|Howard easily racked up 24 points and 25 boards vs. Tim Duncan's Spurs on Wednesday. (Getty Images)|
ORLANDO -- Dwight Howard is having fun, there's no question about that.
The Magic center plays to the crowd at his own personal palace, the glorious Amway Center, and needles the refs with a smile. Wednesday night, Howard was even enjoying a head-to-head battle with the distinguished gentleman Tim Duncan, who at one point returned the favor with a pat on the behind.
A sign of respect exchanged between two players whose legacies may wind up looking entirely different. In Howard's case, the path to that legacy could be solidified in the next 4½ months, if not sooner.
The Howard hysteria is only getting started, though you wouldn't know it by watching him stomp happily through life Wednesday night in an 85-83 overtime loss to Duncan and the Spurs. At one point, Howard was in such a pleasant mood that he pretended not to be able to slow his momentum as he approached the baseline and leaped V-legged over a seated member of the Magic dance team. By the time the night was over, Howard had nearly salvaged a hard-fought victory over the Spurs in Orlando's third game in as many nights. In any event, he went home with 24 points and 25 rebounds, totals he attained so effortlessly against Duncan that it should've been against 30 town ordinances.
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"We've just got to stick together," Howard said. "We've got to really depend on each other throughout this stretch and throughout this season. We're playing a lot of minutes; we're playing a lot of games quick, back-to-back, traveling a lot. So we've just got to depend on each other."
But for how long? Despite the Magic's refusal to entertain trade offers for Howard, the All-Star center has yet to rescind his trade request, league sources said. It's status quo on that front, with Orlando continuing to grant permission to Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, to speak with three teams -- the Lakers, Nets and Mavericks -- about potential trade scenarios.
The Magic, sources say, remain committed to playing out the season with Howard, perhaps adding a piece to push the team to elite status and hoping that all of it -- plus the additional $25 million-$30 million Orlando would be able to pay him as a free agent -- will be enough to persuade Howard to stay.
"We continue to work toward a situation where we hope that Dwight would extend or re-sign," said Alex Martins, who was elevated to Magic CEO in November after Bob Vander Weide unexpectedly stepped down. "We think this is the best place for him. We think this is the best place for him to win. I think our track record stands for itself in terms of what we've done over the last six years with him in terms of putting pieces around him and investing in other players.
"We want him to win a championship," Martins said. "We want to win a championship as much as he does. Our owner [Rich DeVos] is 85 years old, and for the last few years we've definitely been doing everything we can to try and win a championship for him. He deserves it as much as anybody. And so we'll continue to do that. And hopefully at some point during the season, or if we get through the season, Dwight will come to the realization that this is the best place for him for the rest of his career to win championships."
The Magic, in short, believe time is their ally. So far it has worked. Orlando (10-4) is tied for the third-best record in the East and fourth-best in the league. Winning can fix a lot, and Orlando executives believe the analysis of the Howard situation has ignored an important consideration: The Magic can request trades too, and make them.
League sources say Orlando has not ruled out making a play for Steve Nash in the event the Suns decided to trade the point guard to a contender before the March 15 deadline. Nash, even at 37 and even on a rental basis, could push the Magic back to the NBA Finals at a time when the Celtics are faltering and the Heat are showing signs of wear and tear.
As for what happens if the Magic get to March 15 and Howard still has not renounced his desire to be traded, along with the accompanying threat that he could leave outright as an unrestricted free agent? Magic officials have not made a decision of what course of action they'll take at that point, but the options are clear: Trade Howard at the deadline for fear of getting nothing if he walks July 1, or call his bluff. Neither is particularly appealing, but there is one aspect of the Dwight Drama that has been mostly overlooked.
As reported by SheridanHoops.com this week, the Clippers have emerged as a potential landing spot for Howard, and for good reasons, league sources confirm. The Clippers are not involved in any way, shape or form in current trade talks with the Magic, nor has Howard or Fegan asked for or been given permission to speak with the other team in L.A. That's because the Clippers are not a trade option for this season, but rather a logical landing spot for Howard via a sign-and-trade after he opts out of his contract July 1.
A lot would have to happen -- and not happen -- for the Clippers scenario to gain traction. The Magic would have to hold onto Howard past the deadline and be prepared to enter a complicated and high-stakes game of chicken with their franchise player. Howard would have to turn down the chance to sign a four-year deal with the Nets, who have the cap room and the ability to pair him with Deron Williams in a new Brooklyn arena. He also would have to balk at signing with the Mavericks, who are a couple of moves away from clearing enough space to get both Howard and Williams.
The Lakers, Howard's first choice in L.A. and the Magic's opponent Friday night, would have to stop short of offering Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol -- or the Magic would have to believe they could get a better deal.
Where could the Magic potentially get a better deal than that? In my eyes, the only team that could offer one would be the Clippers, because the centerpiece of that deal would have to be Blake Griffin.
If you're the Clippers, and you have the chance to team Dwight Howard with Chris Paul, you do it -- even if it means trading Griffin. If you're the Magic, and you're losing Howard anyway, what better way to replace him than with perhaps the only young player in the NBA who is as freakishly athletic and dynamic -- and, unlike LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, will continue to have those attributes for another 10 years?
Given the alternatives, would a package including Griffin and DeAndre Jordan provide the Magic with enough basketball and marketing assets to walk away from the loss of Howard in great shape on both fronts? You bet it would.
And if you don't think the Clippers would part with Griffin in a Howard trade, you disagree with a top talent evaluator I floated this scenario by Thursday. He said the Clippers would do it "in five seconds," and he gave that answer in less than one. From a technical standpoint, scouts are skeptical that Griffin's game will continue to evolve, but it's difficult to think of a player in the league who'd generate as much marketing and fan excitement as Howard's replacement.
The only other team capable of making a credible postseason offer to get Howard to one of the markets on his list would be the Knicks, who could offer Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. (Of course, this would only work if the struggling Knicks made it past the trade deadline with their key pieces intact.) While such a proposal from the Knicks would provide more star power, Stoudemire's uninsurable knees could be a deal-killer. Example from the recent past: At one point, an Eastern Conference team had a deal in place to acquire Stoudemire from the Suns for a top-five pick, and the trade was rejected by the team's medical staff because Stoudemire "might not be playing in five years," an official from that team said. That was four years ago.
A couple of things to consider. First, the new collective bargaining agreement provides no incentive for a free agent in Howard's position to work with his team on a sign-and-trade because he can no longer get a five-year deal with max raises that way. So why would Howard work with the Magic on sign-and-trade?
One reason is obvious: If Howard is hell-bent on going to a team with no cap room -- such as the Lakers or Knicks -- a trade is the only way he's getting there. The other is more subtle, but equally important: Despite Howard's admission this week that he thought Carmelo Anthony gave him "good advice" by telling him to "do what's best for you," Howard is perhaps the most image conscious of the NBA's top stars. He saw how LeBron became a villain after abandoning Cleveland, and that was after the Cavs got assets in return via a sign-and-trade. Howard doesn't want to take on the same pariah status, and if he worked with the Magic in a scenario that got them a superstar or multiple All-Stars in return, it would remove the sting of his departure and do much less damage to his image.
The final point should be obvious to anyone who's walked inside the Amway Center. This is an opulent palace that was built for Howard, and if he leaves, someone with big enough star power needs to replace him. This can't be the House that Draft Picks and Trade Exceptions Built. It must be the House That Fill in the Blank Built. Or better yet, Fill in the Blake.
Griffin was the magnet that unexpectedly got Paul to the Clippers, and Paul already has chased the laughingstock status away. Just look at them, beating the Heat and Lakers in consecutive games and then taking down the defending champion Mavs in a thriller Wednesday night. If things break a certain way, and if all else fails for the Magic, these two star-crossed franchises could team up for a stunner.
And since it's the NBA, where the absurd happens, stunning might not be the word.
Now, on to the rest of this week's Postups:
• League sources say Celtics president Danny Ainge is willing to wait at least 10 more games, and maybe longer, before deciding whether it's time to seriously pursue trade scenarios that would break up the Big Three. Boston had lost five in a row for the first time during the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen era before managing to beat Toronto on Wednesday night, and the signs of age are showing -- especially under the duress of the compressed schedule. Clearly, Pierce is the most valuable commodity, especially for a contending team looking for wing scoring. But Pierce also is the member of the Big Three off to the worst start, and his $32 million over the next two years will give even deep-pocketed contenders pause.
"We've just got to endure through this until he gets right," coach Doc Rivers said. "I can't imagine how frustrating it is for him. But he's doing everything right, and he's doing everything he can possibly do to get right."
Ainge has never wanted to let the Big Three era end because of age, leaving him with no resources to reload for another run of success -- which is why he engaged the Hornets in trade discussions for Chris Paul. The question he will confront in the coming weeks is whether it's too late. One rival GM said Thursday he believes the Celtics will hang on, take the time they need to figure out what they have, and still will be a dangerous out in the playoffs even as the seventh or eighth seed due to the extra rest and game-planning time in a seven-game series.
• The five-year, $79 million extension Russell Westbrook signed Thursday with the Thunder was another coup for an organization that has planned as well as any in recent memory to keep its home-grown talent. Although nobody denies Kevin Durant is the alpha star there, keeping Westbrook is especially sweet for the organization because he was the first key player added after the team moved from Seattle.
Another underestimated aspect of Westbrook's extension: Had he waited until after the season and made first-, second- or third-team All-NBA (a certainty), Westbrook would've been eligible for the 30 percent "Derrick Rose" extension as the Thunder's designated player. But Westbrook realized that committing now and leaving the small-market Thunder some resources would only help the team as it continues building toward a championship. Since Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti signed Durant to an extension before the new collective bargaining agreement took effect, he still has the designated player extension for 30 percent in his bag of tricks going forward.
• As for other 2008 draftees eligible for extension, sources say the most likely candidates to receive them are Kevin Love (Timberwolves), Ryan Anderson (Magic), Danilo Gallinari (Nuggets) and Nicolas Batum (Trail Blazers). Also possibilities are Roy Hibbert (Pacers), D.J. Augustin (Bobcats) and Jerryd Bayless (Raptors); and an interesting one will be Eric Gordon with the league-owned Hornets. Minnesota has offered Love, averaging 25.2 points and 14.5 rebounds, a four-year max deal worth $60 million. The hope is that Love will accept the four-year extension and allow small-market Minnesota to save the five-year extension for Ricky Rubio.
• Even without Manu Ginobili, and with Tim Duncan on his last legs -- and possibly in his last year -- watching the Spurs is by far the most underrated experience in the NBA. Gregg Popovich, who I'd last seen wandering aimlessly on East 63rd Street during the lockout, is coaching as well and as hard as ever and has the Spurs positioned to participate in what is shaping up to be a 10-team scrum for the eight playoff spots in the West. With the Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Magic playing for the third night in a row, watching Coach Pop draw up plays down the stretch and encourage his young guys, Danny Green and Gary Neal, made an otherwise unwatchable game a joy to witness.
• Speaking of Duncan, watching him battle Dwight Howard on Wednesday only served as another reminder of his greatness and longevity, but also something more meaningful: Unlike today's stars, like Howard, who want to move around, Duncan will hang them up having worn only one uniform his entire career.
"He and David [Robinson] both have been magnificent role models and have allowed us to have great stability over the last 20 years," Popovich said. "People appreciate it, and what they've done as players is obvious. But for us, they're the two heroes of the program over the last 20 years."
• When I wrote last season that the Heat should speed up how they play and adopt the style of Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, I thought eventually they might listen. Indeed, with their "pace and space" approach, Miami has been successful in getting LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the open floor with room and freedom to create.
But I didn't think my suggestion was so good the Heat would actually pilfer one of D'Antoni's bread-and-butter concepts and allow James and Wade to go to town with it.
Sure enough, according to a scout who's seen the Heat consistently this season, they're using one of D'Antoni's unique actions in which one of the big men runs to the middle of the floor at the top of the key and plays a three-man game with the wings on either side of the floor. It's probably D'Antoni's second most frequently used action, one that he -- and now the Heat -- use whenever a specific play isn't called, such as when there's no inbounds play. The scout who first noticed Miami using it this season said the concept is unique to D'Antoni's style and that he's never seen any other team use it. D'Antoni calls it "delay," the Heat call it something else, and I call myself not as dumb as I look.