For the longest time, the rumor was Dwight Howard was not in favor of a move to Los Angeles because of his fears of following in Shaquille O’Neal’s footsteps too much. Howard had already been drafted as the top pick by O’Neal’s original team and dreamed of a bigger market — just like O’Neal did. Howard did not want the same fate. It seemed things with the Lakers fell apart when reports came out that Kobe Bryant envisioned Howard as the Lakers’ third option behind himself and Pau Gasol.
That most certainly was not what Dwight wanted.
As the Nets became less of a possibility, Howard had to open up and selected the Lakers as his preferred destination. He got his wish, he is a Laker now.
And like Jaffar wanting to be an all-powerful genie, he has to take everything that comes with it. And immediately that is the pressure to win a championship.
Shaquille O’Neal went to Los Angeles and felt those new pressures and he had some words of advice for Howard, as he related to Josh Barnett of USA TODAY (h/t Quixem Ramirez of Air Alamo).
“The pressure that he has been feeling in Orlando has just multiplied by three now,” O’Neal said in comments released by TNT. “The first thing the great Jerry West did when I signed with the Lakers is he walked me into the Forum and told me to look up. He showed me all the great big men that played before me and how many championships they won. The Lakers have a tradition of having great big men. He has a lot of work ahead of him. If he thinks the Orlando Sentinel was on his case when he didn’t perform, guys like (Los Angeles Times columnist) Bill Plaschke, they don’t play.”
Howard had the pressure to win a title in Orlando, but it will be nothing like the pressure to win one in Los Angeles. The Lakers are adding Howard to their championship puzzle and the pressure is on him to help them deliver. Maybe not squarely on him, but it is fully on him. He is the new piece to the puzzle and the one who is supposed to put them on the top. A failure to win a title will be his failure — Kobe and Pau Gasol have their championships already. Howard is looking for his first.
It is important to note that West sat O’Neal down and explained to him what he was signing up for. Howard has been in his hole so long and has desired to get out of Orlando so long that none of that may have mattered. There are already rumors that Howard is taking Los Angeles for a test drive this season and has not made any final decisions about his long-term future — at least we won’t have to hear about it.
The pressure Howard signed himself up for is much different than what he had in Orlando and probably a lot more than what he expected. In Orlando, Howard could do no wrong — even in his final year, fans still held out a ton of hope that he would be in Orlando long term. The failure to win a championship was going to be someone else’s.
LeBron James felt this new pressure in Miami and seemed to crumble under it in his first year before finding his joy in the game again and having a historic year with the Heat that included an MVP award, an NBA Championship and, finally, an Olympic Gold Medal. There is no evidence that Howard will not eventually rise to the pressure. But he will be playing a different role, with different expectations and different teammates.
It is a new challenge for Howard.
And, O’Neal is absolutely right. The Los Angeles media will be all over Howard for every failure, much moreso than the Orlando media would. This point was not lost on Orlando media members throughout the Dwight drama. The Orlando media goes easy on star players compared to the major media markets.
Howard should not be the only one under pressure though. Rob Hennigan is very much under a very different kind of pressure. He came into this job with the pressure of having to deal with this Dwight Howard situation. He had to come in and try to repair bridges that were simply torched to the ground already.
“I think that over time, sometimes things don’t work out the way everyone hopes,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said. “And I think that was probably the case here. We wish Dwight the best in his future endeavors. We tried to establish a relationship with Dwight that was built on interpersonal exchanges and, really more than anything, just a personal touch. That was the starting point. We always felt that might evolve in one direction or another. And while we were working on that, we were working on options that would allow us make a move that would help our team.”
Now, the pressure is even further on him. It is not the Dwight Howard trade that he will ultimately be judged on, but rather the move that comes after that trade. It is what he does with the collection of assets he has acquired in exchange for Howard that will likely determine where Orlando’s rebuild project goes. I will get into the specifics of what Orlando’s options are in the coming days. But Hennigan, all of 30 years old as we are constantly reminded, has to placate a fan base who has come to expect a championship in the last five years.
And, in a small market, patience will not sell tickets quite the same way.
Rob Hennigan said the Dwight Howard trade was not made for next season. It was made with long-term thoughts in mind. Hennigan is selling that future and he must deliver. A missed draft pick or a bad free agent selection and a three-year rebuilding project becomes six years or longer. Magic fans may not have the patience for that. The DeVos family certainly does not.
Not unlike when the Magic were contending for championships, every move puts Orlando perilously on the edge of greatness and mediocrity. The same could be said now with much lower stakes. Or maybe much higher stakes. Rebuilding projects are necessary in the life cycle of teams, but nobody wants an empty stadium for long. This is a business after all.
Hennigan said he believes the kind of team he plans to build with the Magic will sell tickets. Even this year.
“We’re prepared for the team to compete really hard and to play as a group and to bring 100 percent energy and effort each and every night and each and every practice,” Hennigan said. “We’re excited about the type of energy and the type of atmosphere and the type of environment that can be created with that.
“Are we taking a step back? Absolutely we are. But we’re taking a step back with a vision and some ingredients that we’re really comfortable with and encouraged by.”
Hennigan is sold on his team’s future. He, and perhaps a few others, are likely the only ones to really understand his plan and his vision for this team’s future. Missteps in the process though will be open to large criticism from fans.
Many fans are already panning the deal because of the Magic’s inability to bring back a star. That is likely missing the point of the deal. The deal was about bringing in assets for future deals and rebuilding. This is why the Magic did not have an interest in even Pau Gasol, who has been attached to trade rumors for the better part of two years and has not yet been traded.
Hennigan is feeling the pressure to bring the Magic back to a championship level as quickly as possible. Time will tell whether he succumbs to the pressure too.