Image via Flickr
Image via Flickr
It's fairly impossible to make good, clean sense of what we learned about Dwight Howard yesterday. Although he’s opted to stick around the Magic Kingdom for another season, Howard also wants Stan Van Gundy fired—something that SVG may have known all along. All this team really has going for it is Howard, a perennial All-Star, and Van Gundy, generally regarded as one of the league’s better coaches. That they are at odds is a huge pain in the ass; that one wants the other gone turns an unhappy dilemma into a kamikaze mission.
When it comes to his future with the Magic, Howard has a long history of erratic, over-compensatory gestures, some leaks that are the opposite of tactical, others spur-of-the-moment reversals. It’s entirely possible that Howard’s barely repressed calls for Van Gundy’s head are just the latest in a long string of idiocies, whether he arrived at it last night or last month.
Let's suppose, though, that there was some sound thinking, or at least internal logic, to Howard's latest edict. There’s no indication that, if the Magic play along, he will swear fealty to the team, even though his one-year commitment was unconvincingly framed in terms of loyalty. He could be asking for Van Gundy’s exit without any assurance that he plans to stay in Orlando long-term. Howard has been that erratic and weird these last few months. If we weren't living through a basketball season tinged with lockout sorrow, there would be more levity, and more outrage, accompanying his behavior. Instead, it's trolling, broken glass ground into the news cycle, and the reduction of an important basketball decision—Howard is still the best center in basketball—to celebrity psychodrama.
The most illuminating bit of information to come out of this day was undoubtedly Adrian Wojnarowski's report that Howard gave Orlando an extra year not to escape the pressure of impending free agency (and his own trade demands), but to come back and make the team over in his own image. In other words, Dwight Howard came to the conclusion that rather than seek a trade to a team of his choice or sign with a franchise that could afford him in July, he wanted the Magic to become Dwight Howard's NBA shop.
We've seen players look to exert pressure on front offices by signing three-year max deals, but the threat and intent is totally implicit. LeBron James indicated to the Cavs, without explictly saying it, that he might leave if they didn't surround him with a championship team. So has just about every other young player one might put in the franchise category, save for Kevin Durant, who really never had any reason to worry about his organization’s competency, and Derrick Rose, who similarly has good people working on his side; it's been the most dramatic change in how stars conceive of themselves in relation to the teams that employ them. Some team will pay them the max; and who knows, the money they get from playing basketball may not be the only revenue stream in their portfolio that needs to be taken into consideration.
Howard, like a wacky dictator who makes all the trains run according to his latest astrological readings, isn't subtly holding Orlando accountable. It’s quite the opposite: if Woj is right, then Howard opted to stay not because Orlando was doing things right, but so that he could take a faulty team and see it fixed. There's a major hole in this plan, though. Who, exactly, is going to make the Magic great? Howard wants SVG gone, and if Otis Smith were to stay, in theory Howard would want to have a hand in personnel decisions. Maybe the rumors have blown Howard's plan out of proportion, but at the bottom of any analysis of his latest move, we find a player sticking around an organization that has not, by the amped-up standards of today's NBA, done right by its superstar. There is absolutely no reason for him to return if he assumes the Magic will continue to putter along unremarkably.
Returning is remarkably complacent, even naive. It's certainly not the kind of action one expects of a player who has gone out of his way to terrorize management this year. That is, unless Howard sees coming back to Orlando as not only a kind of loyalty, but the first step in what will be a conflation of his exaggerated self-interest, or self-determination, and the future of the franchise that has basically said it can’t live without him.
If Dwight Howard wants that kind of role with the Magic, he has drastically misread all the power moves his peers have made since 2005. When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined forces with Paul Pierce in Boston, the term I settled on was "staging area." Of course, looking back, it seems ridiculous to underestimate the value of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, or for that matter, Doc Rivers (with the right kind of roster) and the then-unknown Tom Thibodeau. The Heat ended up a better example of this concept. There was endless talk about "clearing the decks" with the salary cap, and all last season, word that Erik Spoelstra was expendable. The informal arrangement between LeBron, Wade, and Bosh went back to the 2008 Olympics, and while Wade ended up playing host, that had more to do with Miami than the Heat. And yet it was Pat Riley sealed the deal with LeBron, Spoelstra has proven to be one of the NBA's brightest minds, and the front office has gradually juggled willing veterans to put together a team with something resembling depth. The Heat, even more than the Celtics, are an organization defined by both their superstars’ ambition and everyone else’s willingness to live up to their standards. If that sounds like pandering, don’t forget that it can also just be an organization proving it deserves this level of talent.
As of today, Howard will have taken the worst stereotype of the spoiled player and fused it with a deranged, backward conception of what it means to, in effect, "occupy" NBA teams. The real takeover occurs when players get competent people to do their jobs well. Howard seems intent on simply making more work for himself, or at very least, setting himself up as the dictatorial authority and thus exposing himself to all the blame. It's a remarkably crude sense of power, one almost as immature as it is counterproductive.
In a way, though, it makes sense that this would be the end-game for Dwight Howard in Orlando. He never quite felt comfortable with making demands of others, of being the nice guy forced to throw his weight around. Instead, he now looks to become the ultimate heel, even if in his mind, he has cast himself as the benevolent dictator who will turn the Orlando Magic into a team as lovable as he is. Either way, it’s the idea that only strong, Dwight-centric actions will bring some resolution to the situation. And it will, I suppose, if going over to the dark side means he's fine with himself disavowing all accountability.