We have no way of knowing exactly what will become of the Orlando Magic between now and the end of next season. Perhaps Jameer Nelson will figure out a way to turn back into the player he was before a 2009 shoulder injury derailed his career. Maybe coach Stan Van Gundy, who has been working fever-pitch to keep these Magic overachieving since 2007, will find a second wind after an exhausting last few seasons. Maybe the team can find a way to somehow come out on the winning end of trades involving Glen Davis or Jason Richardson. Likely, with no real interest from other clubs, the team will stay where it's at. More than likely, because of the advancing ages of several of the team's players, the squad will dip down a bit from its current standing as the Eastern Conference's clear No. 3.
None of that matters to Dwight Howard, though. He'd rather be liked by the bird in the hand, rather than the two in Brooklyn or Dallas, and he's decided to sign documents that will keep him in Orlando for the rest of this season, and for potentially all of 2012-13. When we will no doubt have to endure this entire saga, all over again. Because the Magic aren't getting any better, or younger. And though -- given the right matchups and some good luck in a seven-game series or two -- the team has legitimate conference championship aspirations under Howard this year, this is just another delay of the inevitable.
Obviously, Howard has grown weary of the pressure and free-agency obsession that has dogged the last year of his career. He'd rather focus on basketball, which would be a noble pursuit were it not for the fact that he's been NBA-legal to sign a contract extension with Orlando for the last two seasons, and end this sense of impermanence. We can understand why Howard wouldn't want to deal with the uneasy task of clearly playing out the string for a pretty good team in Orlando following the trade deadline; but we're curious about his solution. He doesn't like all the questions about his impending free agency and obvious dislike for the Magic roster that GM Otis Smith has put together, so his answer is to … do it all over again?
Because, as of the March 15 trade deadline, this is what's in store for Orlando, and Dwight. Unless he signs that contract extension, this is all going to go down again next season, in what will be a full 82-game term, with pressure that starts in October training camp instead of the first week of December. Even free agents who were inclined to re-sign with their teams this summer would be opting out of the final year of their deals, because they knew they could negotiate bigger contracts with their incumbent teams. Not only has Howard waived that option, but he's committed wholeheartedly to another year of this mess, at a reduced playing price, all while firing his influential (and quite successful) agent Dan Fegan.
As it has been all along, Howard could have done this differently. It didn't have to be like this.
If Howard were truly committed to Orlando, he would have pulled together a press conference on Thursday morning to announce that he would indeed opt-out of the last year of his current contract, while promising (with the cameras rolling) that he would re-sign with the team this summer to a maximum contract extension. He would mention the financial ramifications of such a move, how it was the best for his family, and point out that he's on record as intending to stay in Orlando, and that it would be the biggest PR disaster in ages (even including The Decision) to promise something so publicly and then back out in four months.
Howard didn't do that. All he did was commit to picking up his contract option for 2012-13. He can still leave in 2013. He can still ask for a trade, behind the scenes. He can still make life -- off-court life, at least -- untenable for the Orlando Magic franchise.
Unless Howard signs that extension, this isn't over. The Nets are already mixing up moves to secure 2013 cap space. More and more teams will have wide-open payroll slots available to sign Howard with ease. All Howard has done, in exchange for a few happy weeks in Orlando this spring, is prolong the agony.