A Magical Mistake? Dwight Howard & The Orlando Magic

Posted by C.L. Anthony on Monday, March 26, 2012 with No comments
During the summer of 1996 a wave of destruction rocked the city of Orlando, destroying one Florida franchise and giving birth to another.  Shaquille O'Neal devastated the Orlando Magic by leaving for the bright light of Hollywood to join the Los Angeles Lakers.  Just a year prior, the Magic were in the NBA Finals facing the eventual Champion Houston Rockets where O'Neal was outplayed by an older, wiser Hakeem Olajuwon.  He was a budding star, on his way to becoming one of the most dominate big men in the history of the NBA but he was allowed simply walk away.....how did this happen?  Who was responsible for allowing the franchise to just walk away, never to return.  Four NBA Championships,eleven All Star game appearances and one NBA MVP award later, no one really knows the answer.  It was after the finals loss to the Houston Rockets that the seeds for an escape were planted, the Orlando Magic won 57 games that season and the next season they did even better by finishing with 60 wins but
they were defeated by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  Allowing Shaquille O'Neal was not the plan for the Orlando Magic and not enough was done to convince him that the franchise could remain a winner, for they had reached the mountain top only to come crashing down.

There's no doubt that O'Neal was smitten by the possibilities that LA offered based on the fact that he'd always dreamed of being more than a basketball player.  Why be just an athlete when you had an opportunity to be a cultural icon and considering that O'Neal spent most of the summer prior to his rookie season in LA with non other than Magic Johnson, the Magic were already in for an uphill battle once O'Neal became eligible to become a free agent four years later.  During the initial negotiations between O'Neal, the Magic and the Lakers, the Lakers offered O'Neal a contract of $120 million with the Magic's final offer being $115 million.  O'Neal publicly stated that the Magic were his first choice however then Magic GM John Gabriel never believed him.  To make matters worse, the Orlando Sentinel ran a poll asking if O'Neal was worth a $100 million dollar contract.  The question was designed to make O'Neal look bad from the outset based on the fact that the majority of Americans would agree that professional athletes, especially NBA athletes earn too much money....no scientific poll needed here, just look at the reactions based on misinformation of the NBA lockout of 2011.  To no one's surprise, 90% of the respondents agreed that O'Neal wasn't worth a contract of 100 million.

Lets dig deeper into this poll and also into the psyche of human beings.  We are selfish by nature, destructive, and judgmental, always has been and always will be in one shape or form.  I've even been guilty of stating that someone doesn't deserve the salary that they earn "Joe Johnson" but I've always blamed to team/owner for such things because athletes don't draw up their own checks, non of us do.  The residents of Orlando have yet to get over the departure of O'Neal nor truly understand why he walked away.  I spoke to a die hard Magic fan almost a year ago who's much older than me at a family function and he explained to me how he still felt pain of the departure every time he saw O'Neal.  Another told me once that he hated the Miami Heat due to the fact that O'Neal arrived there and helped Dwyane Wade deliver a championship in only two years.  How could the same residents who degraded O'Neal's worth turn around and be shocked that he left.  The Orlando Magic eventually matched the Lakers monetary offer for O'Neal but the damage was done.  It was never a money thing for O'Neal, yes LA offered O'Neal easy access to some of the other passions he wanted to pursue i.e. movies and his rap career, but O'Neal left the Magic because he didn't fee appreciated.  He felt that the Magic didn't appreciate him with their first contract offer and he felt as if the fans no longer had his back after the poll results were released.  During his four years in Orlando, O'Neal averaged 27.1 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game and shot 57.9% from the field but yet he received no love from the organization or fans.  What would you do if you felt unappreciated and unwanted?

A New Hope?

During the summer of 2004, the Orlando Magic drafted Dwight Howard with the 1st overall pick.  Many Magic fans were split on whether or not Dwight Howard should be the pick or Omeka Okafur who had just lead Uconn to the NCAA championship months earlier.  Hindsight is in indeed 20/20 as Howard turned out to be the better choice.  As of the posting of this article, Howard has averaged 18.2 points per game, 12.9 rebounds and has shot 57.8% from the field all the while winning 3 defensive player of the year awards.



During the 2008/09 NBA season, the Orlando turned into title contenders behind the excellent play of Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Hedu Turkoglu, and Dwight Howard.  Rookie shooting guard Courtney Lee also added needed versatility to the team as the Magic moved past the Raptors and the Celtics in the playoffs.  The league MVP Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were the next team to face the Magic as the two teams battled for a trip to the NBA Finals.  Despite an MVP performance from Lebron James, the Cavaliers were no match for Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic as the Magic moved past the Cavaliers in 5 games to reach their second ever NBA Finals.

