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Monday, March 19, 2012

Life is Simple When You Say What You Mean and You Mean What you Say

Dwight Howard has very publicly been talking for several months about his future but he has contradicted himself so many times that it is not clear if even he knows what he really wants! Is Howard motivated by loyalty, by greed, by wanting to win a championship, by wanting to be "the Man," by some combination of the aforementioned factors or by other factors that neither he nor anyone else has mentioned? When Dwight Howard announced that he would stay with the Orlando Magic at least until the end of the 2013 season he looked as if he had been condemned to a prison sentence, said that he had made this decision because he is "too loyal" and replied to criticism of his indecisiveness by whining that this whole process had been very difficult for him; at the press conference he looked like a 6-11 Sybil with ripped muscles and a lot of trouble on his mind. Is Howard a loyal person happy to stay in Orlando, a puppet unwillingly doing the bidding of other people or a genuinely confused young man who is trying to figure out how to leave Orlando without becoming as hated as LeBron James is?

The first and most important point that must be clearly and emphatically stated is if the process was difficult for Howard then he has only himself to blame; Howard not only publicly said last year that he wanted to be traded but he provided a list of acceptable teams (i.e., teams with which he would be willing to sign a contract extension; it would have been virtually impossible for the Magic to get anything of value in return if they traded him to a team not on Howard's list because Howard could have walked away from that team as a free agent this summer). Howard could have made the process easier and less dramatic by signing a contract extension with the Magic months ago; that would have been an excellent demonstration of loyalty and perhaps could have enabled the Magic to swing a deal to upgrade their roster this season. Howard could also have made his trade request privately so that the public would not hear about it unless and until the Magic actually traded him. Instead, Howard created all of the drama that he now says caused him such angst--and, unless he signs a long term contract extension with the Magic this summer or early next season we will go through the exact same drama until the 2013 trade deadline.

The second point is that if Howard is primarily motivated by winning a championship then William Rhoden (appearing on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" yesterday) stated what should be obvious: Howard should have maneuvered his way to Los Angeles to play with Kobe Bryant. If Bryant can win two rings with Pau Gasol (a one-time All-Star before he landed in L.A.) and a one-legged Andrew Bynum putting up Luc Longley-like scoring and rebounding averages during the playoffs then he can surely win at least one ring with Dwight Howard. Even if Howard would not be "the Man" initially, the Lakers would clearly build around Howard as Bryant declined. Rhoden's point makes so much sense that last year I beat Rhoden to the punch by saying the same thing about LeBron James and the other 2011 free agents: "...this may sound flippant but the reality is that if the number one goal for any of these free agents was truly to win a championship then they would have accepted the midlevel exception (or some similar deal) to join forces with Kobe Bryant in L.A.; winning a championship may be a goal for some or all of these guys but getting paid is the first goal and being 'the Man' is a secondary goal (at least for James and Stoudemire; Bosh seems to understand and accept that he is not, in fact, 'the Man')." So far, James has gotten the worst of both worlds; he has not won a championship in Miami (so far his Heat have in fact posted a lower overall winning percentage than either of his last two Cleveland teams) and he still is fighting the perception that he prefers for Dwyane Wade to be "the Man."

If Howard is motivated by loyalty, wanting to be "the Man" and/or greed then staying in Orlando is the obvious choice; staying in Orlando will ensure that he is "the Man" on his team for the foreseeable future, it will provide him the largest possible guaranteed contract and it will separate him from LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. I love the way that Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant handled their respective contract situations: there was no public drama, no flirting with other franchises and no disrespect directed toward their teammates, their coaches or their current teams; Rose and Durant both signed contract extensions and then devoted themselves wholeheartedly to trying to win a championship now. Rose refused to beg LeBron James to come to Chicago and he similarly refused to be drawn into the Dwight Howard soap opera; Rose declared that he loves his teammates and that his team is good enough to win a championship without making any changes. Meanwhile, how are things working out for the guys who fled for supposedly greener pastures? LeBron James is having a great individual season but his team trails Rose's Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings and anything short of winning a championship will renew questions about James' focus and mental toughness. Carmelo Anthony is being exposed as an overrated coach killer, the modern day Stephon Marbury (just to be clear: Anthony is an All-Star caliber player but he is not an elite player/franchise player who can be the best player on a championship team). Deron Williams is in a much worse situation than the one he could not wait to leave in Utah. Despite the preseason buzz, it is unlikely that Chris Paul will win a championship any time soon in L.A.

Kobe Bryant has spent his entire career with the L.A. Lakers and his five championships make him the greatest NBA winner of the post-Michael Jordan era (Robert Horry owns seven championship rings as a role player, which is a great accomplishment but not the same thing as winning championships as a perennial All-Star/All-NBA selection). Cynics may protest that Bryant tried to talk his way out of Los Angeles a few years ago but it is very important to place that situation in its proper context; Bryant understood that the team had to rebuild after trading Shaquille O'Neal and thus he did not initially complain even when three of the other Laker starters were named Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Vladimir Radmanovic. No, what set Bryant off is when it seemed like the Lakers were abandoning the rebuilding process in order to save money, a perception that was dispelled by the Pau Gasol trade. Bryant similarly stated this season that he will not complain about the Lamar Odom trade unless it becomes apparent that the Lakers are trying to save money more than they are trying to win championships (thus far the Lakers have essentially dumped Odom, Derek Fisher and Luke Walton to acquire Ramon Sessions, Jordan Hill and salary cap flexibility so the jury is still out).

By both words and deeds we know that Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant are committed to trying to lead their current teams to a championship. Is LeBron James trying to win a championship or is he trying to become a "global icon"? Is Carmelo Anthony trying to win a championship or is he, as Magic Johnson has recently suggested, more interested in just enjoying the glamorous side of living in New York? Deeds have not yet matched words for James and Anthony. It is also not clear what endgame Deron Williams has in sight. I believe that winning a championship is Chris Paul's ultimate goal and I understand why he wanted to leave the unstable Hornets franchise but it was a bit disingenuous for him to talk about how much he loves New Orleans when he had made it clear that he likely would skip town if the team did not trade him before he became a free agent. Howard must decide what he really values most and then align his deeds with his words; don't tell us now that you are "too loyal" and then string the Magic along for several months after this season--and don't tell us that you want to win a championship if it is true that you don't want to play for the Lakers because Bryant will be perceived as "the Man" instead of you.

Dwight Howard, your mission is simple if your thoughts are clear and your heart is pure: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:04 AM

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