Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
I don’t think anybody saw this being the end of the saga.
Just a day ago, I — like many of you, I’m sure — assumed that Dwight Howard’s “back” was just a synonym for a host of other maladies that were not exactly a physician’s concern. Just a day ago, in fact, I was starting to reconsider my status as a Dwight apologist. Increasingly, the defenses of Dwight I’d mounted seemed thinner and thinner as his behavior became more and more childish and narcissistic.
With the news coming on Thursday that Howard is hanging it up for the season to have a herniated disc repaired in his back, I figured it was time to offer a few thoughts.
First, and most obviously, spinal discs have no character. We can safely put to rest the ideas that Dwight was malingering on account of some beef with the organization or with Stan Van Gundy. He may in fact be beefing and he may in fact have been refusing to play for the rest of the season regardless, but that’s not where we are.
Unfortunately for the player and perhaps fortunately for his image, Howard has a serious medical condition that neither he nor any self-respecting medical professional would fake so as to make any kind of point. So in a certain way, this injury allows Howard to pre-empt any further rumors which might have damaged his career every bit as much as a protracted recovery.
Secondly, the Magic have a chance to give the future of their franchise some real scrutiny. All of the players on the Magic’s roster except for Larry Hughes are signed on for next year and with a Dwight-less future a real possibility, the team can see who will thrive and who will be expendable with a new vacuum in the middle of the lineup. Jameer Nelson, Ryan Anderson, Earl Clark, and J.J. Redick will all be on the last year of their deals next year. Depending on how they play the next few weeks, those players all might bring some value in a trade (particularly in conjunction with Howard) or they might all be worth keeping for a few years.
In fact, the opportunity the Magic have to evaluate their personnel over the next few weeks shouldn’t be taken lightly. The potential value of the four expiring contracts mentioned means that the Magic could either back somebody to pair with their star center or that they could use the value of those players to completely overhaul their roster if Howard seems committed to leaving. While Anderson is certainly the most valuable of the four, the other three could all bring late first round picks if (and I recognize this is a fairly sizable “if,” particularly in the case of Clark) they play up to the opportunity created by Dwight’s absence.
Nelson, in particular, has resurrected his stock in a way that seemed inconceivable a month ago. Given the right role, I can certainly imagine him being a player that teams could part with a middling asset for.
Given that the Magic are about to have reasonable assets for the first time in what seems an eternity, it is not altogether negative that they have this unique situation in which to examine them.
Third, and finally, it is time to think about what Dwight Howard means and has meant to Orlando. It is by no means a certainty that he has played his last game in a Magic uniform; it is a certainty that the past few weeks have prompted Magic fans to reconsider his meaning to the team. By almost any measure, he’s had the best career of any Magic player. And in a way that is not quite measurable, he is one of the league’s most joyous players to watch at his best.
I hope that the weeks in which Howard spends healing his back will also allow fans to move past the past few fractious weeks and months. Howard has revealed to us the extent of his unpreparedness for his moment in the sun — he’s been coy, manipulative, self-serving, and unpredictable.
I don’t think any of that changes the fact that few other players in the game give us a chance to celebrate its best aspects like Howard. Only LeBron James right now matches the potential sparks that Dwight Howard provides a game. There are other truly remarkable players working in the NBA today, but I don’t think I’m making too bold of a claim in saying that Howard is, outside of LeBron, the likeliest player in the league to do something remarkable and inimitable on any given night.
My biggest hope is that the next few months allow fans — and Dwight himself — a chance to remember that fact and put the past behind them.