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Joining Kobe, Nash, Gasol in L.A., time for Howard to act like a champion

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I'm not here to tell you the Magic could've done better for Dwight Howard, because that's not my business. That's theirs. If there's an opinion to be had about the trade that sent Howard to the Lakers on Friday -- other than thanking the basketball gods that this fiasco finally is over –- it has to do with what it means for Howard's future as a ringmaker in L.A.

Not a ringleader, mind you. Not a class clown. A champion.

Howard joining Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol in L.A. means the time has come for him to stop acting like a chump and start acting like a champ.

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I'm not even talking about the Dwightmare saga that has unfolded over the past year or so. Howard and his operatives stomped their feet until they got their way, or at least as much of their way as circumstances would allow. That sort of childishness isn't unique to Howard; it's simply the superstar way in the NBA.

Do I wish Orlando GM Rob Hennigan would have called Howard's bluff and made him stay in Orlando for the entire season, daring him to do what none of his contemporaries has done -- take less money to go play where he wants? Sure I do. It would've been fascinating, not to mention that what the Magic would have received if Howard actually left as a free agent next summer -- nothing -- would have been only microscopically worse than the next-to-nothing they got out of this trade.

But it didn't happen, and we move on and wonder how much Hennigan wishes his predecessor, Otis Smith, had had the courage to trade Howard a full year before the Dwightmare hit crisis mode. But we'll never know what would've happened if Smith and the Magic had taken the Kevin O'Connor approach, the one that yielded the Jazz multiple, valuable first-round picks and real assets for Deron Williams 17 months before he would become a free agent. In basketball and in life, you must buy low, sell high and never hold an asset too long.

The Magic held on to Howard too long, and now they disappear into the rear-view mirror of the sport, joining a dotted landscape of the forlorn, woebegone and another condition with a somewhat hopeful name that the Magic hope describes their strategy here: rebuilding. What a quaint term for tearing it down to the floorboards, which is what Hennigan has done -- and again, that's his right, his decision to live with. Sometimes the secret to trading a superstar is to trade him for a bunch of stuff that nobody will ever remember, or stuff that won't be around long enough for anyone to blame you. Hennigan will start fresh with his own cap space and his own picks, not other people's castoffs. Good for him.

But what about Dwight? The Brooklyn dream, if it was ever really his, died an agonizing death last month and so Howard got the next best thing. Although, I'd argue that L.A. is a far better option, as much as this guy from Queens enjoys his occasional (and soon rapidly increasing) forays into the neighboring borough.

Well, it's better or worse, depending on what Howard wants out of this. If he wants to live up to the expectations and pressure of delivering Kobe Bryant's sixth championship on his broad shoulders, then this is the best possible outcome. If he's going to delight in the creative playmaking of Nash as a significant step up from wandering around aimlessly and making fart jokes with Jameer Nelson, then great -- this is ideal.

If he's going to wear the Lakers' purple and gold proudly and embrace the dignified, championship confines of Staples Center -- the star-studded crowd, the curtain coming down at center court during intros, the heavenly voice of P.A. man Lawrence Tanter -- then again, I offer my applause. If carrying the torch for the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, yes, Shaquille O'Neal, in Lakers lore is what Howard was after here, then he found it -- in helpings as big and broad as he is.

But -- and this is where it gets interesting -- if Howard just wants to carry on as the life of the party, clowning and joking and assuming everything will take care of itself, then he'll quickly learn that he's shown up at a formal dance wearing cowboy boots and stirrups. If he thought he was simply trading Disney World and Epcot for Disneyland and Universal, then he's got another thing coming.

Bryant has never suffered fools easily, and in his 17th season with his physical prowess diminished but his competitive flame burning hotter than ever, his patience for the kind of childishness Howard has often displayed will be especially thin. With Shaq, Bryant had to combat an alpha personality that rivaled his own. With Howard, he'll need to hire camp counselors.

On Facebook, Bryant the Luddite wrote Friday: "The Lakers landed a piece that will hopefully carry the franchise long after I'm gone. I have spoken to Dwight Howard already and we are locked and loaded to bring back the title."

It will be Bryant's challenge now to discern whether Howard is locked and loaded to win a championship, or whether he was just referring to being ready to unleash a whole new assortment of practical jokes.

Basketball became serious business for Howard on Friday, whether he likes it or not. The Lakers are good -- oh, so good, with Bryant, Nash, Howard and Gasol. They're championship caliber. They're going for it, with an exceedingly tight window to pull Bryant even with Michael Jordan on the title-tracker of their generation.

They got an historic talent and unparalleled athletic specimen Friday to help with all that. The only question is whether Howard understands what he's in for -- what he must do and what he must change. Whether Howard wants to be a chump or a champ, the outcome is up to him.


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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