Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Nightmare that is Dwight Howard by Brian Geltzeiler



Editor's Note: I changed the title, but please follow Brian Geltzeiler on Twitter and read his writings at Hoopscritic.

NBA fans on all levels have been treated to a few soap operas over the last two years, which up until 2010, was reserved for daytime weekday television. Once the soaps started leaving television was just about the time the NBA entered the soap opera business. First, we were graced with Lebron James and his train wreck half hour TV special to announce his free agency choice called The Decision. Then, we were treated to the ongoing saga of Carmelo Anthony knowing exactly what he wanted but being afraid to actually say it, known as The Melodrama. Now, we’re almost a full year into Dwight Howard’s whimsical adventure affectionately dubbed The Dwightmare.

Howard has taken a squeaky clean marketing image and an extremely promising future and has managed to incinerate the whole thing. When we examine the nature of this precipitous fall from grace, it may seem like it all happened fast, but in reality it's been a gradual process of ego and entitlement colliding at extreme levels to cause an implosion that is almost impossible to fathom. In reviewing where Dwight has put himself at this stage as we look back on the last three years, it serves as a primer in how to destroy a pristine public image without ever breaking the law.

In late spring/early summer of 2009, Dwight Howard looked like he was about to take the NBA by the throat, rip out its vocal chords and shove them in a garbage compactor. Howard put up a 40 point 14 rebound virtuoso performance in game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in disposing of a Lebron James led, extremely under coached Cleveland Cavalier team in Game 6. The Magic advanced to the finals and although Howard didn’t have a great final, he successfully served notice that he was to be a major factor in how the NBA’s title is settled.

The offseason of 2009 is where it all started to unravel for the Magic. GM Otis Smith made a personnel decision not to sign Handsome Hedo Turkoglu to a large contract extension, therefore materially altering the chemistry of the Magic’s great strength…their long versatile front line. Smith decided to replace Turloglu with the aging, enigmatic Vince Carter who was coming from a miserable situation in New Jersey (nothing to do with Tony Soprano in case anyone asks) and was primed to compete for a championship. Unfortunately for Dwight and the Magic, the Carter for Turkoglu switch stripped away the matchup difficulties a Turkoglu, Howard, and Rashard Lewis front line created. What made the situation worse for Smith was that Howard was not on board with letting Turkoglu leave. The two had a nice relationship and Dwight understood his value. Smith would then do the equivalent of throwing a drowning man an anchor as he spent the rest of his tenure as Orlando GM chasing that move.

Orlando did not make it back to the Finals in 2010. The Boston Celtics would beat them in 6 games. The substitution of Carter for Turkoglu would prove to be a significant downgrade in terms of fit and production. With Howard growing increasingly discontented with head coach Stan Van Gundy and the direction of the Magic, Smith made a trade that would back the Magic into a personnel corner that they still are nowhere close to being out of. Smith traded their one remaining asset in backup center (who would start for many other teams) Marcin Gortat for the privilege of making the benign swap of Jason Richardson for Carter and for the honor to pay Turkoglu the contract that they thought was too rich for their blood 17 months prior. There were two problems with this. The first was that since Turkoglu signed that very rich contract with Toronto, he stunk to high heaven. When Toronto tired of him and traded him to Phoenix, he stunk some more there. The second problem was that at the same time Smith made this deal, he swapped Rashard Lewis to Washington for the single worst contract in all of sports belonging to Gilbert Arenas.

Lewis’ contract was a train wreck in its own right. Furthermore since his 10 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance at the start of the 2009-2010 season, he hadn’t been the same player. Nonetheless the problem was that if getting Turkoglu back at that inflated price, the purpose was defeated by not reuniting Lewis and Turkoglu. Despite Howard’s perceived liking of playing with Turkoglu, the price tag was insanely high and it was a lateral move at best.

As speculation started to ramp up about Howard looking to demand a trade as his option year was approaching, Smith did the Magic no favors with that trade. The Magic entered the playoffs as the West’s #5 seed and were beaten in 6 games in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks. These were the same Atlanta Hawks who the Magic swept the year before. Howard had pretty much lost all faith with everyone around him. At the end of the season, Howard made it clear to Orlando management that he didn’t want to play for Stan Van Gundy anymore and would welcome a trade to the Brooklyn Nets. The existence of the NBA lockout would delay the granting of Howard’s wishes.

After the lockout was resolved, Howard and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov had a supposed chance meeting in South Beach. Not soon after, Howard went pedal to the medal on pushing the Magic to trade him to the Nets. Smith had actually agreed to a deal with the Nets before the start of the lockout shortened season only for Orlando owner Rich DeVos to veto it. DeVos still believed there was a chance to keep Howard in Orlando and as things rolled out, he was actually onto something. First of all, with the All Star game being held in their brand new Amway Center, watching Howard get announced in a Nets uniform was going to be a public relations disaster. The other more important thing is that DeVos’ instincts about having a chance to keep Howard were far from unfounded.

Up until this point, Howard really hadn’t done anything that wasn’t previously done by the likes of Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul hadn’t previously done. James did it by going to free agency and Anthony and Paul did it by threatening to go to free agency but the underlying premise is the same. They all used the termination of a contract to make their way to a destination of their choosing. James took the biggest backlash and needed to win a title with grace and class for his image to have any meaningful level of recovery. Anthony’s image is not in wonderful shape, but that’s more of a style of play argument (which I don’t prescribe to) much more than it has to do with how he went about getting himself into New York. And Chris Paul’s image came through unscathed in how he forced his way to Los Angeles. He has Commissioner Stern to thank for that. The butchering of the trade veto exists as the enduring story of Paul pushing his way out of New Orleans.

