With Nets out of picture, Magic see their Howard leverage slip away

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Dwight Howard might still be with the Magic when the season starts, which is bad for everyone. (US Presswire)  
Dwight Howard might still be with the Magic when the season starts, which is bad for everyone. (US Presswire)  

For a while there, the Magic could've said to the Rockets or Lakers or anyone else: If we don't like your offer for Dwight Howard, we'll just send him to the Nets.

Now, the Magic can't say that anymore.

Any suitor for the All-Star center had two foes to negotiate against until now: Howard's current team and the only one he wants to call his future team. But that massive chunk of leverage disintegrated Wednesday as if Howard himself had donned his Superman cape and swooped in to smash it to smithereens.

What does it mean? Well, in the short term, it means that the Magic do not have to accept what they considered to be inferior trade proposals from the Nets and send Howard to his preferred destination just because that was the neatest, cleanest resolution to this awesome mess. But in the long run, it also could mean that the Magic are now relegated to seven more months of Howard wearing not a cape, not a hospital gown as he rehabs from back surgery, but the worst fashion faux pas of all: a Magic uniform.

Think about that. Seven more months of Dwight Howard in Orlando, until the 2013 trade deadline. I don't know about you, but I'm counting the days. Counting the days until Armageddon, or Rapture or a successful invasion from Mars that sentences all humans to a lifetime of hard labor at the direction of vindictive little space people.

More on Howard talks

Anything would be preferable to the Dwight saga dragging on, and on, and on.

It's nobody's fault, and it's everybody's fault. This is how negotiations go sometimes. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes, you lose a little bit of leverage at a time.

Were the Nets the big losers Wednesday, when trade talks with the Magic broke down and the Brooklyn franchise moved forward by signing Brook Lopez to a four-year, $61 million deal that blocked his participation in any trade until January? Well, the tantalizing idea of somehow finding a way to re-sign Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace, trade for Joe Johnson and put Howard in the middle of them all is a missed opportunity, for sure.

But the biggest losers? The biggest losers Wednesday were A) Howard, and B) the Magic. And depending on how long this agonizing drama plays out, not necessarily in that order.

Magic GM Rob Hennigan, a bright, respected, 30-year-old rising star of the basketball business, did not see anything the Nets were offering that moved him to send the best center in the game to the destination of his choice. And that's his right. But the problem now, one with causes and symptoms he inherited, is that he doesn't have the Nets to kick around anymore.

If Howard is going to be traded before the start of the season to the Rockets, Lakers or anyone else, who are those teams going to be negotiating against? Not the Nets. The Nets are out. They're taking their ball and their All-Star backcourt and their $61 million center who broke his foot twice and played five games last season to Brooklyn, and they're not coming back to the trade table until Jan. 15 at the earliest.

Howard? Hennigan said he spoke with his star center Wednesday and the conversation was, well, "conversational." And "business-like." And well, unable to produce the desired result, as far as Howard was concerned.

And if the Magic are stuck with him until such time as the games begin, not the desired result as far as anybody is concerned. That is, if Howard is even sufficiently recovered from offseason back surgery to play in the games. The way things are going, don't rule out a medical redshirt for Howard in 2012-13.

To evaluate where we are in this nightmare, it's useful to review where we've been. The Nets were driving full-speed at the Magic with an intricate array of trade proposals back in December and again in March. At that time, their risky decision to trade for All-Star point guard Deron Williams against his will was hanging over them like a cloud of uncertainty. Back then, the Nets were desperate to pull off a deal for Howard, or Williams might just bolt.

On March 15, the day of the trade deadline, Howard took the unusual step of waiving the early-termination option for the 2012-13 season. That's fancy legal language for saying Howard gave up his leverage. He signed away his right to be a free agent, and thus his power to dictate the terms of a trade.

There are opposing viewpoints on whether Howard was coerced into doing so or simply got cold feet, but suffice it to say that action by the players' union on Howard's behalf in this matter has about the same chance of happening as Lopez being traded Thursday. As in, zero.

When the Magic's season mercifully ended, the team fired coach Stan Van Gundy and mutually agreed to part ways with general manager Otis Smith. There would be a new sheriff in town, Hennigan, except that he was inheriting an old problem that was made worse by not being resolved when it should have been.

The real pressure to trade Howard -- the honest-to-God threat of losing him as a free agent with no compensation -- came and went at the March 15 trade deadline. That pressure won't be back until the next deadline, in February 2013. And the Magic won't have the strongest hand to play until the Nets are back in the game once Lopez -- the only logical veteran player Brooklyn could hand over in a Howard deal -– is eligible to be traded again.

So some important things have to change between now and then, and they're not mutually exclusive. First, Howard has to sit down with pen and paper and make a new list of teams he'd be willing to sign a long-term contract with through a trade. Only then will the Magic regain the leverage they lost Wednesday when the Nets took their own 7-footer and went home.

Second, Howard and the Magic have to find a way to orchestrate the story line that Howard may just stay put for the year and address his future after the season. And somehow, after all this, they have to make it believable. Hey, it worked for Williams last season in New Jersey.

The Magic do have one thing going for them. Well, two. They have a bright, well-thought-of GM whose San Antonio and Oklahoma City pedigree suggests he will do the right thing. But they also have this: Unlike the Knicks, where Carmelo Anthony wanted to go in 2011, the team Howard has targeted will not have the cap room to sign him as an unrestricted free agent next summer. So if Howard is going to continue clinging to his hope of landing in Brooklyn, he has to play nice and give Hennigan a chance. He has to give him more teams to negotiate with.

It's time for Dwight to make a new list. And it's time for the Magic to once again start counting the days until he's gone. Both could take longer than anybody would like.


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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