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Howard's future casts shadow on Orlando's All-Star spotlight

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Both the Nets and the Mavericks already have cleared cap space to maneuver for Dwight Howard. (AP)  
Both the Nets and the Mavericks already have cleared cap space to maneuver for Dwight Howard. (AP)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Every city embraces its chance to shine when it hosts All-Star Weekend. It's possible that this one, sunny Orlando -- where having a pro sports team was once a mere pipe dream -- could be the most terrified ever to do it.

The star of the show, the smiling host, is Dwight Howard, who will certainly be here through the weekend, possibly through the trade deadline and after that, it's anybody's guess. There are those in the Magic organization -- some of whom lived through the devastating departure of Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 -- who believe they can persuade Howard to stay. There are those on the outside who view it as "suicidal" for the Magic not to trade him, one basketball person told me this week.

"I think he's gone," the person said. "And you can't afford to let him go and get nothing."

The similarities between what Orlando faces now with Howard and what they endured with Shaq are startling. Like Shaq, Howard is a one-of-a-kind physical specimen and talent whose value on a basketball court and in the financial books is irreplaceable. Like Shaq, Howard aspires to a life that is about more than dunking and blocking shots. He wants to bring his personality to a larger audience, wants to take his brand global.

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As Shaq did, Howard faces the collective trembling of a city that has been burned once and dreads being victimized again in the NBA free-agent game. Howard leaving Orlando would make LeBron James leaving Cleveland seem like a minor inconvenience, like a fender-bender. Howard leaving Orlando would be the equivalent of this in Cleveland: Losing LeBron, drafting the next LeBron eight years later and then losing him too.

"I think they have to trade him," said a person who was connected to O'Neal's departure from Orlando 16 years ago. "I don't see how you can take that risk."

The circumstances also are eerily similar. When Shaq hit the free-agent market, the NBA was emerging from a lockout that resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement that dramatically changed the rules for free agents. It was the first time the NBA had true unrestricted free agency, meaning players like Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and O'Neal were on the market all at once. At that time of massive labor unrest in the league, a maximum player salary had yet to be established. So the only restrictions for the Magic were how much cap space competing teams had and how much Orlando was willing to pay to keep Shaq from leaving.

With a far more open market for players' services than the league has today, Magic owner Rich DeVos called around to people whose advice he trusted to formulate a plan. How much was Shaq worth? DeVos believed he was worth $15 million a year and was determined not to overpay to keep him.

"If Shaq wanted to stay," said another league source who was involved in the process at the time, "Mr. DeVos didn't want money to be the reason."

Meanwhile, backlash over the Magic getting swept by the Bulls in the conference finals was aimed squarely at O'Neal. The Orlando Sentinel published those infamous polls asking whether Orlando residents thought the Magic should fire coach Brian Hill if O'Neal demanded it as a condition of staying (82 percent said no); whether O'Neal was worth his current contract (less than half said yes); and whether the Magic should match a contract offer for O'Neal (69 percent said no).

"Forty percent of my decision was the poll," O'Neal said at a retirement gala he threw for himself at his Orlando mansion last summer. "Fifty percent was me being selfish -- the movies, the albums --- and then 10 percent was [the Magic] didn't move quick enough. So all those things combined are why I went to L.A.

"The organization did everything right; they did everything top notch," O'Neal said. "I just think that they were a little slow. We told them that L.A. wanted me and they weren't really going to match it. And then Alonzo and Juwan got the money and we called Orlando again and they still didn't match it. And then Jerry [Buss, the Lakers' owner] came with the $121 [million] and we said, 'We're gonna have to take it.'"

There will be no such bidding war for Howard, who faces a much different free-agent landscape than O'Neal did. But incredibly, through another quirk of collective bargaining, the Magic could wind up the twice-scorned victim of player movement rules that could once again prevent them from keeping their superstar.

Under rules implemented after O'Neal left Orlando, no free agent has ever been allowed to hit the unrestricted free-agent market while still on his rookie contract, as O'Neal was in the summer of '96. Under the concept of restricted free agency, the home team had the ability match any offer and keep its franchise player beyond his rookie deal. This is how James wound up in Cleveland for eight years, and how Howard has stayed in Orlando for the same.

This time around, the home team's advantage in trying to keep its unrestricted free agents is far more muted than it was for James two summers ago. The Magic can offer Howard a five-year deal with 7.5 percent raises, while other suitors -- primarily the Nets and Mavericks, who have cleared cap space specifically to maneuver for Howard -- can offer four years with 4.5 percent raises.

"The extra year is irrelevant to a younger player," said one of the people connected to Shaq's departure in '96. "Maybe it means something to a 30-year-old player, but not to a 26-year-old player. Is a guy going to stay over three percent? If you want teams to be able to keep their stars, allow them to offer a six-year deal with 15 percent raises. Then they'll stay."

This raises the question of whether the league really wants players like Howard to stay in Orlando, James in Cleveland and Carmelo Anthony in Denver. Maybe the biggest stars having little incentive to stay put in small markets is really best for business.

"Then they should just say that," the person said. "Don't have 30 teams by default if you're not going to allow 30 teams to compete. But if you're going to have 30 teams, or 20 teams, you have to give them a chance to retain their star players."

The new CBA, ratified in December after a 149-day lockout that nearly cost the NBA the entire season for what would have been the first time in its history, threw another wrench into the Magic's designs on keeping Howard -- or at least protecting their investment by getting assets in return. While James and Bosh were able to get max contracts as part of sign-and-trades to Miami, O'Neal would get the same four-year deal with 4.5 percent raises via a sign-and-trade that he'd get simply through a straight-up signing. While Anthony got a max extension as part of his extend-and-trade deal to the Knicks a year ago this month, Howard -- and the Nets' Deron Williams -- blithely turned down extension offers from their teams because the new rules only allowed for two years to be added to their existing contracts.

So the Magic are stuck. They're right back where they were 16 years ago, between a Shaq (now, a Dwight) and a hard place.

In a repeat of the Anthony fiasco that engulfed All-Star Weekend last year in Los Angeles, Howard goes under the microscope Friday in Orlando when he speaks at All-Star media availability. On one hand, the drama won't be as high-pitched because the trade deadline isn't for three more weeks. On the other, the urgency will be heightened because Howard is the guest of honor and the host of this All-Star Weekend, in the very city that stands to lose him.

If it seems as though Orlando has already lived through this nightmare, that's because it has. And you don't need a poll or revisionist history from the last one who got away to tell you it didn't end well.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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