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Dwight Howard is, by some distance, the greatest player in Orlando Magic history. Beyond everything that has transpired in the past two years, beyond the most mutually embarrassing unhappy-superstar saga this side of Vince Carter, that is the ultimate takeaway from the eight seasons he spent with the Magic. He gave the franchise a newfound respectability, a signature player utterly unlike any of his era.
Several things set Howard apart from the other superstar-level talents that have worn the blue and white. The first, of course, is his longevity in Orlando.
Shaq bolted for Hollywood after four seasons and the dominance of his Lakers-era peak has reduced the Magic years, despite a franchise-first Finals appearance, to (at best) secondary status in his body of work.
Penny Hardaway’s status as the franchise’s all-time signature guy was partly doomed with Shaq’s departure, as he was forced to take on a greater load without the benefit of a big man that proficient. But it was mostly a left knee injury during the 1997-1998 season, which needed microfracture surgery (back when not many people in the NBA knew what that procedure was), that short-circuited Penny’s career and affected his standing in the pantheon of Magic greats.
Like Shaq, T-Mac only spent four seasons in Orlando and while his staggering, breathtaking season in 2003 is the highest individual peak any Magic player has had, his teams didn’t do much in the way of winning playoff games, making it considerably more difficult to reminisce about his apex as a part of any greater cause.
Which leaves Howard, who not only put together the phenomenal individual seasons that have been covered elsewhere during Dwight Week at Magic Basketball, but also shepherded the Magic to a period of title contention, including one trip to the Finals.
Whenever a really bad team drafts a would-be franchise player, the hope among fans is that his career trajectory will go from a raw young player with all the potential on the world, to a budding star beginning to put those tools together, to one of (if not the) top players at his position, to the sort of game-changing superstar who singlehandedly makes the team elite.
Howard did all of that for the Magic, making anyone who thought they should have drafted Emeka Okafor in the 2004 NBA Draft look foolish and becoming the best center the league has seen since, well, the last guy who left Disney World for Disneyland. Howard is the only guy with whom Magic fans have had the complete superstar experience for an extended period of time.
Unfortunately, in the post-Decision world, the superstar experience also involves the inevitability that he will spurn the team that developed him for a flashier workplace. The writing had been on the wall when LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and it became “normal” superstar behavior when Carmelo Anthony maneuvered his way from Denver to New York.
But the excruciatingly long and drawn-out soap opera Dwight put Orlando through has made this type of falling-out all but assumed.
Since he was traded to the Lakers, tweets have rolled in from all corners of the NBA blogosphere wondering when Kevin Durant or Kevin Love will find their way out of Oklahoma City or Minnesota. These comments are ostensibly jokes but after Dwight’s act, is anything like this really certain?
Part of Dwight’s legacy is becoming the fastest player of his level of talent to make a fan base want nothing more than to wash their hands of his presence.
Cavs fans rioted and burned LeBron’s jersey when he ditched them on national TV.
Even Hornets fans, by and large, held onto some shred of hope that Chris Paul could be convinced to reconsider his desire to play elsewhere.
As for Magic fans? By the time the trade happened in early August, they were beyond finished with the guy and rightfully so. But it’s a testament to how thoroughly Dwight torched his reputation that fans were so eager to have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and perennial MVP candidate not play for their team anymore.
But my suspicion is that Dwight’s time in Orlando will not go relatively unsung the way Shaq’s has, no matter how many titles the Nash-Kobe-Gasol-Howard version of the Lakers might win.
Unlike Shaq, Howard’s development and early prime have taken place in an era where everything is so comprehensively documented and archived that there is no danger of his eight seasons in Orlando becoming a footnote. High-quality YouTube clips are so readily available of all his dunk contest appearances, that incredible 2009 team, and the 2011 season in which he was arguably more deserving of the MVP award than Derrick Rose, that the Magic’s place in his history, and his in theirs, will not be swept away by time.
I have only had the privilege of seeing Dwight in person once, at Portland’s Rose Garden, during that incredible 2010-2011 season. The Magic lost that game, but Howard was so far and away the best player on the floor that I found myself frequently thinking about how lucky those Magic fans were that they got to watch him every night. He finished that game with a spectacular 39 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks. This, of course, was before the trade demands and passive-aggressive media sabotage began in earnest.
Not even a year later, I felt very different emotions for Magic fans having to deal with him on a daily basis.
But having a player like that, one who inspires that type of jealousy in fans of every other team, is a rare thing. Dwight Howard gave the Magic that player for eight seasons and that, ultimately, is what he should be remembered by.