In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN.com, Dwight Howard describes his feelings and decisionmaking about his departure from the Orlando Magic.
A scant six years ago, the Orlando Magic were still playing basketball at this stage of May. The team’s future seemed incredibly bright with one of the top five players in the league anchoring an elite defense. Title contention, if not championships, were clearly in front of them.
As has happened before in Magic history, success was fleeting. The team quickly fell apart and the winds of change were coming as the title slipped away.
It has been four years seemingly lost in the desert since Dwight Howard requested a trade and left Orlando in his acrimonious way. It was a trying time for the team.
Howard though too has fallen from those highs of 2010 and has been seemingly lost.
This past season saw Howard average career lows across the board. His defensive impact lessened significantly. Rumors circulated that he did not get along with fellow star James Harden and had issues with the Rockets front office.
It is almost certain he will opt out and enter free agency. And the idea of his return has at least been whispered.
For that kind of reunion to happen, if the Magic are at all interested from a basketball sense, would require a smoothing over of the issues that caused him to leave in the first place.
For the first time publicly, Howard opened up about that difficult time.
Howard recently sat down with Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.com to discuss his past as well as his future in the NBA.
McMullan pressed Howard on his rocky departure from Orlando. Howard admitted it could have been handled better, but also volunteered some new information.
In regards to that awkward moment when Stan Van Gundy told the media Howard want him fired, and then Howard showed up and put his arm around his coach like nothing’s wrong, it was all a misunderstanding.
In his words, he never formally requested the Magic fire Van Gundy when he spoke to Magic owner Rich DeVos in Michigan just before the lockout in 2011. He told DeVos he felt Van Gundy had lost his pull in the locker room.
“I told Rich the truth. I told him, ‘I love Stan. I think he’s done a great job, but I think he’s lost his voice in the locker room.’ It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I want Stan fired or else.’ I was never upset with Stan at any point. It wasn’t anything personal against Stan. He knows that. It’s just over the past couple of years I could see a lot of the guys had lost their faith in him.”
That is some honest talk. But by the time the season began in December, Howard was ready for a change and formally requested a trade.
Howard spoke with then-general manager Otis Smith and requested a trade to one of three teams — the Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, and Los Angeles Lakers. Howard said Smith was accommodating, and told him on the first day of training camp he was being traded to the Nets.
That trade would not happen, as Smith met with Howard the following day to inform him he would not be traded. This is where, in Howard’s mind, the rift began.
From there it was a waiting game for Howard which exploded during a shootaround in which Van Gundy informed the media Howard had requested his termination before Howard interrupted the press conference. This is the moment Howard believes where his image took a dive.
From there on, Howard would be looked at as a diva who was not focused on basketball.
McMullan inquired as to why Howard would even ask for a trade and if he could do it over would he stay in Orlando.
Howard gives a sort of confusing answer.
“Right after the lockout ended, in December, I went to GM Otis Smith. But before that, I called Jameer Nelson and told him I was going to ask for a trade. I told him, ‘This has nothing to do with you, Stan or anyone else. I just want a different atmosphere. I’m too comfortable here. I need to grow.'”
“I loved Orlando. I loved the city, but at that time, I didn’t feel winning was a priority. I really wanted to win. People will come back and say, ‘Well, you were all over the place making movies.’ Like I don’t love the game or something. I love basketball. It is my passion. But, I’ve always thought if you just sit back and stay in one lane your whole life, I’ll get old and be done with basketball, and I won’t be able to do anything else because I wouldn’t have planted any of those seeds in other places.”
Howard also mentioned he felt the franchise did not have winning as a priority, perhaps a symptom of the team’s ill-fated moves in December 2010 to acquire Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, completing the decline from the Eastern Conference Finals team of 2010.
After reading this interview and getting his reasoning behind asking for a trade, it seems Howard may have had others things in mind besides basketball.
The franchise was doing everything in its power to build around him desperately trying to recapture the chemistry of that 2009 Finals run and bringing in struggling, but established player to play beside him.
Perhaps the move was inevitable.
Howard even mentioned he did not want to stay in one lane his whole life and then be too old to do anything else after basketball. Like Shaquille O’Neal, Howard was a fan favorite and a lovable character while in Orlando. There were so many opportunities to get his brand established while in Orlando, but it may have been a bit easier to do those things in another city.
Whatever the true reason for the split, it will remain a part of the Dwight Howard legacy forever. His time in Orlando may be remembered as his best years while the seasons that followed are marked with disappointment and questions of what could have been.
Howard has the option to be a free agent this summer but has yet to decide whether he will opt out of his contract with the Houston Rockets.
It is widely believed that he will opt out and cash in on the rising salary cap this year. Orlando has been rumored as a possible landing spot for Howard by many media outlets. However, the Magic have not made any hints towards him being a target.