The team reached the Finals in 2009, but 2009-10 was a disappointing campaign, and the team regressed. Out went the instrumental Hedo Turkoglu; in came the ineffective Vince Carter. The team won the same number of games but couldn't return to the Finals as they had a season before. The chemistry that made that possible was gone.
"Would Dwight Howard want to flee for greener pastures?" became the question on the minds of fans and management alike.
Howard had an early-termination option, which would have made the 2011-12 campaign his last in Orlando. So the Magic knew action may have been required, if Howard were to exercise that option and become a free agent. They braced themselves and began soliciting offers for the three-time defensive player of the year. Then-GM Otis Smith didn't want to deal Howard, and he talked to him about the chances of staying in Orlando.
Howard always played the card that he loved the city and would remain in Orlando if the team could offer legitimate chances at winning a championship.
Howard even asked to play a larger role in personnel decisions. This was granted. The sole reason Glen Davis is in a Magic uniform is because Howard desired that they obtain Big Baby, after watching his clutch play against the Magic in the 2009 (and to a lesser extent 2010) playoffs.
Howard asked to have input, and it was granted.
The saga continued…
Howard spent most of the 2011-12 season saying he wanted to go to Brooklyn to team up with Deron Williams and minority Nets owner Jay-Z. Then, inexplicably perhaps, he decided just before the trade deadline that he would waive his early termination option and remain in Orlando for one more season.
He would give management one last chance to rectify the roster and build a contender.
Magic fans showed up with a variety of "Stay Dwight" signs. There was even a website started StayDwight.com. No one really wanted Howard to leave. His stance towards media remained the same: "I'm in Orlando right now, and that's all that matters."
He never verbally committed to the team, until he mysteriously waved his early-termination option, signaling that he'd give it one last chance. He later was reported to have said he was "blackmailed" into making that decision, but denied having made that claim when questioned about it by media. The enigmatic circumstances surrounding that never became lucid, even now.
Shouldn't that have been enough to continue to attempt to trade him? Without any definitive reassurance, shouldn't the Magic have actively fielded offers until they landed upon one that met their expectations?
Or did they really do the right thing by casting their lot, hoping Howard would have a change of heart?
It's a scenario that seems all too familiar for Magic fans: Shaquille O'Neal bolted in 1996. Tracy McGrady wanted out in 2004. The team had already dealt with either losing a guy for nothing (Shaq) or taking a half-hearted offer for a player that wanted out (T-Mac).
Couldn't they have learned from this mistake and solicited offers for Howard while they still had the leverage of saying they could keep him?
They didn't. They continued to pray Howard would decide to stay, that he would remain committed to the team that drafted him and spend his career in The City Beautiful.
But disaster repeated itself, and in some senses, Magic fans can blame management. Sure, they did what Howard wanted—they fired Otis Smith; they fired Stan Van Gundy. But it was all too little too late to satiate a player who clearly wanted all along to play in a bigger market…on a stacked team.
But would he follow the path of 2011 champion Dirk Nowitzki, or would he go the route that 2012 champ LeBron James went?
We all now know the answer to that question, but Magic management didn't. It was only as things fell apart that we all saw who Dwight Howard was, and who he wasn't.
The fact remains, players like Nowitzki who remain loyal and patient are rare. Many players today take the easy way out en route to championships and seek to play with the other top tier stars in the league. And Howard was no different.
The real crux of the matter is whether, or perhaps even why, the Magic thought he would be the type to stay.
Either way, it seems that Plan B should have been a serious consideration, and by not implementing the strategy of shopping him while his value was still high, they were forced into accepting a mediocre rebuilding package, rather than accepting some of the decent offers that came along the way.
No one was going to overpay for a superstar that had made it clear he wanted out, and stocks must be traded while they still have potential and value. The Magic just waited too long. History repeated itself. Magic fans can only cross their fingers and hope that after three such mistakes that it doesn't happen again.
Another franchise player will come. The Magic will have a high lottery pick, but hopefully this time they don't just assume the guy they draft will spend his entire career in Orlando. Franchise talents are rare, but that doesn't mean they are indispensable.
Teams in all major sports are forced into trading their cornerstone talents all the time, and the fact remains that the Magic didn't realize they were indeed going to be forced into trading theirs.
Not until it was too late, anyway.
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