When the calendar turns to July, the hand-wringing will start again. Only this time, it will not be the Magic's problem. It will be the Lakers'. And possibly the Hawks, Rockets, Mavericks and Warriors if the rumors are to be believed.
Free agency of mega stars have become an NBA sideshow — if they were not such already — since the two-year run up to and the eventual "Decision" of LeBron James. The media attention turned from one star player, James, to the next, Carmelo Anthony, to the next, Dwight Howard.
Howard did not handle that spotlight well and we know what happened. After a year fighting through injury, perception issues and seemingly every thing else in his life, Howard will enter free agency finally. He will finally make a decision finally.
The Magic could probably care less, but like the yo-yoing, back-and-forth of the 2012 season, the rest of the NBA world will.
Bill Simmons examined a lot of the potential risks facing the teams courting Howard and came to a perhaps sobering resolution: Dwight Howard's best years might be behind him.
From 2008 through 2011, Howard dragged a half-decent Magic team to a 219-102 record and one Finals appearance. These last two seasons, Howard's Magic/Lakers teams finished 75-55. Huge, huge difference. His offensive numbers dipped dramatically …
2011: 22.9 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 59% FG, 60% FT, 227 dunks, 26.1 PER (2nd in NBA)
2013: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 58% FG, 49% FT, 187 dunks, 19.4 PER (36th)
… and defensively, he wasn't the league's dominant shot-blocker/rebounder anymore. You could argue that Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol AND Roy Hibbert are better at anchoring a defense than he is. (In fact, I think I just did.) Remember when Orlando sneaked into the 2009 Finals thanks to timely 3-point shooting and a monster two-way performance by Dwight?6 In the past 40 years, only Kareem, Dave Cowens, Moses Malone, Duncan, Shaq and Howard averaged a 20-15 in the postseason for a Finals team. That's five Hall of Famers plus Dwight, including four of the best players ever.
You could interpret that 2009 run two ways: either as "that was only four years ago," or as "that was FOUR FULL YEARS AGO."
Away from the cloud cover of our biased observations of the 2009 Finals run, Howard put together an incredible run as the centerpiece of the Magic. Paired with a coach who understood his limitations and created a system to hide those limitations and deflected some of the blame and media attention, Howard flourished.
If Howard can get healthy again, the best center in the league and a guy who can change offenses just by his mere presence in the paint will be available to whatever team can persuade him to sign on the dotted line.
The unfortunate part is that Howard has a lot of questions surrounding him now after the season lost in the lights of Hollywood. And (arguably) the best player in Magic history will be cementing his legacy as a flash in the pan — albeit for eight years in a Magic uniform — or one of the all-time greats in his next contract.
This is a very risky question for the next team to sign him to answer.
The back injury may have sapped some of that brilliance away. Howard might now only be able to provide the play that made him such a star in small flashes.
The Dwight Howard that Magic fans knew might be gone for good. And if that is the case, trading Howard when the organization traded him might have been the best time to do so. Orlando possibly could have gotten more in the way of immediate help if the team traded him in December 2011. But Nikola Vucevic has proven to be a solid replacement at center and, frankly, the fact Howard is someone else's headache has made a lot of it worth it.
As Simmons concludes, Howard is going to get a max deal from someone. He is potentially too impactful not to. But will Howard ever be teh same player again? That is more uncertain.
Orlando should know it got the best out of him as a player as Howard chases his own ghost in regaining his form.