|Dwight Howard is keeping his cool as a media circus prepares to build around him. (Getty Images)|
NEW YORK -- When he was finished imitating various media personalities and cracking on other favorite targets of good-natured jokes, Dwight Howard provided perhaps the clearest synopsis yet of what stands before him between now and the March 15 trade deadline.
The insight came from a conversation with Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, who famously forced his way from Denver to New York last season -- getting the team, city, market and millions he was seeking, all in one neat package. Howard said he's spoken with Anthony about the weeks ahead and the potential fallout, and came away with a clear mandate.
"All he said was, 'Do what's best for you,'" Howard said Monday after his Magic beat Anthony's Knicks 102-93 -- Orlando's fourth straight win, the last three on the road. "'Whatever you decide, people are gonna dislike you, but you have to live for you.' And it's good advice. I just told him, 'I want to do whatever I can do to win.'"
I looked up at Howard in the visiting locker room of the Garden and asked if he's made up his mind yet. Howard smiled and said, "Right now, I'm with the Magic. That's the only thing that matters."
During the just-completed Martin Luther King Jr. matinee, Howard saw both sides of the coin that will get tossed into the air between now and March 15. He saw his own team, the Magic, finish acing the easy part of the schedule by improving to 9-3 with a victory in the first segment of a back-to-back-to-back set that continues at home with Charlotte and San Antonio. As the Celtics fade and the Sixers try to climb and the Heat falter, the Bulls and Magic just keep plugging along -- with mostly the same people, playing the same way as they always have, producing the same results. Winning, in the regular season, anyway.
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Howard also saw the other side of the coin: Anthony's Knicks, a team that was gutted to acquire him last February, lost their third straight and fell below .500 for the third time in the first three weeks of the season. With no point guard, no 3-point shooters and no offensive continuity, the Knicks' post-Melo fortunes look uncertain to say the least. To that extent, Anthony's advice was a tad incomplete.
"We can't focus on any other situation," Howard said. "Right now, the focus should be one game at a time. We can't look ahead. We've got to stay in the moment. We've been doing a good job so far." So far, yes. The Magic are proceeding exactly as Howard suggests. They're ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. It's hard to blame them at this point; the team is winning, and decision time is still two months away. The same offers that were on the table during the compressed, post-lockout free-agent period will still be there on March 14 -- if not better.
There's "no issue" with Howard, according to one person familiar with the organization's strategy. No issue yet, is probably a better way to put it. Armed with this new advice from Anthony, which comes straight out of the LeBron James playbook for changing teams and embracing the negative fallout, Howard just keeps plugging along, saying all the right things and winning games.
It's fool's gold for the Magic, who are destined to lose Howard once he and his representatives pull out all the tricks that were deployed by LeBron and Melo, and a few new ones courtesy of a collective bargaining agreement that will force Orlando to make a decision rather than beg Howard to stay this summer. The max extension that Anthony got in his trade to the Knicks is no longer an option, and neither is the sign-and-trade route that would get Howard a max deal in July while also assuring that the Magic get some assets in return.
The issue that supposedly isn't an issue is barreling down the lane like Howard in his Superman cape in the dunk contest. Hide the women and children, is the advice Anthony would have correctly offered the Magic if they'd asked.
"Our minds are on winning and staying focused on the goal, which is a championship," Howard said. "It's my job to lead our team and try to do a better job this year of being a good leader."
As Howard knows, it's easy to lead when things are going well. This has been the no-worries part of the lockout-shortened season for the Magic, and now begins the treacherous part. The schedule gets harder and more compressed as the countdown to Howard's D-Day accelerates. The crucible only becomes hotter.
"I'm not even dealing with them, because it's completely out of my control," Magic guard J.J. Redick said of the Howard distractions, which are only beginning. "I just go and do my job and I'll let everybody else do their jobs."
In the meantime, Stan Van Gundy just keeps coaching, keeps trying to coax better defense out of his team and enjoying the comfort of being the only contending team in the East besides the Bulls that isn't dealing with some calamity or another. The Knicks are lost in the fallout of their roster-shuffling quest for star power; the Sixers are still learning how to win; and the Celtics are getting old -- though Van Gundy took issue with that part of my analysis.
"It's not like our guys are getting younger; I'm just saying," Van Gundy said. "But yeah, I think in a shortened season ... do I think there's a little bit of an advantage to us having some continuity? Yeah, I do. ... The fact that we do have some guys who've played together a lot before certainly helps. But Turk [Hedo Turkoglu] is getting older, J-Rich [Jason Richardson] is getting older and Jameer [Nelson] is getting a little older. Those guys are all 30-plus. So it's not like Boston's guys are aging and we're at Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth."
Of more concern to Van Gundy is the schedule. On Monday in New York, Van Gundy said the Magic began a stretch of 24 games in 39 days with five practices before the All-Star break. He's looked at the season as a whole, too, and noted that 21 of Orlando's 66 games will come after having played the night before.
The road will get tougher, and the advantage of having a team that's won together before will be diminished -- just as the Magic creep closer and closer toward Howard's D-Day.
On a Monday afternoon at the Garden, all was well on the Howard front. The Magic were exactly what they've been for the past five years or so, a team that is almost impossible to beat when you double-team Howard and they make 3-point shots. Orlando was 17-for-35 from beyond the arc against the Knicks, with Ryan Anderson producing a career-high 30 points and shooting 7-for-13 from 3-point range. Howard, engulfed by the Knicks' defense every time he touched the ball, only had six field goal attempts, eight points and 10 rebounds.
"He doesn't have to have a ridiculous amount of points for us to win," Anderson said.
Anthony, playing on a sore ankle that he tweaked at least once during the game, was the Knicks' only offensive threat. Co-star Amar'e Stoudemire had 10 points and a world of foul trouble, and Van Gundy used a rare dose of zone defense to slow down Melo at the end. With no 3-point shooters (some of whom were traded to Denver in the Anthony deal) and no point guard (Chauncey Billups was amnestied to make from for Tyson Chandler), the Knicks had no chance to beat a Magic team shooting like they did Monday.
So while Boston ages (I don't care what Van Gundy says, they're old), while the Sixers figure it out and while the Knicks stumble, the Magic keep winning and delaying the inevitable. They'll find that their strategy is correct, that Howard's future isn't an issue until it becomes an issue. But there is no way to stop that day from coming, short of an act of God or the first in-season lockout in pro sports history.
That's why Anthony should have included another piece of advice in his words of wisdom for Howard.
Careful what you wish for.