|Loyal no more: Dwight Howard is telling the Magic that he wants to be traded to the Nets. (Getty Images)|
The NBA's free-agency floodgates opened early Sunday, but what we really got was a sequel to a bad movie. Yes, the Dwightmare is back, worse than ever.
The saga that dragged us all into the gutter, and out, and then back in again -- over and over until we were ready to puke, unpuke, and then puke again -- is back. Dwight Howard is telling the Magic -- once more, with feeling -- that he wants to be traded to the Nets.
Some things, mind you, have changed. These are the Brooklyn Nets now, not the New Jersey ones. The general manager is Rob Hennigan, not Otis Smith. Stan Van Gundy, who outed Howard last season for trying to get him fired, is no longer the coach. The coach is now ... oh, never mind who the coach is, because it's nobody. The point is, this Dwight Howard thing has reached new levels of absurdity that defy even the most dumbed-down standards for sports hypocrisy and lewdness.
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The Magic acknowledged Saturday night that Howard did, in fact, meet with Hennigan in Los Angeles on Friday -- the first face-to-face meeting between the superstar and the GM who's been on the job 10 days. And while Hennigan was noncommittal about his intentions, a person familiar with Howard's version of events said Orlando is once again willing to explore trade proposals for the All-Star center -- but on its own timetable, not Howard's.
And not the Nets' timetable, either. And that's important, because the Nets aren't waiting around to find out how the horror movie ends this time.
Brooklyn front-office executives are 100 percent focused on their primary target, re-signing free-agent point guard Deron Williams and fending off a long-shot but still plausible pitch forthcoming from Williams' hometown team, the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas officials are expected to reach out by phone to Williams later Sunday, and both the Nets and Mavs are planning to meet with the point guard in the New York City area Monday, sources said.
But whereas the Nets were all-in for Howard before last season and at the March 15 trade deadline, waiting for Orlando -- and ultimately, Howard -- to decide what to do, the Brooklynites are no longer in wait-and-see mode. It's mostly in the Magic's hands, sources said, but the Nets were moving forward early Sunday with several possible scenarios that would surround Williams with enough talent to convince him that he can not only get more money by staying in Brooklyn, but play for a winner -- with or without Howard.
Among the ideas discussed was a deal that would send the Hawks' Joe Johnson and the $89.3 million he is owed over the next four seasons to Brooklyn to form a dynamic backcourt tandem with Williams, sources said. Another was a scenario with Houston that would send Luis Scola and the $24.6 million he is guaranteed over the next three seasons to the Nets -- but that concept was tabled by both teams, sources said. The Nets also got free agent Gerald Wallace, for whom they traded the No. 6 pick in the draft to Portland, to agree to a reported four-year, $40 million deal.
At this point, it's worth remembering why we're having this discussion at all. It's because Howard, at the 11th hour of the trade deadline, stunned the NBA when he decided to waive the early-termination option in his contract for the 2012-13 season. Once we were all finished asking, "He did what?" Howard was lauded in some circles for his loyalty in agreeing to remain in Orlando for another season. In fact, Howard lauded himself for his loyalty.
"I'm loyal," Howard said in the triumphant Orlando news conference announcing that he was staying. "That's just who I am."
That's who he was that day. Now, he's evidently telling a different story. Or someone is telling it for him.
According to ESPN, Howard has told those close to him that he felt he was "blackmailed" into waiving the opt-out clause back in March after growing increasingly disgruntled with the Magic organization. He and his representatives apparently felt so burned by the Magic that they complained last week to the players' union to see if they might have a case to have the ETO waiver lifted, thus making him a free agent this summer, according to the report.
Here is what really happened. When the Magic were in San Antonio for their final game before the trade deadline, officials from the organization had the necessary waiver paperwork in hand. Howard addressed his teammates at the team hotel the morning of the game, told them he was "all in," and wanted to sign the papers. Team officials wanted him to focus on the game and deal with the issue when they returned to Orlando.
On the flight home, sources said, Howard still wanted to sign the waiver. Team officials didn't feel comfortable with Howard signing the paperwork that would end the trade saga without Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, or some other legal representative present.
When the team landed in Orlando in the middle of the night, Smith drove to the airport to greet the flight. Howard again indicated he wanted to sign the waiver, but Smith -- with whom Howard had grown close -- told him he didn't want such an important and meaningful decision about his future to be made on some tarmac at 3 a.m. They agreed that Howard should go home and sleep on it. He showed up at the Magic practice facility the next day -- hours before the trade deadline -- and signed the waiver.
Does that sound like blackmail to you? Does that sound like coercion?
At some point during all of this, Howard spoke with RealGM.com and said his "soul" was in Orlando and that he couldn't "leave it behind."
"I have gotten some bad advice," Howard said. "I apologize for this circus I have caused to the fans of our city. They didn't deserve [any] of this. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do."
None of this adds up, which is why we need to wait to hear from Howard himself. In the same way we didn't know whether Howard was going through with his trade demand in March until we heard from him, nobody knows where Howard stands now until we hear from him. Until then, this latest, brazen episode is "hurting his name and his stock," one rival executive said Saturday night. "He needs to play basketball and shut up."
Where he plays basketball is another matter entirely. But it's once again become difficult to believe that he'll ever play another second for the Magic. As difficult to believe as Howard himself.