Magic in due diligence mode as Howard saga takes latest turn

ORLANDO – First things first, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic are too far gone to repair any relationship.

The franchise center has made  no secret of the fact he’s ready to move on, a stance that pre-dates new GM Rob Hennigan and has been relayed in numerous conversations since the 30-year-old was hired from Oklahoma City on June 20. Despite this, Hoopsworld’s Alex Kennedy reports that the Magic are headed back to Los Angeles for another face-to-face with Howard late this week, the latest would-be development in a saga that has Lakers fans screaming “Free Dwight” while Houston looks on with morbid curiosity.

So, why the meeting? Doesn’t it come out of left field? Doesn’t it seem like a fruitless waste of time and resources?

On the surface, yes. Delving deeper and considering this has become a waiting game as it is, it makes sense. The Magic have to keep up appearances. They must make taking a hard-line stance and holding on to him for a second straight drama-filled season a possibility despite a long-stated desire from CEO Alex Martins to avoid that route.

Howard’s trade demand and stated distrust for the organization has backed the Magic into a corner where teams are trying to get the game’s best center without surrendering the bounty Hennigan feels obligated to get for a player of that caliber. So, this is a proactive way to extend an olive branch and keep alive a possibility of maintaining some of the leverage that the six-time All-Star handed over when he declined to utilize his opt-out clause at the March 15 trade deadline.

Brooklyn failed to put together a package that suited the Magic’s best interests, as reported first by PBN on July 8. The Magic wanted no part of Brook Lopez, which is another reason granting Howard’s wish of getting to Brooklyn would be highly unlikely come January.  Preliminary talks with the Houston Rockets surrounding the NBA Draft came too early into Hennigan’s tenure for a move to be struck. Because of this, the perception is that the Magic are wishy-washy, the kid GM doesn’t know what direction he wants to go in and the organization is going back, hat in hand, to beg Howard to stay.

Howard has also been cast as indecisive, but outside of his decision to opt in, has been pretty consistent in his end game. He wants badly to be part of the relocated Nets, only recently relaying a willingness to re-sign in L.A. if dealt there, as first reported by Real GM’s Jarrod Rudolph. Only the desire to look good and appease his massive fan base in Orlando kept him from harping on his preference to play elsewhere, but once he expressed his trade demand on Dec. 11, he hasn’t rescinded it.

One could argue his petulance over not getting the help he needed doomed the lockout-shortened season before it began, but Howard isn’t the first superstar to go to drastic lengths in detailing his frustrations with management. Unfortunately, that steadfast desire to get out of Orlando isn’t aiding the team’s chances of moving him for the value they envision.

As a result, whispers that they’ll hold on to him through 2012-13 have begun to grow louder, which sources reiterate is the right strategic play. The perception is that the trade offers they’ll receive will get worse as the days pass, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. When you have the best player in any deal, which Orlando will have regardless of trade partner, desperation isn’t on your end, regardless of perception. The Magic don’t mind playing chicken.

At Hennigan’s introductory press conference, Martins told the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins that despite the quality of candidates, the NBA’s youngest GM hire “set himself apart from the other finalists with his vision, with his approach towards process and procedure, his detailed plan for building a successful basketball operation and a strong focus on innovation.”

Given the situation the new hire was walking into, the Magic knew they had to choose someone who wouldn’t react emotionally and would systematically accomplish the goal of making sure this Howard situation wouldn’t turn into another Shaquille O’Neal saga. Orlando will not lose Howard for nothing. It will play hardball. It will wait out the nonsense, if necessary.

While more established GMs Mitch Kupchak and Daryl Morey are certainly capable in holding onto their cards and seeing what transpires, both would prefer starting the season with the game’s best center.

Anything can happen once injury-prone Andrew Bynum steps on the floor, including him staying healthy and flourishing next to a rejuvenated Pau Gasol thanks to new point guard Steve Nash. Still, L.A. is in championship-or-bust mode, and is rightfully convinced Howard would be the better fit as the anchor in the middle. If they want another dynasty-type run, they’ll have to secure him by the trade deadline or risk losing out on a massive opportunity

Houston just completed the acquisition of Chicago’s Omer Asik to follow up a similar pillaging of Jeremy Lin, but its roster is flush with the versatility to make the splash of renting Howard or Bynum. Acquiring either gives the Rockets their Bird Rights and a leg up on re-signing a franchise center come July 1. It also gives the team a much better opportunity to compete in a season where they’ll host the All-Star Game, adding to the spotlight that’s on Morey to make a significant move.

Kevin Martin’s expiring $12 million deal is a terrific trade piece, which at some point, the Rockets will put into play. Considering all the manuevering Houston made, Orlando’s thinking has always been that they’re out for a homerun scenario, either renting Howard or turning him into Bynum in a three-way with the Lakers. Because Morey was so successful in accumulating assets, the Rockets camp has been down-playing their desire to get a deal done, hinting at not doing anything at all.

Sources say talks with the Cavs haven’t been of much substance since the team is similarly well-stocked with future draft picks and unwilling to part with young assets Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller.

As a result, the waiting game that could first be attributed to the tedious process of Houston’s Lin and Asik signings has another built-in hold-up, since signed rookies like Donatas Motiejunas can’t be moved until Aug. 5.

Instead of a boring holding pattern, Hennigan and the Magic are going to go chat with Howard. He may even relent a bit, if only to strengthen Orlando’s leverage. Better for him to assist the team in their needs than feel persecuted and victimized. After all, he put himself in this position.

Trade talks will resume sooner than later. Howard starting training camp in Orlando remains a monumental upset as the grueling process of getting the most value for him plays out. As easy as it is for invested fans throughout the country to let their emotions get the better of them, this is a business. Hennigan only has one chance to get this right. It’s what he was hired to do. If you expected him to be rash, you’ve got the wrong guy.

 

Tony Mejia is senior writer of Pro Basketball News. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA