|Whatever might be ailing the Magic has Dwight Howard pointing to the quickest exit. (Getty Images)|
PHILADELPHIA -- Dwight Howard was gathering his belongings in the corner locker of the visiting room of the Wells Fargo Center, soaking in some wisdom from the great Sonny Hill, the dean of Philadelphia basketball.
Hill, a contemporary of the late Wilt Chamberlain and a father figure to Kobe Bryant -- not to mention Kobe's father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant -- was regaling Howard with tales of how Chamberlain would've moved Shaquille O'Neal around "like a baby." Howard, who spent the lockout watching classic games involving Chamberlain and Bill Russell, just shook his head.
"Now you trippin'," he said.
It was a rare moment of basketball purity for Howard, the focal point of the latest superstar wanderlust epidemic in the NBA. It was a brief respite from the specter of his uncertain future, and how it is irreversibly entangled with the Orlando Magic's current state of decay.
It was a much needed moment, too. Howard needs distractions from the distractions, needs as much wisdom as he can get right now.
Either Howard's team is getting chewed up in the meat grinder of this crazy NBA season -- the Magic's 74-69 loss to the 76ers Monday night was their fourth straight, in their sixth game in eight nights -- or it's already buckling under the pressure of Howard's inevitable departure. At this point, it doesn't much matter. In the long run, it will.
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Howard had been on a roll recently; not on the court, but in the court of public opinion. He'd ominously stated after the Magic blew a 27-point lead against Boston that things "have to change." This after acknowledging that he'd listen if the Celtics were interested in trading for him. Then, after a bounce-back game at Indiana, the Magic lost to the Hornets by 26 and Howard said afterward that if his teammates don't want to play, they should "stay in the locker room."
Then, on the heels of a 21-point home loss to the Pacers, Howard was quoted in the Chicago Tribune saying he wouldn't shy away from playing with Derrick Rose in Chicago. "If God wanted that to happen," Howard said, "it will happen."
God help the Magic now.
All of Howard's thoughts and words, taken without context to Orlando's current struggles, read like just another chapter in the best seller co-authored by LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the past year and a half. This is how the stars grease the runway out of town in today's NBA, a place that would've horrified the aforementioned Chamberlain and a place that does, in many ways, disgust the great Russell -- who has nonetheless quietly been mentoring Howard for at least a year.
"We talk," Howard said of the 11-time NBA champion, who won all those titles with one team, the Celtics.
Did we mention that, sure, Howard could see himself playing for the Celtics? But that's a chapter for another day.
Monday night's chapter was about how these factors -- physical fatigue from the merciless schedule, mental fatigue from the Howard drama and cracks in the foundation of a flawed roster -- have pushed the Magic into a detonation zone in their ongoing battle to somehow persuade their star not to leave. Watching the Magic score three baskets in the third quarter (after which they were shooting 28 percent for the game) and finally crack the 50-point barrier with 3:19 left in the fourth to cut Philadelphia's lead to 17 points was a test of your tolerance for the macabre.
Moments earlier, when Howard got his shot blocked by Elton Brand, who hasn't jumped since 2006, it seemed clear that Howard couldn't possibly continue his streak of ill-advised public comments after the game. Howard was 6-for-17 and was chased to the sideline in a mercy benching after failing to outplay the immortal Tony Battie. And yet there he was in the visiting locker room afterward, the lone cast member in a play that has gotten old and predictable because we already know how it ends.
"These guys understand the whole situation," Howard said. "But none of that stuff matters when you get on the floor. We're all basketball players. Nothing matters when we step on the floor. It doesn't matter what anybody's talking about, trades or whatever, when you step on the floor. It's all about basketball. It's all about winning. And you've got to take pride, first of all, in yourself when you step out on the floor. It hasn't affected me. I've been playing hard every night, and everybody else has to have the same attitude."
Earlier, I'd asked Stan Van Gundy for his diagnosis: Is it fatigue from the schedule or fatigue from the Dwight drama that is dragging the Magic down the drain? He answered honestly.
"I don't think you ever know for sure," Van Gundy said. "... I would just say that the situation's exactly the same this week as it was when we were 11-4 before we started this stretch. That's my only point to that. ... We were 11-4 and then we lost to Boston in a really bad loss and came back with a great bounce-back effort against Indiana on the road. The situation was the same. So that becomes a real convenient excuse when things start going badly."
And with that, Van Gundy put his finger right on the pulse of the problem. Whatever ails the Magic, the struggles and poor shooting and evolving relationship between Howard and the teammates he called out last week are only going to magnify the grim reality. The longer the Magic struggle, the worse they play, the darker and angrier the cloud hanging over the franchise becomes.
"That should not affect you when you get on the floor," Howard said. "These guys know how I feel about each and every one of them. These are my brothers regardless of what happens, and I'm going to give them 100 percent every night because I owe it to them. I owe it to the city. I owe it to my team. That's my job. I owe it to myself because I want to win and I love this game, so it doesn't matter. None of that stuff matters. They know it and I know it. So just let it go."
But in the crucible of Howard's long good-bye, his words of encouragement ring just as hollow as his criticism. How can you say everything is going to be fine when you've asked not to be part of the solution? How can you question your teammates' effort when your own efforts are so blatantly focused on your escape plan?
"There's no need for us to point the finger or for anybody to panic," Howard said. "We're gonna be fine."
If I were one of Howard's teammates and I read that, my question would be this: Who's we?
"As a leader, you've got to do things that people don't like," Howard said. "People hate what they don't understand, and my teammates understand why I said what I said. They all agreed. It's not like they were like, 'Dwight's wrong with what he said.' ... My job is to challenge my teammates and challenge myself to go out and play every night. I'm included in everything that I say and everything that I do. And my teammates understand."
The fact is, it isn't about understanding or agreeing with Howard and his "whole situation," as he put it. It's about a team with flaws, and about a superstar with otherworldly gifts and his own share of imperfections. And whether the Magic's franchise-shaping dilemma with Howard is the cause of the team's struggles or not, it really doesn't matter. Every loss, every three-basket quarter, every postgame soliloquy will only dredge up more drama until it finally consumes everyone involved.
As bad as it looks, I caution you to look at the calendar before you try to pinpoint what has sickened the Magic. Six games in eight nights is no time for a sweeping diagnosis, and it doesn't get much better from here. On Wednesday, the good news is that the Magic get the Wizards at home. The bad news is, it's the start of a stretch of five more games in eight nights. Onward they all go, in the dementia-inducing, post-lockout NBA.
The only thing we know for sure is that more losses, whatever the culprit, will spawn more Dwight drama, more headlines and the kind of pressure that would splinter any locker room. Given the circumstances, the relentless schedule that is taxing everyone, this long free-agent good-bye has the potential to end even uglier than the last two we've endured.
LeBron lost in the conference semifinals on his way out of Cleveland, after a second straight 60-win season. When the Nuggets finally traded Anthony, Denver was seven games above .500 (32-25) and still wound up winning 50 games.
We know how this ends for Orlando, but we don't yet know how badly. And while it hasn't crashed and burned yet, it may be time to crawl into the fetal position and pray.