The point I’m trying to make is that Howard, at this stage, had the potential to get through the PR backlash with a relatively minimal level of damage at this point. Yes, his issues with Van Gundy were well documented, but he wouldn’t have had the coach’s blood on his hands. He wouldn’t have earned the reputation of being a bigger flip flopper than John Kerry and Mitt Romney rolled into one. Everything was fine for Dwight until he foolishly waived the early termination option (ETO) in his contract at the March 15th trade deadline instead of accepting a trade.

The Magic weren’t ready to give him up without a fight. Franchise centers come along so rarely so we can’t blame them but they were missing the bigger picture. No matter how much Dwight tried to publicly spin his change of heart as a decision made out of loyalty, it wasn’t about that at all. The bottom line was that Dwight didn’t want to sit out the playoffs. If he didn’t sign the ETO, he was on his way to Brooklyn in a trade. At that stage, independent of what the Nets were trying to sell publicly at that point, they had as much chance to make the playoffs as Shaq would have to balance on a high wire. Dwight’s fatal error was that it wasn’t enough for him to get to choose where he wanted to play, he had to try and choose when also.

For a guy who desperately wanted out, Howard made a very foolish decision to waive his ETO, but even Dwight couldn’t have expected the confluence of events that would occur. On the afternoon of April 5th during a shoot around on the day of a game versus the New York Knicks, Van Gundy answered a reporter’s question by somewhat casually admitting that he was well aware of the fact that Dwight Howard had been attempting to have him fired. While Stan was casually answering questions on a pretty extraordinary admission, Dwight himself strolled up and put his arm around Stan in an attempt to show the media that he and Stan are like peas and carrots cooking in the same pot. Of course Dwight had no clue Stan had just outed him and Stan took off quicker than maybe he’s ever moved in his life. Dwight was left to stand there and be punked worse than Ashton Kutcher could ever pull off.

Dwight knows who sold him out within the Orlando organization, which has consequently burnt a bridge that cannot be rebuilt. Van Gundy was extremely disappointed when Howard waived his ETO. Stan was dying for this travelling circus to end and was not at all on board when the Magic front office genuflected at Dwight’s feet. And as much as I admire Van Gundy and as much as I was entertained by his brutal honesty, his admission didn’t exactly tone down the travelling circus. Granted, Dwight could have not have anticipated something like this, but he left some scorched earth behind him and proceeded to stay in bed with the enemy when he had the out he had demanded.

It got worse for Dwight less than a week later. His back started to act up to the point where he was favoring it on the court. It soon got bad enough that he couldn’t play. He was diagnosed with a herniated disc and chose to see his own specialist in Los Angeles who recommended surgery. Just like that, the entire reason Dwight waived his ETO evaporated into thin air. Not only that, but he would have no chance to redeem himself in the London Olympics because he wasn’t going to be healed on time. When this whole process started, Dwight was just another entitled basketball player trying to force his way to the location of his choice. By the time he waived his ETO, got publicly humiliated by his coach and seriously injured his back, he became the punch line for everything that’s wrong with the NBA players of today.

So what’s next for Dwight? The Magic had gone down the road of trading him to the Nets, but after trading for Joe Johnson, the Nets were not in as good a position to take on the volume of bad contracts that they were at the trade deadline. Essentially, many of the same cast of characters that were acquired in an attempt to pleas Dwight, were the contracts that were preventing Dwight from getting to play for his beloved Brooklyn Nets. After the Nets re-signed Brook Lopez, Howard made the reluctant and necessary compromise in letting the Magic know that he would add the Los Angeles Lakers to the list of teams he would re-sign with. Keep in mind that Dwight’s big compromise was to give the Magic two teams instead of one that he would sign with.

The Houston Rockets are currently the clubhouse leader for Dwight however they aren’t necessarily going to take on the bad contracts that Brooklyn was willing to. Houston knows if they trade for Dwight, they’ll have the option to keep him all year and pitch him on staying after next season (chances: slim to none) or move him at the trade deadline to either Los Angeles or to Brooklyn (with whatever bad contracts they took with Dwight). The Rockets are the Magic’s only option to dump bad contracts at the moment, which is why they’re meeting with Dwight to see if they can get Dwight to stay. They have as much chance at that as a cat does to survive in a blender. However, if they can get him to be a good soldier and start the season without disruption, the Magic can invite the Nets right back into the talks. Either way, new Orlando GM Rob Hennigan has got it right. Howard is his best opportunity to unload some of these bad contracts.

There are plenty of people in and around the NBA who are totally sick of the Dwight Howard saga, but I’m still totally intrigued. Just like Lebron, Dwight’s road to redemption runs through the NBA Finals. His global brand and off the court appeal are meaningless if he doesn’t make his way back to doing what he does best and that’s being a basketball player. Whether it's fair or not, Howard is an elite player who went from losing in the Finals, to losing in the Conference Finals, to losing in the first round of the playoffs, to having surgery and having to sit out the playoffs altogether. If Dwight worries about his global brand, his career will be a tragic tale of runaway ego. If he focuses on being the best basketball player he can be, he will emerge in just the same way Lebron James did.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @hoopscritic

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