Waiting for the Magic in the NBA Finals would be the LA Lakers, who were led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.  Having lost in the finals the previous year to the Boston Celtics, the Lakers were on a mission.  Kobe Bryant was on a personal mission to win his first NBA Championship without Shaquille O'Neal.  Five games later the dust settled and it was the Lakers who proved to be too much for the young Magic to handle.  Enduring torture by electing to sit on the sidelines as the Lakers celebrated their victory on the Magic's home court were Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard, living through a self inflicted punishment that I couldn't even begin to imagine living through personally.  The loss was supposed to be a tipping point for the franchise as they were prepared to dominate the Eastern Conference for years to come but it wasn't meant to be, the basketball Gods wouldn't have it.

Following the humble defeat in the NBA Finals at the hands of the Lakers, the Orlando Magic decided not to pay Hedu Turkoglu the amount of money that he thought he was worth and they let him walk as a free agent.  Trying to fill the void at the small forward position emptied by Turkoglu, the Magic traded promising young talent Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston to the New Jersey Nets for a declining Vince Carter.  In the eyes of many the Orlando Magic had reloaded and were ready to claim the Eastern as theirs but the Boston would have no part of that on their way to a second NBA Finals in three years as they defeated the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals in 6 games.

A shift in the balance of power

The Orlando Magic didn't expect to see their run as the beasts of the East last such a short amount of time, but no one could have foreseen the storm that was brewing south in Miami.  Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh formed a Holy Trinity in the eyes of the basketball and combined their talents as they all signed with the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010.  Soon after the Heat resigned Udonis Haslem and former Orlando Magic wing Mike Miller as the Magic continued to sit idle, Magic management didn't see the Heat's reconstruction as a threat.

"Not concerned" about the storm that was brewing in Miami, the Orlando Magic decided against making any moves in the off-season to counter the Heat deciding that their roster was powerful enough.  A 26 point pounding by the Heat in Miami and a poor road trip performance later, Magic GM Otis Smith made perhaps one of the most costly trades in Magic history by bringing in the mammoth contracts of Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkgolu, both of which who were on their last legs and a bit out of shape.

The Magic never found their groove as a team and it was apparent as they finished the season with the fourth best record in the conference which did at least give them the home court advantage in their first round playoff showdown with the Atlanta Hawks.  The Hawks who had been embarrassed by the Magic a year earlier had the Magic's number all season and the playoffs would prove to be the same.  The Hawks defeated the Magic in six uninspired games and that was when the seeds for an exit were planted.  The Heat and the Bulls got better, the Magic regressed.

The Decision Redux

March 14th 2012, the eve before the NBA trade deadline and Dwight Howard was still a member of the Orlando Magic.  The Magic believed all along that they could convince Howard to remain with the team and that belief has apparently paid off in the short run.  Dwight Howard waived his early termination option and will remain with the Magic for at least another year.

The Decision has been made, but only for an additional year.  The leak has been plugged but the pipes still would need to replaced.  The pressure is clearly now on the Orlando Magic franchise to surround Howard with the right pieces that would allow them to take the next step towards a championship.  March 15th saw a short term solution to a long term problem.  Bad management negates star players every time.  The goal is simple, the Orlando Magic must win a championship next season or The Decision Redux will occur all over again.

Dwight Howard stated that he made his decision for love, love over money and admitted in the process that he had more career opportunities in a city other than Orlando, a chance to become a global phenom but end in the end he still chose love....by fulfilling the terms of your contract....love was chosen by remaining with the team for an additional season versus signing a long term deal with the team you love so much.....but Howard chose love over money....does one more season equate to love?  Am I the only person who feels as if Howard fell victim to a guilt trip, choosing to remain with the partner that he knows and in unhappy with versus a new partner?

The Clock is ticking for the Orlando Magic and the entire state of the franchise is at risk.  There's pros and cons for every decision that is made, good or bad, right or wrong.

Tick:

The Orlando Magic will not have cap space until the summer of 2013 to rebuild it's franchise which means that Howard will have to waist a year and a half of productivity if the Orlando doesn't win the NBA Championship this season or next.

Tock:

With Dwight Howard waiving his ETO, what will be the fate of head coach Stan Van Gundy who has yet to properly utilize Howard?

Tick:

What will the future hold for GM Otis Smith who's had a documented rift with Howard over the past year.

Tock:

How much longer will the Orlando Magic allow Dwight Howard to hold the franchise hostage outside of the next year and a half that's guaranteed.

Tick:

Will the Orlando Magic be able to trade away the massive contract of Hedo Turkoglu.

Tock:

I think not!