banished Jason Richardson and a broken-down, already overrated Hedo Turkoglu, maybe Dwight is right for not trusting the front office.
Howard is the best singular defensive presence since Ben Wallace (on a team that expects Ryan Andersen to flank Howard in the post and trusts Richardson and Turkoglu to lock down the wings, it’s a testament to Howard that the Magic are 4th in points against per game) but he hasn’t shown he will ever dominate offensively (though he is slowly improving) like O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Howard still finds a way to score (22.9 PPG last season, 21.1 PPG this one) although the way he gets points aren’t always pretty. With a game predicated on raw power and a rightful aversion to the free throw line (.485 this season), Howard needs help, particularly in the last minutes of tight games. Andersen and J.J. Reddick aren’t going to cut it as the top scorers on a championship team.
To put it more it more clearly, the league average for shooting percentage is .446, the only Magic player with over 300 minutes who shoots better is Howard himself. That’s a problem. For Howard, for Orlando, for everyone who believes the league is already respectable (yes you, Jason Whitlock), and, most importantly, for Howard’s personal trainer.
So why did Howard choose to stay? The roster hasn’t changed, their payroll is still quite high and the holes and gaps in the rotation will only grow as their already old players get even older. In the end, Dwight just wanted his moment in the hot Orlando sun.
He should have learned from LeBron James however, that if you want to go heel, you can’t go half way.