The Dwight Howard saga appears nearing an end. The Magic franchise appears ready to part ways with their superstar center and are exploring their trade options to get some type of value in return for him. That was always something Orlando was determined to do, but the hope of having Howard sign an extension has waned.
The reports this weekend appear to have put a nail in that coffin. A divorce seems inevitable.
Why did this have to happen? What went so wrong in Orlando for Howard that he had to engineer his exit in such an embittered, secretive and senseless way? What brought the frustration level with the franchise so high that THIS was the way Howard had to go?
These are complex questions that do not have easy answers. Far from them.
In each of Howard's statements he professes a love for the city of Orlando and a request fans stay patient with him and believe in him. But at the same time, he has avoided the truth that seems undeniable at this point: he does not want to play in Orlando anymore. His relationship with the Magic franchise has soured beyond the point of repair and he is trying (emphasis on trying) to secure an exit while maximizing his earning potential.
It has created an ugly divorce with the fans stuck in the middle.
Those same fans who have followed Dwight Howard the past eight years know this is not who Dwight Howard is. That is why hope that he would ultimately re-sign in Orlando remained -- and why some fans I have talked to still believe Howard will stay if the team can gather the right pieces (bless those optimists, seriously).
Howard is a fun-loving, smiling center who plays hard and work hard. There is not a single reason to hate Dwight Howard the player. This is why fans attached to him and these Magic teams so much, creating a buzz around the team that was felt only once before in the franchise history (with a similarly gregarious center).
The Dwight Howard the Magic and Magic fans saw in 2012 did not seem to enjoy the game as much. He was serious and guarded, with every word carefully measured for some alterior motive. Not the Dwight Howard Magic fans grew to love in seven years.
This marriage did not seem destined for divorce. Not after the 2009 Finals trip. Not even after the Magic fell in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. The fate may have been sealed in December 2010 when the Magic boxed themselves in with two horrific trades.
And then with the landscape completely changed from one of hope and promise to one of mediocrity in the matter of a year and a half, the Magic began to ask the question of Howard -- how long do you want to commit to this franchise? It is easy to see from that lense why you might hesitate to say yes and exert your leverage and power a little bit more.
Orlando's problems with Dwight Howard really do stem from the wake of that 2009 Finals trip.
Getting up to 2009 was a painstaking process of clearing some bad contracts -- most notably, Steve Francis and Grant Hill's expiring deal -- and creating an atmosphere where the team could succeed. Stan Van Gundy pulled the right strings in getting Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu to play their best basketball surrounding Howard.
But after 2009, Orlando succumbed to short-sighted moves to fling the window open, hoping it would not come crashing down on the franchise.
A lot of the moves made in the summer of 2009 proved to be the correct ones for the 2010 season alone. Vince Carter replaced Turkoglu's production (although he did not improve on it) and Orlando had a deep and versatile bench to call on for the Playoffs.
But there was one underlying assumption in how that summer-long rebuild was executed -- Dwight Howard would fix everything.
It is a testament both to Van Gundy's schemes and Howard's excellence that the 2010 team tied for the top defensive rating in the league. After all, no one considers Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis elite perimeter defenders. Howard's shadow cast all over the paint and he put together impressive defensive performances all by himself.
So when Otis Smith saw the wheels coming off his team in December 2010, this assumption still rested in the back of his mind. A quick fix could work because Dwight Howard can fix a whole bunch of holes.
And for a good chunk of the 2011 season, he did. Howard posted a career-best 26.0 PER and 7.7 defensive win shares. He was an absolute monster and carried his team to become third in the league in defensive rating. This was a team, mind you, that featured Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu as defenders in front of Howard.
The chance for a title was slipping though. Orlando struggled when teams could single cover Howard and no one else on the perimeter seemed able to step up in a six-game, first-round exit to the Hawks.
If you look at things through this prism, it is easy to see why Howard was frustrated by his waning voice within the franchise and his lack of help on it.
Howard had to do everything. And moves and transactions were seemingly made with the assumption that Dwight Howard can make everything work on his own. He is so gifted and talented that, for a long time, he did make it all work by himself.
But that is not how he is going to win championships. That is not how you build a championship team.
And so, with his ability to exercise his leverage at its maximum, Howard asked out. Orlando had run out of time to build him a championship team and boxed itself in, unable to get him help. The Magic as a franchise, simply took Howard's good naturedness and talent for granted, souring him away from the team's plans.
This does not in any way excuse the bungled way Howard has handled his exit. It has been ugly and confusing. A fan base that appreciates and supports a superstar the way Orlando did with Howard deserves a straight answer from the player himself -- the December 2011 press conference he held would have been fine if he let it stay at that. They certainly do not deserve the winding road and drama the franchise has endured.
The way Howard continually professes his love for Orlando makes you believe things really could have worked out if the Magic remained perpetual contenders and he had no reason to be discontent. But it is clear from the way things were run, Howard had plenty of reasons to be off put by the Magic's next attempt to placate him.
It all started with the franchise and its personnel not living up to its potential and bungling move after move at a time when it could not. Howard played the good teammate and did everything he could. The problem was, too many mistakes around him were made. It seems like it made him feel like he was taken for granted and ignored.
Howard was no longer a good soldier. He wanted a larger say if he was going to expend the effort and energy to (literally) carry a team through the postseason. Orlando did not give it to him.
And so here we are, ready to divorce much more bitterly than it had to be. A relationship broken that did not have to be.